Israel and Gaza: Determination vs. Desperation

17 august 2018

Nikolay Surkov - PhD in political science, Associate Professor, Oriental Studies Department, MGIMO of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, RIAC expert

Resume: The Israel–Hamas conflict threatens to escalate into a new war that could surpass anything seen during the previous operations in the Gaza Strip in terms of the amount of bloodshed.

The Israel–Hamas conflict threatens to escalate into a new war that could surpass anything seen during the previous operations in the Gaza Strip in terms of the amount of bloodshed. Tensions have been mounting for the last three months. The new spiral of the conflict started with mass protests on the Gaza–Israel border with attempts to burst through the fence. Palestinian authorities say that over 100 civilians were killed, and thousands were wounded. The protests were followed by rocket fire and mortar shelling of Israeli territory. Israel retaliated with massive air strikes. The militants used new weapons of terror: incendiary kites and balloons, which primarily damaged forests and crop fields in the south of Israel.

Calls for a new ground operation in Gaza are getting louder in Israel. Against this background, neighboring states and global powers are looking for ways to defuse the tensions, but the development of the situation depends on many factors.

First, a truce is impossible without a significant improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza. This has traditionally proved to be a very complex situation. At least half the population of the Gaza Strip population depends on food aid provided by international organizations, and the unemployment rate is 50 per cent. However, in spring 2018, new problems arose. The United States cut its contributions to the UN budget, and humanitarian agencies faced unprecedented underfunding for Palestinian aid programs, to the tune of $217 million. If the necessary funds are not found, the agencies will have to shut down projects in employment support, housing construction assistance and psychological rehabilitation.

There is yet another aspect to the humanitarian problem, and that is the stance of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), which is based on the West Bank and is controlled by Hamas’s rival Fatah. Back in October 2017, these Palestinian factions agreed to form a national unity government and gradually cede administrative control of Gaza to PNA bodies. In March, following the attempt to assassinate the Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority (who visited Gaza for the first time in many years), the agreement was essentially torpedoed. Ramallah imposed its own sanctions.

In spring, the PNA prematurely retired 60,000 civil servants in Gaza and cut the salaries of the remaining civil servants by 20 per cent. In addition, the PNA also sharply reduced power supplies to Gaza. At the same time, due to its financial difficulties, Hamas failed to fully pay the salaries to 40,000 of its officials. The socioeconomic situation was difficult already, and it deteriorated even further because the civil servants’ families depended on their earnings.

This was a serious blow to a population already worn down by the blockade (since 2006, the Gaza Strip has received very limited quantities of food and goods). A natural reaction for the authorities would be to redirect the people’s outrage, i.e. towards Israel. After that, the masses throw themselves at barbed wire despite tear gas and live rounds fired.

The previous war in Gaza was in 2014. The Palestinians lost approximately 2100 people, but they agreed to a truce only in exchange for an obligation to weaken the blockade of the Gaza Strip. After all, the minimal acceptable standard of living and the survival of the Hamas regime established in 2007 depend on the blockade being weakened. This is not the first time Hamas has used escalation with Israel to channel popular discontent.

The escalation of tensions serves another important purpose: to remind Israel and the world of the Gaza blockade, and of the Palestinian question in general. The last time the Palestinian agenda was actively discussed on a global scale was in 2014, and the moment large-scale military hostilities in Gaza ceased, the issue was forgotten again, since Islamic radicals had made their presence fully felt in Syria and Iraq at that time. The situation for the people of Palestine deteriorated even further with the arrival of the new administration in the United States. President Donald Trump has taken an unequivocally pro-Israel stance, virtually giving free reign to the Israeli right wing led by Benjamin Netanyahu. Now Gaza is making the headlines once again, and Israel faces international condemnation. In addition, the struggle increases Hamas’s popularity among the people of the West Bank, who are massively disappointed with stagnating talks and the absence of a peace agreement.

Finally, the current escalation has a purely military aspect. The previous truce held for nearly four years, since Israel came up with a way to neutralize Hamas’s main trump card – homemade Qassam rockets that had caused a lot of trouble for people in the south of Israel. However, once the Iron Dome air defense system was deployed (however effective it actually is), the terror effect of the primitive Qassam rockets fizzled out. Now Hamas has come up with a new weapon – this time an incendiary one – and used it to great effect. Now the Israeli people are concerned, demanding that the government take harsh steps, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has to prove once again that he is ready for an all-out fight against terrorists.

Thus far, both parties are interested in war rather than peace. The Palestinians have nothing to lose, their situation is desperate as it is, and Israel does not have to worry about Washington’s disapproval. However, there is no need to think the situation is hopeless. Given the political will and international support, this tangle can be unraveled. To achieve a breakthrough, the PNA should agree to form a national unity government and include Hamas representatives in its governing bodies. Israel and the PNA should both lift their sanctions. When the threat of a new massacre disappears, talks could be held on the parameters of a more stable truce.

In the short term, steps are needed to address at least some humanitarian problems in Gaza. This will require both Israel and Egypt to ease the blockade, not only in terms of the transport of goods, but also in terms of the movement of people. This is possible if Hamas demonstrates its readiness to cease hostile actions (in 2014, Hamas declared victory, which Israel ignored). The Gulf states could also play a major role if they provide additional funding for UN humanitarian agencies. Naturally, such a truce would only be a tactical pause, as these steps would just delay another outburst of violence.

In the medium term, an emphasis should be placed on inter-Palestinian negotiations. Bringing Gaza back under PNA control would create conditions for the partial or complete lifting of the Israel–Egypt blockade. In addition, if the leaders of Hamas want funding from outside sponsors, they will need to reach an agreement with the PNA. Egypt, a traditional go-between for Hamas and the PNA, would play a major part in the process. Another matter entirely is the fact that Cairo is experiencing difficulties in gaining concessions for Palestine from Israel, since Israel is an important ally of Egypt in the fighting against extremists on the Sinai Peninsula. The Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, could play a positive role here. These countries seek a rapprochement with Israel (they have a common enemy in Iran); however, this is difficult to do openly with the Palestinian question looming so large. It appears to be in Riyadh’s interests to convince Israel to mitigate its Gaza policies and renew talks with Palestine. Reviving the Palestine–Israel track of the peace process is, strictly speaking, the main long-term task here.


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