Present tensions in the Gaza Strip as an Expression of Underlying Problems in ‘Understandings’ between Israel and Hamas
By Dr. Michael Milshtein | August 28, 2020
|Photo: Avi Ohayon - GPO|
The security tensions on the border with Gaza in the past two weeks have surfaced after ten months of relative calm in this sector that began with 'understandings' (or 'accommodations') reached between Israel and Hamas at the end of 2019 that were never embodied in a document, nor were they officially affirmed by either of the sides. Current security tensions have been manifested in widespread renewal of terror balloons (that cause brush fires and damage to orchards and fields under cultivation in the western Negev facing Gaza.
Hamas' move is perceived as a desire to promote friction with Israel, without risking widespread escalation (that would likely develop in the wake of military actions, including a 'dribble' of rockets into Israel).
As in many times in the past, it appears that civilian and economic calculations are behind current tensions, that in the last decade have become the core component in Hamas' calculations as the sovereign on the ground in the Gaza Strip. It appears that renewal of attacks against Israel serves as a vehicle in the hands of Hamas for signaling its dissatisfaction with the lack of progress in moves in the civilian realm that it believes it was promised in the past (for improvement in power supply to residents of Gaza by improving links to the Israeli power grid; making progress on civilian projects funded from abroad, along with more Gaza inhabitants being permitted to work in Israel), as well as the lack of clarity about continuation of the flow of Qatar economic aid to the Gaza Strip (a core existential crutch for a large portion of Gaza Strip residents).
The backdrop to these developments is the worsening state of the civilian sector in the wake of the Coronavirus crisis. While the pandemic has not sparked till now significant morbidity in Gaza (a sum total of 100 patients within Gaza's two million inhabitants and the Hamas government has clearly successfully blocked the spread of the virus in the Strip), similar to the situation throughout Palestinian areas, damage from the economic impact of the health crisis has worsened the plight of Palestinians who were in bad financial straits already (reflected in a rise in unemployment, a drop in public purchasing power and the collapse of small and medium-size businesses).
It seems that Hamas' drive to promote tension at the present time arises, among other things, from an assessment that under prevailing strategic circumstances, Israel will be more vulnerableto pressure and will quickly agree to ease things in the civilian sphere. Such circumstances include the fact that Israel is currently focused on the northern front and is in a high state of alert for possible escalation with Hezbollah; is currently investing much of its resources in attempts to deal with the ramifications of the Coronavirus crisis (both health and economic aspects); and is locked in a fierce and protracted internal political tangle over leadership of the country.
In contrast to many times in the past when Hamas was 'pulling the strings' behind moves provoking Israel that were hard to pin definitively on Hamas , this time it is very clear (even though Hamas has not officially declared that it is behind the launching of booby-trapped balloons). BEFORE TALKED OF BALOONS WITH incendiary devices) This validates the argument that Hamas has almost complete control of actions in the Gaza Strip, and that operations by 'insubordinate' factions are carried out with Hamas turning a blind eye or even directing their actions, when Hamas does not want to stand in the forefront of the confrontation with Israel.
Current tensions testify to a number of fundamental flaws in the 'understandings' that allegedly were formulated six months ago with Hamas, and that granted Israel relative calm in the Gaza sector. First of all, they show that Hamas does not see itself totally committed to these 'understandings', and considering its dissatisfaction with the reality it finds itself facing and its desire to change it, Hamas isn't flinching from returning to use violent actions against Israel (even if at a relatively low level of intensity) instead of trying to make progress using talks to change the situation, via third-party mediators. This comes despite the fact that Israel has promoted moves towards improving things in the civilian sphere that are still perceived by Hamas as limited in scope and a failure to meet Israel's commitments.
Israel faces a complex dilemma. It must decide whether to fulfill Hamas' demands in order to continue to preserve calm in the Gaza sector, but at the price of appearing vulnerable to pressure, even damaging its deterrence levels.; Or, to take a firm stand in the face of the steps Hamas has embarked on – including hardening Israel's policies in the civilian sphere (such as imposing new restrictions on entry permits to Israel, and on the movement of goods and fuel into Gaza from Israel). Such a policy can clarify to Hamas that it will not succeed in extracting the objectives it is striving for through violent means (get Hamas 'down off its high horse', a switch that could be made a lot easier to swallow if a message from Qatar would be swiftly forthcoming with a imminent date for transferring Qatari assistance to the Gaza Strip It is recommended in this context to involve Egypt in passing the message to Hamas, so the latter will understand precisely what is the real margin of latitude they posses.
On the other hand, there is a realistic possibility that Israel must prepare for dynamics, as has happened in the past, for the current exchange of blows between the sides spiraling into uncontrolled escalation. Such a scenario requires Israel even at the present time – despite the complexity, to embark on broader military action against Hamas, while channeling resources and turning its attention to the Gaza Strip. Whatever the case, responsiveness to Hamas' demands is liable to simply raise the bar of its demands from Israel in the future, accompanied by further pressure through violent means, what is liable to fuel escalation that Israel will seek to avoid by easing things in the civilian sphere.
If Hamas will understand that its latitudes are limited, the current tensions could be an opportunity for Israel to return to the table for talks and to repair the 'arrangement' or 'understanding' that was formulated with Hamas some six months ago, that focused on Israeli agreement to expand the scope of easing restrictions on the Gaza Strip in the civilian sphere, in exchange for calm in the security domain facing Gaza.
In the framework of such an amendment, it will be necessary to integrate into 'new understandings' (or a 'new arrangement') elements that were missing six months ago: First and foremost should be Hamas' commitment to go forward with and even finally making concessions on the Israeli prisoner-MIA issue (particularly return of the bodies of two IDF soldiers) in exchange for civilian assistance.
Secondly, commitment to cease orchestrating-directing terrorism within Judea and Samaria, in east Jerusalem and inside Israel. (Such attacks are liable to increase in the face of the protracted crisis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that is likely to be accompanied by weakening of governance in Ramallah.
Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.
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