Averting War in Gaza

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by International Crisis Group

The recent escalation between Israel and Hamas was the most intense since the 2014 war. Although there are solid reasons why neither wishes to see another full-scale confrontation, the fact that nothing has been resolved in the past four years and that essential dynamics remain unchanged is cause enough for worry. That recent exchanges of fire are worsening is more troubling still. The parties, as well as regional and international stakeholders, have claimed interest over the years in addressing both the situation in Gaza, marked by a blockade that is rendering the lives of Palestinian civilians virtually unbearable, and the continued Hamas attempts to break it, which are making Israelis anxious and eager to hit back. Yet, their good intentions notwithstanding, they have done little to make this happen.

The solution, which Crisis Group has long recommended, hinges on Palestinians agreeing to a form of internal reconciliation allowing the Palestinian Authority (PA) to govern the Gaza Strip, and others encouraging this outcome or at least not standing in the way. With the PA in charge, many of the reasons proffered by Israel for strangling Gaza’s economy should disappear; with conditions in Gaza improving, some of the primary justifications advanced by Hamas and other Palestinian organizations to launch attacks from the Strip likewise should evaporate.

Achieving that outcome requires overcoming obstacles that have impeded it for years. That means outside actors – the U.S., European Union (EU), and Arab states first and foremost – pressing Israelis and Palestinians to urgently take these steps. The alternative is another round of fighting, only bloodier, more dangerous and more inexcusable.

The Road to War

Once again, Israel and Gaza are on the precipice of a dangerous escalation as the crippling Israeli blockade of the coastal strip grinds on. The siege is met with Palestinian border protests and flaming kites, which are met with Israeli bombing, which are met with Palestinian rockets and mortars, which are met with further Israeli bombing. The confrontation led, last weekend, to the largest exchange of fire between Israel and Gaza since the 2014 war. But even after that exchange, Gazans continued to launch incendiary kites, and Israel continued to strike at targets in Gaza.

Neither side believes that the other wants a new war. Hamas understands that Israel has no strategy for exiting Gaza in the unlikely event it retakes the territory and would gain little from another war that leaves Hamas in control. Israel believes that a new war might increase Hamas’s popularity in the short term but after the dust settles would leave it, and the Gazan population, in even worse shape than they are in today.

But each side also is under growing pressure to push the other to the brink. Israelis are demanding that their government force Gazans to give them quiet, and Gazans are demanding that their leaders do something to bring about an end to the siege. The more than a decade-long blockade of Gaza has put enormous strain on its two million inhabitants, as well as on the Hamas-led government, which is responsible for providing them with salaries, health, education and other services. The misery deepens amid blackouts, 60 per cent youth unemployment, export and import bans, forced enclosure, failing sewage and water contamination. Desperate to find a way out of the impasse, Hamas has tried four strategies to end or at least loosen the blockade: first, in April 2014, and again in October 2017, it sought to hand over formal governing authority to the PA, the government in Ramallah, which has been consistent in its refusal to take up this thankless task; second, in the summer of 2014, it fought a war after the PA government failed to take responsibility for Gaza and pay salaries there; third, beginning on 30 March 2018, it supported, together with other factions and Gaza’s civil society, weekly unarmed demonstrations along the fence separating Gaza from Israel; and in recent months, it has supported groups and individuals launching kites, balloons and inflated condoms that have set fire to adjacent fields just within Israel.

In an effort to deter Hamas from supporting the border protests and launching incendiary kites, Israel has bombed Hamas targets throughout Gaza over the past several months. At first, Hamas did not respond to these Israeli strikes, hoping to give the border protests a chance to succeed in bringing international pressure that would force Israel to end the blockade. (Similarly, Hamas and Islamic Jihad refrained from retaliating after a 30 October 2017 Israeli strike that killed over a dozen Palestinian militants and members of a rescue team, because the strike occurred just two days before the PA was to take over Gaza’s crossings and Hamas did not want a new escalation to sabotage the attempted Palestinian reconciliation. ) But as Israel’s aerial strikes increased, Hamas and Islamic Jihad began to retaliate with limited, short-range projectile fire with the aim of reestablishing the precedent that Israeli bombings would not go unanswered.

Under pressure from an Israeli public frustrated at the government’s inability to stop the burning of fields in the Gaza periphery and from hawkish ministers criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman for being soft on Hamas, the Israeli government has employed its main source of leverage over Gaza: steadily tightening the blockade. On 9 July, Israel announced it was closing Gaza’s crossings to all exports, restricting imports to “humanitarian equipment (including food and medicine)”, and reducing the area in the Mediterranean in which Palestinians could fish without being fired upon from nine to six nautical miles from shore. A week later, following the 14-15 July escalation, Israel announced a further restriction, this one to last nearly a week: halting the flow of all fuel and cooking gas into Gaza.

Israel has signaled that if the incendiary kites do not stop, it will launch a new war. The Israeli prime minister, defense minister, army chief of staff, and head of the Israeli Security Agency met at the Gaza Division Headquarters; the army is staging a large-scale exercise simulating the conquest of Gaza City and has stationed anti-rocket batteries in greater Tel Aviv; Egypt, Israel’s partner in enforcing the blockade, shut its sole crossing with Gaza for two days (claiming a malfunctioning computer system), in parallel with Israel’s new restrictions at its crossings; and emissaries have conveyed to Hamas leaders that Israel intends to launch a new war if the fields continue to burn.

But Hamas is not interested in bartering a stop to the kites and the border protests merely in exchange for a return to the crippling siege and untenable, deteriorating status quo that had prevailed prior to the launch of the border protests in the spring. For Hamas, the kites and the border protests are a final attempt, short of war, to end the siege, not to leave it in place alongside a Hamas commitment to keep the peace. In fact, the situation prior to last spring was the worst Hamas had faced: in addition to the Egyptian and Israeli blockade, the PA had imposed its own sanctions on Gaza; the U.S. had cut funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency, the body that provides food aid to roughly half of Gaza’s population; and the PA had been handed control over Gaza’s crossings with Israel, depriving Hamas of access to its main source of revenue – taxes collected at the terminals.

Until the blockade is lifted or significantly loosened, Hamas almost certainly intends to keep up the pressure with incendiary kites and border protests. But these are not enough to bring about an end to the blockade. They have succeeded in drawing attention to Gaza, after years in which it was ignored by the international community, the surrounding region and the Israeli public. But kites and border demonstrations do not pose such a significant threat that Israel would consider lifting the blockade in exchange for a commitment from Hamas to bring them to an end.

Neither side is therefore likely to achieve its objective. Since the 2014 war, both Israeli and Hamas officials have entertained and at times proposed a possible way out: a long-term ceasefire that would include an end to the blockade. The U.S., too, has expressed openness to the idea and appears to have made some solution to Gaza a centerpiece of its ongoing efforts. In principle, this idea is worth pursuing – but not before each party has a more realistic assessment of the other’s minimum demands. Israeli officials typically speak of a long-term ceasefire for Gaza that would include the building of a new Gaza commercial port in Cyprus or Egypt, or on an artificial island off Gaza’s shore. But a new port that is for the transit of goods alone, not people, would do little to change conditions in Gaza: whether Israel controls Gaza’s imports and exports from its port in Ashdod, as it does at present, or from an artificial island would not mean any relaxation of the closure regime unless it allows for the movement of people – the more pressing need.

In addition, Israel puts wholly unrealistic conditions on its various proposals for improvements in Gaza: Hamas’s disarmament; Hamas releasing Israeli citizens or their remains, without an exchange deal entailing the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails; and a Hamas commitment to a ceasefire not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank, while Israel continues to occupy and expand settlements in the latter.There is no chance that Hamas could continue to distinguish itself from Fatah and avoid internal rifts and a serious loss of standing if it agreed to any of these conditions in exchange for economic improvements in Gaza. Hamas will not disarm itself in exchange for any economic inducement, even a full end to the blockade. Hamas might couple a prisoner exchange deal with a Gaza ceasefire deal, but it will not release Israeli captives or their remains unless Palestinian prisoners are also released.And Hamas will not commit to halting its fight against Israel in the West Bank while it is occupied by Israeli forces who systematically crush any Hamas presence there.

Similarly, Israel will not agree to a long-term ceasefire with Hamas while the latter holds several of its citizens captive in Gaza, and it is difficult to imagine Israel agreeing to a Gaza ceasefire that would allow Hamas to continue attempting attacks and abductions in the West Bank. Israel fears that a deal with Hamas would undermine the Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank, and thus possibly jeopardize the Israeli-Palestinian security coordination and relative calm that Israel has enjoyed there since the end of the second intifada. It also knows that by making a deal with Hamas in Gaza it would reinforce the message that it is Hamas’s confrontational tactics, and not the cooperative methods of the PA leadership in the West Bank, that bring results.

This leaves one other main option, aside from war or continued escalations, and that is to have an intra-Palestinian reconciliation deal under which the PA fully takes over governance in Gaza, relieving Hamas of responsibility for the Gaza economy and providing Israel with an acceptable partner in Gaza with which it can cooperate on development and easing the blockade (Israel is unlikely to fully lift the blockade, even after the PA takes over). But this option, too, does not have good odds. The U.S. opposes Palestinian reconciliation unless Hamas meets the wholly unrealistic demand of disarmament.The Fatah-dominated PA does not want to retake Gaza, and no one has so far been willing to apply significant pressure on it to do so. It views Gaza as an enormous economic burden; it does not have the means to pay all the salaries of Gaza’s current government; it is facing its own economic problems in the West Bank; and it is already enjoying tax revenues from Gaza without having responsibility for the territory. More important, Fatah wants to crush Hamas, not provide it with a lifeline when it is at one of its most desperate points. Earlier this week, Hamas accepted a proposal made by Egypt for Palestinian reconciliation; for now, Fatah has not.

Israel, too, would regard Fatah-Hamas reconciliation with great trepidation, since it is supposed to entail elections that Hamas might win, a significant power-sharing role for Hamas in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and an increased Hamas presence in the West Bank. For Israel, keeping Gaza and the West Bank separated is a strategic priority, because it is seen as a crucial component of preventing Hamas from rearing its head in the West Bank (and, for some Israeli ministers, the separation is also desirable because it helps prevent Palestinian statehood). At the same time, Israel insists on a PA presence in Gaza as a condition of approving development projects there. Israel has yet to resolve its own internal contradiction: on the one hand, demanding a PA presence; on the other, deep wariness of Palestinian reconciliation.

With enormous obstacles facing a Gaza ceasefire deal, an end of the blockade, and Palestinian reconciliation, there appears to be little hope that continued escalation can be averted, and, if it continues, that it will not eventually result in a new war. The tragedy, in addition to the undoubtedly high human cost, is that both sides would enter that war knowing that they would end it no better off than they are today.

Conclusion

Palestinian reconciliation, with a resumption of PA control over Gaza, remains the best possible way of easing and eventually lifting the blockade and avoiding a new war. Ideally, reconciliation could be achieved by offering positive incentives to the PA, so that significant long-term gains offset its costs (added financial burden, Hamas inclusion in the PLO, rescuing Hamas from dire straits, the fear that the PA would be playing into a perceived U.S. effort to focus on Gaza at the expense of Palestinian statehood). The gains might include European recognition of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital; Israeli transfers of West Bank territory to PA control; Israeli permissions for Palestinian construction and development in the 60 per cent of the West Bank under full Israeli administrative and security control; and Israeli allowance of a PA and PLO presence in East Jerusalem.

Such positive inducements are very unlikely to be offered: Israel is no more eager to give over West Bank territory to the PA than it is to lift the siege of Gaza, and it will hardly be persuaded to take one unpalatable step (offering carrots to the PA in the West Bank) in order to facilitate the other (lifting restrictions on Gaza that could redound to Hamas’s benefit); the Europeans are too divided, wary of domestic pushback, deferential to the U.S. on Israel-Palestine policy, and frightened of Israeli condemnations and accusations of anti-Semitism to recognize a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 lines; the PA views U.S. plans for economic and humanitarian improvements with extreme suspicion, believing that the U.S. aims to supplant Palestinian political aspirations with economic plans; and Israel will not go along with a plan for Gaza development that entails European recognition of a Palestinian state.

And so the reality is that Palestinian reconciliation likely would require tremendous pressure on the PA, forcing it to act against its perceived interests. Yet strong negative inducements – for example, conditioning foreign aid to the PA, whose existence is an Israeli interest no less than a Palestinian one, on a PA takeover of governance in Gaza, Palestinian reconciliation and Israel’s lifting of the blockade – are just as unlikely. That is because those with considerable leverage over the PA – Israel, Egypt, the EU, the U.S. and other international donors – have so far prioritized the Authority’s political interests over the need of Gazans to be freed from an open-air prison and the possibility of widespread death and destruction in a new war.

Whether through positive inducements or negative ones, however, the international community will have to start using its leverage if it wants to help Israelis and Gazans avert renewed bloodshed.

Reprinted, with permission, from International Crisis Group.

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  1. Surely, Hamas sees its actions in Gaza as part of the greater Palestinian struggle. If Hamas offered a long-term truce to Israel, why does the author assume that it would not apply in the West Bank? If Israel accepted the truce, the armed struggle would be taken out of the conflict, hopefully for long enough to solve the current humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and this could possibly lead to a genuine peace process.

    In view of the Brexit disaster there is likely to be a general election in the UK in the near future, and it is likely that the Labour Party will be the winners. Recognition of Palestine will follow.

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