Will Israel Be Forced to Invade and Reoccupy Gaza?

An Israel - Hamas agreement that avoids war but puts off tougher questions means replaying the last decade’s nasty cycle of conflict. But every crisis worsens Gaza’s humanitarian and governability situation, towards the point of no return

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An Israeli soldier atop a tank looks at air force fighter jets circling overhead an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) staging area in the northern Gaza border November 21, 2012.
An Israeli soldier atop a tank looks at air force fighter jets circling overhead an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) staging area in the northern Gaza border November 21, 2012.Credit: REUTERS
Ilan Goldenberg
Ilan Goldenberg

The Israeli government is once again weighing the possibility of a new ceasefire with Hamas - and already we hear the criticisms.  Habayit Hayehudi leader and government minister Naftali Bennett attacks any negotiation with Hamas as "surrender." Meanwhile, others fear that these latest talks, which cut out President Abbas, will weaken the one Palestinian party that Israel should be negotiating with.

Neither of these arguments are true. There is little new about the current ceasefire negotiations. 

It is part of a nasty cycle that all of the parties have been stuck in since Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. It has led to three conflicts, each of which was preceded by the same pattern of behavior; ended with a similar temporary agreement brokered; and ultimately reignited because the agreements never stuck. 

Here is how the cycle plays out.

Step 1: Hamas insists on arming itself and using violence against civilians as a tool to achieve its objectives and refuses to recognize Israel. Israel responds by squeezing Gaza economically to pressure Hamas politically, deter it militarily, and limit its capabilities. This is where Israel and Hamas have been since Operation Protective Edge ended in 2014, but also where they were in the periods before the 2012 and 2008 conflicts.

Step 2: Eventually pressure builds inside Gaza and Hamas escalates its use of violence both to generate domestic political support and to try to get Israel to take steps to ease the economic situation. The primary tool for Hamas is rocket fire, though over time it has also evolved to include tunnel attacks and most recently fire kites.  

In this latest round, we saw this period start in earnest in March this year with the March of Return protests that were initially spurred on by civil society groups in Gaza, but ultimately co-opted by Hamas. In 2014, it was the collapse of U.S. sponsored peace talks, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas, and the murder of an Arab-Israeli teen by Jewish extremists in response that ultimately set conditions for conflict.

Step 3: Israel responds to this Hamas escalation, with its own escalation including military strikes inside of Gaza and punitive economic measure that further choke the strip in an effort to get Hamas to change its behavior and stop the attacks. We saw this throughout this spring and summer with Israeli airstrikes and temporary full closures of the crossings into Gaza.

Step 4: Violence and political pressure become too much and the tensions explode into a major conflict that does severe damage to all sides – though the highest death toll is always experienced by the civilian population in Gaza. Thankfully, we have not hit that point yet - and the hope is that all the parties having learned from the mistakes of the past can skip this terrible step and move directly on to negotiating a new ceasefire. 

Palestinian demonstrators hurl stones at Israeli troops during a protest demanding the right to return to their homeland, at the border fence between Israel and Gaza, August 24, 2018.Credit: \ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Step 5: Egypt steps in and brokers a barebones ceasefire as it did in 2009, 2012, and 2014 that involves the cessation of violence on all sides and some minor steps by Israel to ease the blockade. The agreement always includes subsequent steps to be taken in the future to create a more sustainable long-term situation. But those are not taken seriously and with the immediate threat of war receding, are not followed up on by any of the parties. 

After a deal was negotiated in Cairo to end the 2014 war, for example, the UN, working with all sides was able to institute the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism to increase the flow of goods into Gaza while meeting Israeli security requirements. Eventually, a series of small measures such as loosening certain export restrictions into Israeli markets for goods produced in Gaza were also implemented. But none of these changed the fundamental economic and humanitarian situation on the ground.  

Meanwhile, the subsequent follow on talks that were supposed to take place in Cairo and address tougher issues beyond "quiet for quiet" and short-term economic measures, never materialized. The likely scenario today is the same: An agreement that avoids war but puts off tougher questions that likely will never be addressed.  

Step 6: The international community convenes a major donor conference where a lot of money is pledged for reconstructing Gaza. But much of the funds never materialize because no one wants to invest in projects that will inevitably be destroyed in the next conflict. And with the war over international attention moves elsewhere.

In 2009, the Gaza donor conference in Sharm al-Sheikh raised $4.5 billion. In 2014, the Cairo conference resulted in commitments of $5.3 billion. Much of that money never materialized or trickled in very slowly. And even when it did, restrictions on what could be imported into Gaza and Hamas’s use of funds and materials to strengthen its own situation and invest in a new conflict have made rebuilding painfully slow.  

Step 7: Everyone goes back to business as usual. The blockade continues. Israel invests in countermeasures to respond to the latest threat from Hamas. It now has Iron Dome and counter-tunneling technology. Next, it will be building technology that can create wind currents into Gaza that make it impossible to fly kites into Israel.

Yehiyeh Sinwar, the Hamas militant group's leader in the Gaza Strip, speaks to foreign correspondents in his office in Gaza City. May 10, 2018.Credit: Khalil Hamra / AP

Hamas develops new techniques to prepare for the next war. We do not know what will come after the kites, but certainly Hamas will find something new to terrorize Israelis.  

Eventually as things do not get better in Gaza and pressure builds the cycle of violence begins again.  

What does this cycle tell us about what the parties should do next?  First, barring any better options, for the moment Israel is right to pursue a new ceasefire and Egypt, the UN, the United States, and other Arab states should all support this approach. At least it avoids another deadly war.  

Second, the Trump administration should stop its systematic effort of defunding aid to the Palestinians both through UNRWA and USAID, as this will only further destabilize an already delicate situation.

But the most important point is that eventually there will be a reckoning.  

With every crisis, the humanitarian situation in Gaza worsens. There will come a moment when basic order collapses altogether, or Israel is forced to invade and retake Gaza.  

The only way to avoid this terrible outcome in the long-term is a sustainable political arrangement that should include both a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that includes major economic opening of Gaza combined with a Palestinian reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas that slowly brings the Palestinian Authority back into Gaza.  

Ultimately, the biggest winners of a new ceasefire will be the civilians in Gaza and southern Israel who will avoid the immediate misery of more violence. But unless everyone can move beyond the cycle of the past ten years, they will also be the biggest losers - as inevitably, over time, this agreement too will break down. 

Ilan Goldenberg is the Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security and a Policy Advisor to the Israel Policy Forum. He previously served as part of the U.S. team during the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations. Twitter: @ilangoldenberg

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