Beware of returning to the "old arrangement" in Gaza
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | Auguat, 2021
More than Two months after Operation "Guardian of the Walls" - which many in Israel hoped would be a seminal event in its relations with Hamas - the two parties seem to be quietly crawling back to the same reality that preceded 6pm on May 10th, when Hamas launched rockets at Jerusalem, thereby starting a military campaign that lasted nearly two weeks.
Israel's rigid stances on advancing civil steps in the Gaza Strip when the operation came to an end are being consistently eroded. This trend is embodied in an ongoing series of civil alleviations: permitting export of goods and produce from the Gaza Strip (albeit in a relatively limited scope); increasing the fishing zone in Gaza to 9 miles; lifting some of the movement restrictions to and from the area; and examining the possibility of transferring Qatari aid funds using a new mechanism that Hamas would ostensibly be unable to impact (these amount to approximately 25 million U.S. Dollars each month for purchasing the fuel required to operate the power station in the Gaza Strip, and paying salaries to Hamas government officials, as well as 10 million more for the needy).
As a combined result of these steps, the same old arrangement (al-Tahdiyya) in the Gaza Strip is being reinstated. This isthe very doctrine that collapsed when Hamas initiated Operation "Guardian of the Walls", in the absence of any prior tension in the Gaza Strip.
The last campaign demonstrated that Hamas perceives this arrangement in Gaza as a flexible space that may be left or returned to at its own discretion. It is also noteworthy that at no point during the operation did Hamas set the civil issue as the origin or goal of the conflict – unlike Operation "Protective Edge" (July-August 2014), during which this issue was at the center. In fact, Hamas had initiated a campaign for purely ideological reasons, while the civil situation in the Gaza Strip was actually improving in the year that preceded the conflict.
Moreover, once the operation "Guardian of the Walls" had ended, Hamas began to promote a "war between wars" of sorts against Israel by launching incendiary balloons at the nearby Israeli localities to which the IDF is responding with attacks. Hamas views this brawl as an opportunity to advance friction with Israel without slipping down the slope toward a largescale conflict.
This situation leads to the glaring question: Just how deterred is Hamas by Israel following the last campaign, which was supposed to suppress any "adventurous instinct" the movement may have had? Even if the scope of incendiary balloons launched has been dropping in recent weeks, it could resurge at any moment, inter alia as Hamas' means of signaling that it is dissatisfied with the progress made in the dialogue on the new arrangement, or the scope of the civil steps taken in the Gaza Strip.
The return to the old arrangement based on a narrow interpretation of preserving security calm in exchange for civil steps – albeit their scope is smaller than it was prior to Operation "Guardian of the Walls" – would be a strategic error on Israel's part. The civil gestures embodied in this arrangement are being perceived by Hamas as existential, and the heaviest price the movement paid following its decision to initiate the campaign was when they were taken away.
The return to the same old logic behind the arrangement under the current circumstances curbs Israel's power of deterrence, particularly if Hamas would not be required to concede on the matter of the POWs and MIAs, which Israel had set as a strict condition while making it clear that the two issues, which were previously discussed separately, will go hand in hand from now on.
The attitude toward the examination of new, "indirect" means of promoting civil steps vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip, particularly looking into the possibility of having Qatari funds flow through U.N. officials or the Palestinian Authority, is, for the most part, rather exaggerated. These steps do not effectively contribute to strengthening Abu Mazen's impact in the Gaza Strip (nor does he even seem all that interested in advancing this goal, at least for the time being); Qatar – despite its problematic traits – is being allowed to play a key external role in the area; and, above all, these steps do, in fact, contribute to stabilizing Hamas' rule, preserving its status as an unwavering fact that is not expected to change anytime soon.
Israel must adhere to the rigid approach it had announced when the campaign ended, demand concessions in the matter of the POWs and MIAs of Yahya Sinwar in exchange for any significant civil step in the Gaza Strip or, in other words, be the actor that dictates the terms of the arrangement. At the same time, it should ensure that no humanitarian distress form in the Gaza Strip by providing for the Gazan public.
Israel must consider the possibility that Hamas' response to a persistent Israeli stance would be severe threats – which have indeed been made recently – or a gradual increase in violence in the area. It should prepare for another round of escalation, possibly soon, and this time consider how to be the initiator. Such a campaign should make Hamas pay a heavy price when losing, far greater than the price it paid during Operation "Guardian of the Walls", when its leadership and top commanding echelon were not significantly impacted, and the movement itself was hit militarily, but came away with strategic accomplishments such as strengthening its public image, and successfully inciting the Arab Israeli public.
By doing so, Israel could more strongly demonstrate to Hamas the damage entailed in embracing a defiant approach as it did during Operation "Guardian of the Walls", deepen the movement's deterrence of promoting "military adventures" (the kind of deterrence that existed in the years that followed Operation "Protective Edge"), and perhaps even force it to concede on the matter of the POWs and MIAs that too many perceive as a rigid "red line" instead of a humane decision that could alter under the right constraints.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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