Opinion

Netanyahu Can No Longer Pacify Gaza With Qatari Cash and Empty Promises

Israel's bribes aren't working any more, and Hamas isn't preventing Islamic Jihad blowing up the status quo. The Kushner/Trump 'peace plan' is based on the same failed reasoning – and could have even more disastrous results

alestinian boys stand outside a mosque damaged in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City May 5, 2019
\ MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

There’s a clear reason why armed escalation between Gaza and Israel is spiking with such regularity. But the major players – Hamas and Netanyahu – don't want to deal with it.

Since the outbreak of the Return March protests, Gaza’s silence has been bought with tentative humanitarian "painkillers" – Qatari cash here, an extension of the fishing zone there. But these painkillers are creating a dangerous addiction, not least for Hamas.

As soon as the short-term remedies run out, the need for more is overwhelming. Absent any access to a cure, thanks to Israel's blockade, Gaza's addicts stir up trouble to feed their dependency.

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And Islamic Jihad, envious observers of Netanyahu’s monthly Qatari bribes to Hamas (despite the largesse they receive from Iran), and of Hamas' leverage in Cairo, have every motivation to ruin the Egyptian-mediated Israel-Hamas ceasefire talks.

Masked Islamic Jihad militants attend the funeral of Jihad Hararah, whom Gaza's Health Ministry said was shot by Israeli troops during a border protest. Gaza City, March 23, 2019
Adel Hana,AP

Their rank and file backs their escalation against Israel and dismissing Hamas' considerations. Their leadership hopes to widen the movement's popular appeal to Gazans increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with Israel’s empty promises to improve living standards in return for Palestinian silence and compliance.

Hamas, unable to show any serious achievements for the existing ceasefire with Israel, has little or nothing up its sleeves to persuade Islamic Jihad not to blow up the status quo.

Hamas leaders, too, are weary of Netanyahu’s procrastinations. Their last card is to tolerate Islamic Jihad's military provocations because it's the only way to get the Egyptians and Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, to rush back to Gaza and push the ceasefire talks forwards towards more concrete results to bolster their legitimacy and popularity, and improve the lives of their subjects.

So primitive rocket barrages are the only card left to reunite the suffering, exhausted and hopeless Gazan population behind it against a common enemy. Hamas, in effect want to tell Gazans that the resistance is active and never sold out – at the exact same time as they're actively negotiating the price for selling out.

Netanyahu wants to buy Gaza's silence with the minimum-level bribe that won't anger fanatic members in his embryonic coalition. He knows that sweeping Gaza under the rug will only accelerate its next explosion in Israel’s face.

Thus Israel and Gaza are caught in a Catch 22. Netanyahu makes promises to ease the blockade on Gaza, the Egyptians exploit those promises to sway Hamas into compliance and to quiet down the border protests, then Egyptians and international mediators evaporate - altogether along with Netanyahu’s promises.

Israeli air defense system Iron Dome takes out rockets fired from Gaza near Sderot, Israel, Saturday, May 4, 2019
Ariel Schalit,AP

Then, like clockwork, primitive projectiles from Gaza fly Israel's way to draw attention. "Once we shoot rockets, they all come back running," a Hamas friend told me. Then a bag filled with Qatari cash arrives to buy Netanyahu some time - until Israel's elections are over, until after Holocaust Remembrance Day, after Independence Day, after the Eurovision Song Contest.

Those meager Qatari cash handouts evaporate in no time. They're a drop in the ocean to prop up small businesses' debts to Israeli companies, to buy Israeli and Egyptian essential consumer goods, for saving up for the lucky few to escape Gaza’s intractable immiseration.

Gaza's devastated local economy, its heavily destroyed industrial zone, the blockade that prevents access to the tools necessary to realize sustainable development, mean that Qatari cash flies out of Gaza’s borders every time, and once it does, kicking and screaming is the only apparent way to push for another pacifying dose.

This is an ugly, immoral and criminal paradigm. It has made Gaza into an aid addict, whose silence is a bargaining chip for the next dose. It is, inevitably, destined to fail over and over again.

Gaza’s suffering is not a humanitarian crisis, but a political crisis par excellence.

Israel has clear reasons to maintain in Gaza what it calls a "status quo," but which is really an inherently destabilizing tinderbox. Ongoing conflict with Gaza helps Netanyahu fuel Palestinian divisions, and kills the two state solution. Improving the situation in Gaza is anathema to his extremist constituency, drip-fed for years by the myth that might is right and the only way to deal with Palestinians is brutal force, to keep them in line.

A boy plays football next to a mural painted by Palestinian artist Ali Al-Jabali in the remains of a building damaged during the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, in Gaza City. April 30, 2019
Hatem Moussa,AP

Humanitarian solutions can never solve a political problem. But a political solution can remedy the need for humanitarian interventions, and with it the regular, and violent pursuit of the next painkilling dose.

There is only one way to make a genuine and dramatic improvement for the lives of Gazans, and only one way to make a genuine and dramatic improvement for the lives of Israelis in the south. That path is lifting the blockade on Gaza.

Without the blockade, Islamic Jihad's military escalation would lose much of its legitimacy. It wouldn't risk losing support by endangering real gains of committing to calm.

But Netanyahu can't risk appearing to reward Hamas. That means the only way he could engage in serious discussions about improving the conditions in Gaza would be with a legitimate and internationally recognized partner, and that can only be the Palestinian Authority. There is no other path to a resolution that offers calm without pushing Palestinian reconciliation forward.

There is another, timely, lesson from the Gaza-Israel conflict that should be noted and absorbed by the Trump administration as well.

The "economic peace paradigm" has failed, repeatedly, in Gaza, at the cost of thousands of lives. But this is the basis for the take-it-or-leave-it peace plan that Jared Kushner is pushing for the Palestinians in general. An "ultimate deal” based on aid and economic sweeteners in return for compliance with Israel and giving up political aspirations. That paradigm will also fail – with potentially disastrous results.

Treating Palestinians as inherently poor - instead of impoverished, miserable - instead of immiserated, and aid-reliant – rather than striving for self-reliance – these are all foolish and patronizing ways to treat the symptoms of a malady rather than dealing with the underlying causing of the disease itself.

Pushing a humanitarian, or economic solution for the Palestinian cause, instead of a political strategy, no matter in what fine words it's dressed up, is an unrelenting conflict foretold. Imagine the cost in lives if the future of the conflict in the West Bank plays out in the same lethal loop as Israel and Gaza right now.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2