No End to Gaza’s Vicious Cycle

Egypt closed the border, the damage caused by the 2014 war is still unrepaired, the economy is at rock-bottom, unemployment at a record high and the rift between Hamas’ military and political wings is growing. What will happen next in the Gaza Strip?

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Palestinian workers remove the rubble of a building that was destroyed during the war, on August 25, 2015 in Gaza City's suburb of Shujaiyeh.
Palestinian workers remove the rubble of a building that was destroyed during the war, on August 25, 2015 in Gaza City's suburb of Shujaiyeh.Credit: AFP

Any attempt to analyze the current situation in the Gaza Strip and forecast future developments will run up against the limits of the imagination. Other than the fact that the general thrust of recent decades was clear from an early stage – increasing pessimism over the years – events in Gaza have never ceased to surprise those who have risked predicting them.

Among the major events of the past 21 years were the Oslo process and Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip’s cities as part of the Oslo II Accords; the second intifada, which again hurled Israel and the Gaza Strip into a cycle of blood-drenched violence; the astonishing change of direction by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon when he decided to disengage from the Gush Katif settlement bloc; Hamas’ obdurate insistence on continuing to clash with Israel even after the disengagement; the takeover of Gaza by Hamas amid the expulsion of the Palestinian Authority two years after the disengagement; and, finally, three indecisive military operations that Israel launched between 2008 and 2014.

This supplement suffers from an additional limitation: It goes to print as Israel and the Palestinians have begun a new confrontation, which could evolve into a third intifada within weeks. Even though the confrontation in October was initially centered on East Jerusalem and the West Bank – young, knife-wielding Palestinians from both those areas perpetrated serious attacks both in the territories and inside the Green Line – the Gaza Strip played its part, too. But until the start of the fourth week of October (in the new round of violence), the Gaza Strip, at Hamas’ behest, was a secondary player in events, not at the forefront.

The Hamas regime in Gaza allowed other Palestinian organizations, particularly Islamic Jihad, to organize mass marches toward the security fence surrounding the Gaza Strip, and to trigger violent clashes with Israel Defense Forces troops deployed on the other side. So far, this looks more like a highly symbolic bloodletting, to signal that Hamas and Gaza do not remain completely behind in the Palestinian struggle.

As of this writing, at least, Hamas appears to be wary of becoming involved in another large-scale military confrontation with Israel. Every time a small Palestinian organization has fired rockets into Israel (and there have been a few such cases), Hamas’ internal security units intervened and detained the perpetrators for questioning or arrested them, in order to avert further deterioration.

This is not necessarily a policy that will continue for the long term, because, despite the protracted physical disconnect between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which has grown more acute since the second intifada, relations between the Palestinian populations in the two regions remain strong and are further reinforced through the social networks.

Just as the West Bank mounted solidarity demonstrations with the Gaza Strip during Israeli offensives there in recent years, similar moves will be forthcoming from the opposite direction – and they have the potential to escalate beyond what Hamas wants at this time.

The underlying reasons for Hamas’ present policy lie in the IDF’s last three operations in the Gaza Strip: Cast Lead (December 2008-January 2009), Pillar of Defense (November 2012), and Protective Edge (July-August 2014). The Shin Bet security service has described Hamas’ approach in Gaza, since the expulsion of the PA in 2007, as wavering between two poles: the need to preserve its rule in the Gaza Strip (it’s effectively the first Islamic caliphate in the region, established seven years before we ever heard of Islamic State); and, on the other hand, the obligation to leave the idea of resistance (muqawama) to Israel on the back burner at least, in order to adhere to the organization’s ideology and justify to the Gazans its continued rule – which is patently undemocratic – in Gaza.

The Shin Bet maintained that Hamas was constantly maneuvering between these two poles, but that every time the organization faced a concrete dilemma, it would opt for survival and avoid endangering its principal achievement – namely, the regime it established. Thus, even when Hamas slid into a deterioration with Israel, or even initiated it, the organization was careful not to cross a line that was liable to bring about the end of its rule in the Gaza Strip.

Each of the Israeli military operations there ended indecisively. Each followed almost the same pattern. In the wake of an attempt by Hamas to pressure Israel into changing the rules of engagement along the security fence and allow the organization to achieve greater freedom of military action, the Israeli leadership was eventually dragged into a military operation in which it wielded great force, albeit still limited in some of its characteristics.

Operation Pillar of Defense was the exception, as it was confined to eight days and did not involve a ground offensive. However, at 51 days, Operation Protective Edge lasted twice as long as Operation Cast Lead, and the number of Palestinian losses was also almost double (about 2,200 killed, nearly half of them apparently armed militants in terrorist organizations). The scale of the damage was enormous: about 18,000 homes were completely destroyed, and 44,000 sustained partial damage. Most of them are still not fit for human habitation, more than a year on. And nearly 100,000 Gazans still had no permanent roof over their heads in the first half of 2015.

In large measure, the roots of Operation Protective Edge lay in the way Operation Pillar of Defense ended, in November 2012. Eager to conclude the confrontation quickly, Israel gave Hamas one significant achievement: narrowing the security perimeter – the buffer zone on the Palestinian side in which Hamas was permitted to operate – to just 100 meters. Restrictions on IDF activity close to the fence facilitated Hamas’ efforts to dig so-called attack tunnels into Israel. By the time Operation Protective Edge was launched, Israel had detected 32 tunnels that reached the fence, with about a third of them continuing into Israeli territory.

The understandings reached after Operation Pillar of Defense also left the Gaza Strip completely dependent on Egyptian aid. That arrangement worked, from Hamas’ point of view, as long as the Muslim Brotherhood held sway in Cairo, as it identified ideologically with Hamas even as it maintained low-level diplomatic relations and coordination with Israel. Things changed radically in July 2013, though, when the Egyptian chief of staff, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, and his generals fomented a military coup in Egypt and jailed then-President Mohammed Morsi and his government. The generals, who loathe Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, vastly improved security cooperation with Israel and soon shuttered the border crossing at Rafah (the Gazans’ main exit route from the siege they were under).

The Egyptians then set about destroying the tunnels under the Rafah crossing, which were both Hamas’ principal smuggling route for weapons (mainly from Iran and Libya) and the main source of income for the Gaza regime (thanks to the high taxes it levied for the goods being transported through the tunnels). Hamas lost its state backing, even as the Egyptian economy slumped. A series of attempts by Hamas to extricate itself from the situation – by means of a short-term reconciliation with the PA in Ramallah and a request for urgent aid from Qatar – led nowhere, in part because of Israeli and U.S. obstacles.

The conditions, which were already ripe for war, were ratcheted up in June 2014, after the kidnapping of three Jewish teenagers in the West Bank by a Hebron-based Hamas cell. Simultaneously, Hamas’ military wing in Gaza prepared to undertake a large-scale terror attack via a tunnel adjacent to the Kerem Shalom crossing, at the southern edge of the Israeli border.

In retrospect, according to the analysis of Israeli army intelligence, the war broke out as a result of a series of misunderstandings and incorrect calculations. Hamas deployed to attack, but had not yet sent its forces to cross the border through the tunnel; Israel struck first in the form of a preventive air force strike, and the full-scale confrontation soon followed.

Its results, like those of the two previous rounds, were inconclusive. The damage done to the Gaza Strip was incalculably greater, but Hamas inflicted a record number of losses (73 killed on the Israeli side, including 66 soldiers) and fired rockets about halfway into Israel until the last day of the war. Hamas’ fairly effective use of the tunnels, along with several ambitious attempts to send commandos into Israel, generated some anxiety among the Israeli public.

What remained at the end, beyond the human losses and property damage, was mostly a balance of mutual deterrence. Both sides abstained from taking offensive steps, for fear of setting in motion yet another military campaign as costly as it would be pointless.

Rivalry at the top

Fifteen months later, not much seems to have changed. Even though Israel greatly increased the volume of trade with the Gaza Strip, Hamas remains caught in the Israeli and Egyptian vise. Its relations with Cairo are still poor, and in certain circumstances the feeling of no exit could push its leadership to initiate another military campaign, despite clear knowledge of how damaging this could be for the Gaza Strip.

The organization is trying to rehabilitate its military capability, despite its reduced ability to smuggle in weapons due to Egyptian activity. New attack tunnels are being dug and Hamas is constantly testing rockets by firing them into the Mediterranean. Its goal is to increase the range of the rockets it manufactures itself, as the smuggling channel from Iran is almost completely blocked.

The working assumption of Israeli intelligence is that Hamas expects another military confrontation in the future and is preparing for it. Its decisions will be affected by the worsening rift between the organization’s military and political wings in Gaza. Since the war, the head of the military wing, Mohammed Deif (who miraculously survived another Israeli assassination attempt toward the end of hostilities), has reconciled with Iran. However, the head of the political wing, Khaled Meshal (who is based in Qatar), and the prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, have not restored relations with Iran since Hamas sided with the anti-Assad Sunni insurgents in the Syrian civil war. Meshal and Haniyeh prefer ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, and would probably be happy to improve relations with Egypt, too.

In the last round, Israeli intelligence discovered Deif’s plan to perpetrate a terror attack at Kerem Shalom. It’s likely that next time he will prefer to operate alone and not bother to update Hamas’ political wing on his plans. Operation Protective Edge demonstrated his operational ambitions.

The reconciliation with Hezbollah is certainly allowing Hamas to learn from the numerous operational lessons gleaned by the Lebanese organization during the hostilities in Syria, and to aim at implementing surprise tactical moves along the Gaza Strip border. Like Hezbollah, the military wing of Hamas believes that Israeli society is no more than a “spider web,” a wind-tossed leaf that will not survive if enough military pressure and scare tactics are brought to bear on it. Israel’s readiness to release 1,027 prisoners – among them hundreds of Hamas terrorists who were convicted of murder – in the Gilad Shalit deal of October 2011 was taken as a great victory in Gaza, and also reinforced the underlying assumptions about Israel.

Under siege

In the meantime, Hamas faces another new challenge, in the form of Islamic State. A number of extreme jihadist groups are active in the Gaza Strip, some maintaining loose ties with ISIS while others are inspired by it. (Hamas, which views Islamic State as an enemy in Gaza, nonetheless maintains relations with an ISIS branch in Sinai, Wilayat Sinai – the Middle East is nothing if not flexible.) Palestinian opinion polls conducted this year showed 13 percent support for ISIS in the Gaza Strip and 10 percent in the West Bank. This is three or four times as high as in any other Arab state or territory, and is testimony to the depth of Palestinian despair and scale of frustration with both national leaderships, in Gaza and the West Bank.

More than a year after the end of the fighting, the Gaza Strip remains under partial siege. Israel eased the economic pressure: 700 to 800 trucks carrying goods for Gaza cross at Kerem Shalom every day. However, the main limitation to the transfer of additional goods is financial: the Gaza market cannot buy larger quantities at this time. Otherwise, the siege continues. Very few Palestinians leave Gaza via Israel (even fewer since the start of the latest terror wave and clashes at the fence).

The Egyptians, meanwhile, open the Rafah crossing for only a few days every month, allowing a few thousand people to leave each time. In September, Egypt began the systematic flooding of the remaining tunnels at Rafah, thus aggravating Hamas’ sense of economic and military isolation. Also, infrastructure problems and economic disputes between Hamas and the PA are causing serious difficulties in the supply of electric power to the Gaza Strip: in the past few months, Gazans have endured power cuts of 12 to 16 hours a day.

In the months after the 2014 war, donor states held conferences in which they pledged more than $5 billion to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip. However, less than 10 percent of that sum has so far reached Gaza. All attempts to get the PA to take part in the rehabilitation project failed. Following the war, the idea was raised for the PA to deploy a policing force at the border crossings and thereby persuade Egypt to ease the siege in Rafah. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to play ball, fearing he would be entering a trap. Abbas preferred to let Hamas cope alone with the troubles in Gaza. Nor did Egypt do anything to ease the situation in Rafah.

As a result, the rehabilitation is proceeding slowly, despite successful coordination between Israel and the United Nations, which, since the beginning of the year, has implemented a relatively efficient transfer of construction materials into Gaza via Israel.

The Gaza Strip’s main difficulty, apart from the siege, is its horrendous economic situation. A UN report published last September found that 44 percent of Gaza’s adult population is unemployed, the highest percentage ever recorded there. A previous report, from 2011, forecast that the population of Gaza will increase from 1.6 million to 2.1 million by 2020, and that a “Herculean effort” will be required to ensure proper conditions of education, health, energy, water and sanitation for everyone. The damage wrought by the military operations only aggravated an already gruesome situation. According to the Palestinians, 95 percent of Gazan groundwater – the main source of water – is unfit for drinking without a purification process, and things are expected to get worse within a few years.

The IDF’s big idea

These reports are read with interest by the Israeli defense establishment. The last round of hostilities left both sides almost in the same place as before they started. At the same time, many senior IDF officers, who grasped the scale of the immense infrastructure problems from which Gaza is suffering, were ready to consider far-reaching measures to assist in its rehabilitation. For example, the General Staff worked out ideas for allowing a seaport to be built in Gaza (a long-standing Palestinian demand); the construction of a dock for Gaza in Cyprus, where international security supervision would take place; or the building of a floating harbor on an artificial island off the Gaza coast, this also under international aegis.

A project like the latter, it was argued, would achieve three goals: In the long term, it would enable the Gazan economy to surge ahead, amid security arrangements that would allay Israel’s well-justified concerns; it would raise the level of employment by creating jobs in connection with the building of the artificial island and the bridge leading to it; and it would generate a “loss cost” – as long as the project was under construction, and perhaps afterward as well, Hamas would not likely initiate a military conflict, for fear of missing out on the economic opportunity.

After months of preliminary discussions in the defense establishment, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon put an end to the would-be project. There would be no harbor in Gaza, he declared. The most Israel would be prepared to consider is a dock for Gaza in the port of Ashdod, where Israel and the international community would oversee the transfer of goods to the Gaza Strip.

The IDF came up with additional initiatives and measures, some of which have been introduced in practice. Over the year, Israel steadily increased the number of Gazans who were allowed to enter its territory. About a thousand Gazans, who were issued transit permits of businessmen, entered Israel regularly, and at least some of them are apparently laborers who earn their living from working in Israel. The former head of Southern Command, Sami Turgeman, suggested increasing the number of Gazans allowed to work in Israel by several thousands more, and also to allow the supervised transit of a large number of Gazans to the West Bank through Israel. However, these ideas have been rejected by the defense minister and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now, the renewed spate of violence originating in East Jerusalem and the West Bank doubtless will lead to the usual developments. Israel will freeze the existing situation regarding the Gaza Strip and take a few precautionary measures, in light of its well-founded fear that Hamas or other organizations will take advantage of the lines of civilian contact between the sides to initiate new terrorist attacks.

Since 2009, a repeated pattern has been discernible: Hamas imposes renewed order in the Gaza Strip and restrains the military activity of the small Palestinian groups – and IDF officers in the field gradually gain the impression that Hamas is actually a type of partner.

True, Hamas’ anti-Israel rhetoric is vicious, and it certainly has no intention of recognizing Israel, still less signing a peace agreement with the Jewish state. But it is possible to conduct a form of undeclared coexistence. As long as the sides steer clear of a military confrontation, daily life can go on in a reasonable manner and without excessive friction.

This state of affairs is also convenient for the Netanyahu government, which is not being challenged by Hamas to make territorial concessions. But this temporary situation is doomed to crash, time after time. A local incident or a larger crisis (such as the economic and political distress Hamas encountered after the military coup in Egypt) always puts the sides back on course for another military collision, which freezes and cancels all existing arrangements.

Does Israel want to topple the Hamas government? Even though this idea was voiced in the cabinet during the 2014 war (mainly by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman and, to a lesser extent, by Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett), Israel has never opted for that route. There are two main reasons: Fear of the military loss of life entailed in conquering the Gaza Strip and then administering it; and the danger that Islamic State or some similar organization will rise to power in Gaza in place of Hamas.

At the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge, Netanyahu claimed that “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.” (He drew the comparison in the wake of Hamas’ public execution, in the center of Gaza City, of people suspected of collaborating with Israel, a few days after Islamic State filmed the murder of Western hostages it was holding in Syria.) A year later, though, the Israeli rhetoric has changed. When Netanyahu was asked to explain why he was not punishing Hamas for a renewed trickle of rockets from Gaza, his aides said too strong a blow against Hamas would bring ISIS to power – a far worse alternative.

In the meantime, the flare-up in Jerusalem and the West Bank diverted attention from Gaza and led to the total suspension of any discussion on easing the economic situation there or advancing infrastructure projects. But even if the current wave of violence is curbed and, by some miracle, Gaza is not drawn into it, the basic problems of the Gaza Strip will continue to intensify – from a continuing population explosion, the siege (mainly Egyptian-inflicted) and the increasing shortfall of resources.

The Gaza Strip remains a ticking time bomb, which no one is seriously trying to defuse; Israel continues to play chess with itself, until the next violent round.

The writer is the senior military correspondent for Haaretz.

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