Defense officials believe that war with Hamas has become significantly more likely in recent weeks and that a conflict is only a matter of time unless progress is made on two key issues.
The defense establishment’s view isn’t new. But recent moves by Hamas have strengthened its assessment that the Gaza organization seeks a conflict with Israel, even if only a limited one.
Hamas recently resumed demonstrations along the Gaza border and set up special units to harass Israeli soldiers at night, in the early morning and during periods of fog. These come on top of existing units for tactics such as incendiary balloons, tire burning and naval operations. Seven Palestinians, including a 12-year-old, were killed by IDF fire during Friday's border protests, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.
Hamas aims to foment clashes with the IDF throughout the week, rather than only on Friday afternoons, as used to be the case. Moreover, Hamas has begun making operative preparations for war; for example, it has held a home front defense exercise and significantly stepped up the pace of its combat drills.
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The two main factors that Israel believes will affect the likelihood of war are the Palestinian reconciliation process and Gaza’s humanitarian situation, though the second is considered to have greater explosive potential.
All Israeli defense agencies believe that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pushing Hamas into war with Israel. There are four key unresolved issues in the PA's reconciliation with Hamas: Abbas wants Hamas to disarm and give the PA a monopoly on force in Gaza; to return the public land there that it confiscated from the PA; to restore Fatah members to the public-sector jobs they held before Hamas seized power in 2007; and to reinstate the PA legal system in Gaza instead of the religious legislation Hamas introduced. But no progress has been made on any of these.
The second problem, which defense officials consider even more significant, is Gaza’s humanitarian situation and the failure to find a substitute for the aid UNRWA can no longer provide due to U.S. funding cuts.
UNRWA currently provides food packages to 1.3 million Gazans, more than half the population, up from just 130,000 in 2005. But its food budget will run out at the end of December.
Additionally, 300,000 children study at UNRWA schools, and the agency employs some 18,000 teachers and administrators. But its budget for these activities will run out in October.
Consequently, defense officials have repeatedly warned that if no replacement for UNWRA is found, war will become significantly more likely and perhaps even inevitable.
They fear that people deprived of food aid and students with no school – including many who have hitherto avoided the Hamas demonstrations along the border – will join the protests and try to surge across the border into Israel. And if such a mass of people tried to cross, Israel would be in an impossible situation internationally if it used live fire to stop them, officials say.
They also note that even if war does break out, Israel will still have to transfer food and humanitarian aid to Gaza because it can’t starve the population.
$17 a day
The unemployment rate in Gaza is 57 percent, and most of the unemployed are between 18 and 30. Many of them spend their days in the tent cities Hamas set up near the border when it began the demonstrations in March. These encampments offer free television, internet, and most importantly for Gazans, electricity 24 hours a day.
Over the past two weeks, Hamas has built a new encampment in northern Gaza, near Israel’s Kibbutz Zikim. This encampment has attracted many young men every day.
The average daily wage in Gaza, for those who find work, is about 60 shekels ($17). Most employed Gazans work for either the PA or Hamas.
The PA still pays 20,000 civil servants who were fired when Hamas seized power in 2007, but they receive only half their former salary, about 1,000 shekels a month. Civil servants hired by Hamas earn 1,000 to 2,000 shekels a month. But because Abbas has refused to transfer money to cover their salaries, Hamas often has trouble paying them.
The main industries in Gaza are agriculture, fishing, textiles and furniture. Gaza’s limited agricultural land could provide a reasonable living, but farmers have trouble selling their produce because Gazans’ purchasing power has shrunk significantly.
A tomato in Gaza currently sells for 1 shekel, a modest sum. But even that hasn’t increased demand, because people have no money. Moreover, Gaza’s chronic electricity shortages mean people can’t buy fresh food and store it, so they rarely buy food for more than the next meal or two.
Among the merchants who have nevertheless managed to do well in recent years, one noteworthy group is the gold dealers. At low prices Gazans have sold gold rings, necklaces and other items – anything that can bring in a little money to support the family. The dealers who buy cheaply then sell these wares at a significant profit in the West Bank or Jordan. But over the last year, even this industry has been badly hurt because most Gazans have already sold whatever gold they have.
Another source of income in recent months has been to get wounded in a demonstration at the border fence; Iran pays every dead or wounded person for this “sacrifice.” The family of every person killed gets $3,000. A severely wounded person gets $500 and a moderately wounded person $200. The money is handed out by clerics at neighborhood mosques.
Iran insists on seeing the medical reports, so people wounded by Israeli snipers during a demonstration insist on being evacuated by ambulance in order to receive a medical report that entitles them to Iranian money.
Angry at Hamas
Defense officials don’t believe Gaza is yet in a state of humanitarian collapse, but the cessation of UNRWA’s operations and the ongoing security tensions could bring it there.
Hundreds of Gazans who lost limbs during demonstrations along the fence due to Israeli sniper fire are still waiting for prostheses, but Hamas has refused every Israeli attempt to send in prostheses and is also preventing aid agencies from doing so.
Hamas’ leaders know that if this situation continues, Gazans will take their anger out on Hamas, and the leaders fear this. Israeli defense officials believe that if free and fair elections were held in Gaza, Hamas would fall and Fatah would come to power.
In the West Bank, in contrast, they believe Fatah would lose a free and fair election, but they don’t think Hamas would be the beneficiary. Instead, new movements representing the younger generation – people who didn’t come to the West Bank from Tunis with Yasser Arafat following the Oslo Accords – would rise to power.
Hamas is paying close attention to the man on the street and fears losing power, so it’s trying to divert Gazans’ anger toward Abbas and Israel. But if it concludes that this isn’t working, Hamas would be willing to start a war with Israel in order to force all the relevant parties to the negotiating table. There it would try to chalk up as many achievements as possible.