Analysis |

Israel's New Gaza Approach Doesn't Ensure Long-term Calm

Barring any new military escalation with Hamas, around 20,000 Gazans are expected to have permission to work in Israel, up from the current 14,000. This is a dramatic change for a tiny enclave

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Palestinian workers enter Israel after crossing from Gaza on the Israeli side of Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in March.
Palestinian workers enter Israel after crossing from Gaza on the Israeli side of Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in March.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Two Gaza laborers approached a car that had stopped for them at a hitchhiking post near Ashkelon in the south. After discovering that the vehicle’s occupants were uniformed army officers, the two became anxious and showed their Israeli work permits. When the officers reassured them that the permits were valid and they were heading to the Erez crossing on the Gaza border, the two Palestinians hopped in.

Sources at the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories confirm defense officials’ assessments: Israeli work permits have improved the lives of Gazans. Still, this doesn’t ensure a long-cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

Israel restarted issuing work permits to Gazans, albeit on a limited basis, at the beginning of 2020, when Benjamin Netanyahu was still prime minister. Back then, officials referred to Gazans entering Israel as businesspeople, not laborers – a lie shared by both Israel and Hamas. All the same, the experiment was interrupted when the pandemic reached Israel in March that year.

In May 2021, a new round of fighting between the two sides erupted, with the air war ending in another frustrating tie. But after the Bennett-Lapid government came to power in June, a significant policy change gradually took shape.

Today, about 14,000 Palestinians from Gaza have permission to work in Israel. Barring any new military escalation with Hamas, that number is expected to grow to 20,000, based on a decision by the cabinet. Israel is even considering raising the figure to as high as 30,000.

Palestinian workers crossing from Gaza to Israel wait for their belongings after a security check on the Israeli side of Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip, in March.Credit: Oded Balilty /AP

At the same time, a program that went into effect Sunday is designed to guarantee that Gaza workers receive the social benefits they’re entitled to. Instead of simple cash payments, as has been the case thus far, each worker is attached to a specific Israeli employer.

Until the fighting in May 2021, Israel talked about an “arrangement” with Gaza. Officials toyed with long-term plans, hoping that along the way they could also free the two captive Israelis in the Strip and secure the return of the bodies of two soldiers held by Hamas.

Both the government and the military, however, changed their approach after Ronen Bar took over from Nadav Argaman as the head of the Shin Bet security service last October. Bar shifted from the Shin Bet’s long-standing policy of barring Gazans from working in Israel, though on condition that strict security measures be imposed.

To date, no Gaza worker has taken part in the wave of shooting, stabbing and ax attacks that started in the spring. But every new incident, especially in the south, triggers frantic checks to verify that the assailant isn’t a Gazan working legally in Israel. If this scenario comes true, everyone involved in the program knows that much of it will have to be rolled back.

Defense officials’ new approach to Gaza is based on three key assumptions. 1) There is no political solution for Gaza in the foreseeable future. 2) For now there is no realistic alternative to Hamas rule in the Strip, with the mantra “Hamas is to be weakened and deterred” a goal for the future, not a realistic short-term aim. 3) Hamas isn’t expected to change its ideology anytime soon.

Still, Israel has started adjusting its approach to Gaza. In retaliation to any Hamas attack, it must increase the threat it poses to Hamas in the form of heavier military strikes, especially on the organization’s key military assets. It has also adopted a less stingy civilian policy; the stinginess began when Hamas took power in the Strip in 2007.

Therefore, it’s no longer the case that every Palestinian request to enter Israel is denied. In the past, Israel habitually rejected all requests from Gaza, only responding with concessions or gestures after another round of violence. This naturally led to the Palestinians concluding that the Jews only understand force. Israel became increasingly aware that the deterioration of living conditions in Gaza often leads to security problems.

More recently, the distress of day-to-day life has eased somewhat with electricity supply, for example, being doubled to an average of 12 hours a day. (This overtakes Lebanon, which has suffered an economic collapse.)

Officially, Israel is working “to shape the situation” and no longer is negotiating indirectly with Hamas, in contrast to when Israel reached out via Egyptian mediators. At the same time, Israel has eased its policy on permits for goods to enter Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing. Israeli concerns about these wares being used by Hamas to build military installations and dig tunnels led Israel to refuse entry to many goods on the grounds that they were “dual-use” and could be used in terror attacks.

More recently, however, Israel has upgraded its ability to inspect goods crossing into Gaza using advanced technology, which has allowed larger quantities to enter the Strip. Many obstacles have come down that previously prevented critical projects from improving conditions in Gaza, such as developing desalination facilities and upgrading the fishing and farming industries. Israel has also expanded fishing zones in the Mediterranean up to 15 nautical miles from the shore.

Cooperation from the Egyptians has also increased; they’re more closely searching goods entering through the Rafah crossing and investing more resources in deterring the use of smuggling tunnels running into Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula.

A Palestinian man looks for second hand clothes at a market in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, last week.Credit: SAID KHATIB - AFP

The navy’s blocking of Palestinian efforts to smuggle anti-tank missiles into Gaza on fishing boats late last month reflects Hamas’ difficulties in using the tunnels. The Egyptians are cooperating as President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s regime needs Israel’s help on a host of issues such as relations with Washington and the Nile River crisis with Ethiopia. Egyptian companies are also helping build projects in Gaza and, as usual, it appears that army generals are partners here.

But the most significant change concerns Gaza’s laborers. The average pay for a Gaza worker is 6 shekels ($1.77) a day (agricultural workers make only 20 shekels a day). In Israel, the lowest salary is 300 shekels ($89) a day, and many Palestinians earn a lot more than that. A Gazan with a work permit can rise to the top of the enclave’s middle class in a flash, even if this is still very modest.

More than that, not only can someone provide for a family of 10, they help support local businesses. In recent months, there has been a sharp increase in Gaza’s construction, agriculture and textile industries, amid a significant rise in exports.

One of the laborers who hitched a ride with the officers told them how a month ago, for the first time in years, he and his brothers (who also work in Israel) bought a calf to slaughter for the Eid al-Adha festival. Asked about the price, 1,500 shekels for each of them, he said: “Two days of work and I had the money.”

Other Gazans talk about things happening in Gaza for the first time in years – couples getting married because families can afford it, more people paying back debts, and more people considering buying an apartment.

Palestinian men gather to apply for work permits in Israel, at Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, in 2021.Credit: MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

About 80,000 Gazans have three major employers – the Hamas government, the Palestinian Authority in Gaza (which also pays the salaries of people working in the Hamas-controlled enclave) and a host of international organizations. The rough value of their combined pay is about 4.8 million shekels a day. If 20,000 people are working in Israel, they will bring in 7 million shekels daily. That amounts to a dramatic change in terms of the tiny and impoverished Gaza market.

All of these developments have made a real contribution to the fact that in the past year the Gaza border has experienced only a small number of violent incidents. In fact, it has been the quietest since Israel withdrew its settlers from the enclave in 2005.

With that in mind, two main criticisms of Israel’s revised policies arise. First, living conditions in Gaza remain extremely poor. Israel’s new policies have only had a limited impact on the lives of the enclave’s 2 million residents, who are imprisoned in a tiny area without any hope for the future and no chance to escape.

Second, all of Israel’s understandings with Hamas are temporary due to the organization’s rigid ideology against Israel. Better economic conditions may have eased Hamas’ desire to fight, but it’s also investing time and resources in rebuilding its strength.

Meanwhile, Hamas’ growing political and military strength comes at the expense of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. As critics see it, not only is there a zero-percent chance of the PA returning to power in Gaza, but Israel is helping Hamas portray itself as an alternative to the weak and corrupt regime of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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