online 26.04.16

talking politics

Gaza: A hot potato

by Yacov Ben Efrat

This week retired major-general Amos Gilad, director of the political-security division at the Defense Ministry, released a stern warning against the danger of a new war flaring up between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. According to Gilad, "The political leadership [in Gaza] is supposed to call the shots, but Mohammed al-Deif (commander of Hamas' military wing) couldn't care less and does as he wishes." In other words, despite the illogicality of a war this summer, someone in Gaza could be crazy enough to start one.

A few days later, an "all-clear siren" was sounded by the head of the IDFs Southern Command. In a meeting with leaders of Israeli communities near the Gaza border, he said that the chance of conflagration was very low and that Hamas is still deterred as a result of last summer's Operation Protective Edge. Not two days later, a “Red Alert” made the headlines. This was after censorship was lifted on the discovery of a Gaza attack-tunnel that stretched 30 meters into Israeli territory. Hamas may have been deterred, said the alarmists, but it continues to re-arm. Its Nukhba ("elite") Brigade is poised to attack through the tunnels and take control of nearby Israeli communities.

In one week, the Gaza pendulum swung from calm to apprehension, from deterrence to war. Hamas' actions show the organization to be schizophrenic, vacillating between rapprochement and muscle-flexing. To understand Hamas' motives, one first must first try to understand the situation in Gaza, which can be described in one word – catastrophic.

First, formally speaking there is no government in Gaza. Two years ago, after Hamas's funding sources dried up, its political leader Ismail Haniyeh resigned as Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in order to make way for a national unity government between Hamas and Fatah. Over Israeli objections, a unity government was formed in Ramallah, and it was ready to assume responsibility for Gaza. This never happened, and Hamas remains the de facto power in Gaza. Officially, then, Gaza is an orphan. Hamas, which maintains control there by force of arms, is preoccupied mainly with its own survival.

Almost two million Palestinians live in Gaza, in what amounts to an open-air prison, and no one is willing to spread a protective wing over them. Three entities – Israel, Egypt, and the PA – are imposing a blockade on the Strip. The result is awful by any measure: electric outages are common; water is undrinkable; the destruction left in the wake of Protective Edge remains, with 20,000 families still homeless; unemployment has reached 40%; young people lack the resources needed to marry; and most important – Gaza remains sealed. To add insult to injury, heavy taxes are levied on Gazans to finance Hamas.

On the other hand, although the PA refuses to pay the salaries of 40,000 Hamas officials in Gaza, it does pay the wages of former PA civil servants there who were replaced by Hamas after the coup in 2007 and have sat idle ever since. One need not be an expert to understand that the Strip is on the verge of explosion. The growing number of suicides among its young attests to the gravity of the situation.

In this tragic scenario, there is more than one scoundrel. Obviously the main protagonist is Israel, but it is not alone. Helping are her allies – the PA in Ramallah, and the al-Sissi dictatorship in Egypt. In the rush to harm Gaza, these partners compete with the Netanyahu government and at times even exceed it. The enmity between Gaza and Ramallah is greater than that between Gaza and Jerusalem. The regime of General al-Sissi sees Hamas as a cruel adversary threatening its very existence, because of Hamas' close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist group by al-Sissi in 2013.

Hamas feels painted into a corner and is taking a range of steps to extricate itself, from digging attack-tunnels to attempting dialogue and reconciliation. In the latter, however, it has encountered a wall. Attempts at reconciliation with Egypt and the PA ended in deadlock. President Mahmoud Abbas remains committed to the PA's “sacred” security coordination with Israel. The PA pursues Hamas members to the bitter end (and, when possible, even hands them over to the Shin Bet, Israel's security agency). The situation with Egypt isn't much better. The Egyptian army has destroyed the smuggling tunnels, which were the lifeline connecting the Gaza Strip to Sinai, and it has evicted 10,000 Rafah residents in order to establish a buffer zone on Rafah's Egyptian side.

Prior to Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, Hamas was riding high. President-elect Mohamed Morsi had become the first Egyptian president to represent the Muslim Brotherhood. His victory gave Hamas the green light to initiate war with Israel. Hamas felt that the conflict would end with a convenient arrangement that would open the Rafah crossing and grant Gazans access to the world. However, since the military coup of June 2013 in Egypt, Hamas has lost its benefactor and the blockade on Gaza has tightened.

In mid-March of this year, with encouragement from Saudi Arabia, Hamas approached the Egyptian leadership for the purpose of thawing relations. Although the Egyptians agreed to meet, the conferences were held on the level of security, not diplomacy. Moreover, the Egyptians placed humiliating conditions on Hamas before agreeing to muzzle their widespread incitement against it. The Hamas leadership agreed to divorce itself from its mother party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and to remove portraits of Turkish President Erdogan and the emir of Qatar from Gaza streets, for al-Sissi considers them enemies. Unfortunately, until now these gestures have not yielded fruit. The Rafah crossing has remained closed. Suddenly, when the Egyptians agreed to open it, they made the proviso that Hamas must turn over its control to the PA, something Hamas is loath to do.

Since the Egyptians do not want to help Hamas, the Gazan hot potato has landed, once again, in the lap of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Israel's security establishment understands that the situation is intolerable and that creative solutions must be found. For example, it is considering a proposal to build a floating port off the Gaza coast to provide an outlet for the mounting pressure. The natural partner for this project would be Turkey but, since the Mavi Marmara affair (the boat MV Mavi Marmara attempted to break the Israeli siege on Gaza in 2010 and nine activists were killed), Turkey has repeatedly demanded the lifting of the Gaza blockade as a condition for renewing diplomatic relations with Israel. The port venture might have succeeded, nonetheless, were it not for the opposition of Egypt and the PA. Both shudder at the thought that Hamas could receive even informal recognition of its sovereignty over Gaza. In light of the diplomatic entanglements and conflicts between Turkey, Egypt, the PA, and Israel, Gaza remains without a port and continues to sink. An explosion is unavoidable.

The Israeli government is still deciding what it wants: Israel is not interested in toppling Hamas, for it fears a takeover in Gaza by the Islamic State (ISIS), which is currently operating next door in the Sinai Peninsula. Israel does not want a politically strengthened Hamas because that would severely harm the PA's already shaky hold on the West Bank. Israel does not want another war like last summer's because it understands that 100,000 refugees and another 20,000 destroyed houses will trigger a humanitarian disaster. Israel knows that if such a thing happens, the world will hold it responsible.

As for the verbal zigzag between Amos Gilad's declaration on the possibility of war and the words of reassurance coming from the head of the IDF's Southern Command, both are right. At this moment, Hamas does not feel ready for another bloody war with Israel. However, if the present situation leads to a popular uprising against its rule in Gaza, Hamas would not hesitate to shift the pressure over to Israel by means of tunnels and rockets. The Netanyahu government is sitting on a powder keg. Israel talks about deterrence, about war, about technological “surprises,” but it is not facing the truth. The truth is that there is no solution in sight, either military or political. But Israel will go on playing for time until Gaza explodes in its face.