Military Affairs: Searching for the elusive calm along the Gaza border

The Gaza humanitarian crisis and violence emanating from its border go hand in hand.

IDF ARMORED MILITARY vehicles are seen against the skyline of Gaza on Tuesday. Has a major conflict been deflected or merely delayed? (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
IDF ARMORED MILITARY vehicles are seen against the skyline of Gaza on Tuesday. Has a major conflict been deflected or merely delayed?
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Once again, Israel and Hamas were this close to another violent war.
It began with a long-range rocket destroying the Wolf family home in Moshav Mishmeret 120 km. away from where it was fired in southern Gaza, and ended with another unofficial ceasefire between the two enemies.
The Israeli military and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, like in the previous 11 rounds, said that Hamas was struck harder than ever since Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
But has deterrence been restored? Has Israel achieved that calm along the border?
Probably not.
We will probably see the same exact scenario repeat itself in several months: Palestinians launch rockets, Israel responds, the two sides edge close to war and then Egypt comes in and mediates the two sides back from the brink.
Israel, of course, will never say that a ceasefire has been signed with Hamas. But “quiet” will return... until the next time.
Both the diplomatic and military sectors are spending considerable time calculating whether there is a way out of this cycle.
Israel wants calm along the Gaza border, and to make sure that deterrence has been restored to the point where the two sides are able to have more than five years of quiet.
But one year after Gazans started violently rioting at the border fence with Israel as part of their “March of Return” protests, little if nothing has changed. Except for more destruction.
Hamas violently took power of the coastal enclave in 2007 and has gone to war with Israel three times, with Israel responding with “Operations”: Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014.
While the military campaigns achieved several years of relative “quiet” between them, they have left the Gaza Strip in ruins; despite millions of dollars in international aid money, minimal reconstruction has been carried out.
Israeli defense officials have repeatedly said that it is in Israel’s best interest to make sure that basic needs are met in Gaza, and have been examining ways to improve the dire humanitarian situation there in an effort to avoid a violent escalation that could lead to yet another deadly war.
Because despite both sides not being interested in another war, a continued deterioration of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure will continue to put pressure on Hamas, which could lead to another violent clash with Israel.
The IDF believes that while Hamas is not interested in a long military conflict with Israel, the terror group might spark a short period of intense fighting to negotiate a ceasefire with the help of the international community, which would allow the group to improve economic and humanitarian conditions.
BUT WHO will take that responsibility?
Not the United States, which recently cut all funding for the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA this past summer.
What about the Arab world?
Egypt, which has been instrumental in negotiating between the two sides during every flare-up, is also blockading the Strip. Egyptian naval vessels patrol off the southern part of the enclave and Cairo has kept the Rafah crossing closed for most of the year.
Israel has recently begun allowing millions of dollars from Qatar into the Strip, supposedly destined for civil workers. The allowance of $90 million into the Strip has been criticized by many Israeli politicians, who say that Israel is being blackmailed by the terror group.
The internal dynamics in the Strip, especially the humanitarian situation which continues to inch closer to the boiling point, has stoked the flames.
The World Bank said that Gaza’s economy is in free fall, with youth unemployment at around 70%, and the prices for cigarettes jumping by 200% and pita bread by 40%. Hamas has also been forced to raise taxes on Gazans after Iran drastically cut financial aid to the terror group.
In addition to the US cutting funds for UNRWA, unemployment is above 40%, hospitals are running out of fuel, and supplies and residents have only six hours of electricity per day.
The group is also facing protests by local Gazans, who are rising up against the worsening humanitarian conditions in the blockaded enclave under the banner of “Let us live.” Hamas police have been violently suppressing the demonstrators.
A video of one woman from the Gazan city of Deir el-Balah went viral last week after the clip showed her enraged over the death of a young demonstrator shot by Hamas during the protests.
“Why does the 20-year-old son of a senior Hamas figure have everything he wants – a house and a jeep and a car, and he can get married – while the ordinary people have nothing, not even a piece of bread?”
Hamas knows that they need to find a solution to those protests and improve the economic situation or else they risk losing everything.
The border protests began last March 30 and have seen more than half a million people violently demonstrating along the security fence with Israel, demanding an end to the 12-year-long blockade and congregating at points along the border. The protests range between several thousand people participating to 45,000 people each day.
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has also said that the group was seeking a long-term truce with Israel. In return for the lifting of the blockade, he said, the group and other Palestinian factions would ensure that all rocket fire and other attacks from Gaza would stop.
According to a report in Haaretz, a senior Egyptian official said that Israel has “conveyed messages hinting” at an easing of the blockade with the Strip if an agreement of quiet for quiet is reached.
“Meanwhile, these are promises, but there are no practical things on the ground,” he was quoted as saying. “As long as the civilians in Gaza do not get relief, there will be no real progress toward calm, and the situation could escalate at any moment.”
Even without escalation, there has been constant violence and unrest emanating from Gaza over the last year. During the violent weekly protests, Gazans have been burning tires and hurling stones and marbles, as well as other types of violence including the throwing of grenades and improvised explosive devices (including military-grade explosives) toward troops. Ball bearings and other projectiles are also launched by high-velocity slingshots toward forces along the border.
Since the beginning of the protests, Israel and Hamas have had 11 violent flare-ups, and more than 1,500 rockets, missiles and other projectiles have been fired from the Strip.
The residents of the South, faced with incendiary balloons which have caused considerable loss of property and scorched land, see a political and military establishment that doesn’t know what to do about it.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who was recently sworn in as the military’s top officer, has prioritized the southern front as one which could explode into war at any moment.
The key appears to be the living conditions in Gaza. Granted, even if the residents were not suffering and living normal lives, there might be no quiet for Israelis on the other side of the border. Hamas and its cronies would likely continue to exploit the local population and send them out to the border to face Israeli troops.
But unless something is done about the humanitarian situation in the Strip, it’s inevitable that the next war will come sooner rather than later.