Gaza will get worse before it gets better

Until the PA regains control over the Strip, prosperity and security for the people of Gaza remain a fantasy.

PALESTINIANS ATTEND a massive protest in Gaza on Friday. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PALESTINIANS ATTEND a massive protest in Gaza on Friday.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The situation in Gaza is a human tragedy. Watching images from the clashes near the fence makes any reasonable person mad that kids are born to such awful circumstances, and grateful to have been born elsewhere.
But the most tragic thing about Gaza is that there’s no way out of this whirlpool as long as Hamas stays in power.
The deadly “March of Return” that has been heading the news cycle these past couple of weeks is a manifestation of the stalemate reached by the political actors, and shows once again how easily people can be used as political pawns by authoritarian regimes.
As thousands of Palestinian protesters approached the Israeli border fence to commemorate Land Day on Friday, March 30, Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, enticed them to keep marching by proclaiming “this march is the beginning of the return to all of Palestine.”
Knowing that Israel would never allow Gazans to enter Israel and that the IDF had reinforced border patrols in preparation for the events, Haniyeh knew he was sending people to their death.
Though for many protesters this march profoundly expresses the aspiration that Israel will lift the blockade put in place in 2007 in response to Hamas’s takeover, for the leadership this was a message to the PA that Hamas will not capitulate.
After a reconciliation agreement was signed in October, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently approved a budget excluding the Gaza Strip, further bankrupting Hamas.
Abbas called for Hamas to hand over control of Gaza. Until that happens, the PA will consider Gaza a “rogue district,” thus relieving the PA of financial responsibility for it.
This came a week after an assassination attempt against PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who entered Gaza to attend a ceremony promoting unity.
While the PA views Hamas as responsible for the attack, Hamas rejects the allegations.
Prior to this incident, the PA had already put in place sanctions on the Gaza Strip, trying to squeeze out Hamas by exacerbating the humanitarian crisis there. In response, Hamas called Abbas an illegitimate leader who stole the presidency, further aggravating tensions.
Abbas, who recently celebrated his 83rd birthday and whose health is deteriorating, is concerned with his legacy. After he consolidated power and ousted every political opponent, Abbas is tightening the noose around Hamas at the cost of inflicting pain on the citizens of Gaza. At this point, he has little to lose: his lifelong project – promoting negotiations with Israel as a means for peace – failed miserably, and the coup in Gaza happened on his watch. While peace vis-a-vis negotiations ceased to be a viable option and the PA’s attempts to internationalize the conflict show limited success, Abbas is adamant about bringing Gaza back to the PA’s control before he leaves office.
Hamas also has little to lose. Its financial resources are taped out, it has not managed to solidify its aspirations to represent the Palestinian people in the international arena, the moderate Arab countries “abandoned” Gaza by pressuring Qatar to stop paying terrorist organizations, and the potential for dissent is growing. In essence, they are left with little leverage except for one major resource – masses of desperate people.
By mobilizing groups from across the Strip, Hamas is manifesting its power to show that it can still pull a few rabbits out of the hat, and that it won’t go out without a fight.
It is tempting to blame Israel and the IDF in this case for using excessive force.
Perhaps there was excessive force, and suspected cases (including the death of a member of the press) should be investigated thoroughly. Nevertheless, dispersing a mass protest organized by an internationally acknowledged terrorist organization is unlikely to end with zero casualties.
Israeli leadership has a commitment to its citizens to protect them, and letting thousands of protesters rampage through the fence would have been a worst-case dereliction of duty. No democratically elected government would ever agree to imperil its citizens when it has the military means to avert it, even if it means innocent death on the other side.
Undoubtedly incidents like this are counter-productive for Israel in the long term and feed the narrative promoted by Hamas. They are easily used as radicalization and recruitment tools.
Extremist groups are the real beneficiaries of the daunting poverty, unemployment and desperation attached to life in Gaza. The longer the situation lasts and the death toll rises, the more people become desperate and prone to joining militant groups.
Gaza is a container of explosives awaiting combustion. Though the grim prospects are known to all the actors involved, there is little they can do at this point to alleviate the humanitarian crisis without strengthening Hamas.
This view is shared by Israel, the US and every country that regards Hamas as a terrorist organization. Building power plants and opening a port are possible contingencies that improve daily life, but if implemented will embolden Hamas and further crumble the PA.
Disheartening as it is, Gaza will get worse before it gets better.
There is reason for cautious optimism.
Recent events signal that Hamas is on the verge of collapse. It hasn’t succeeded in mobilizing as many protesters as it wished, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have called for it to end the protests, and soon it will have to face disgruntled Gazans who did not manage to enter Israel as promised but need medical treatment.
Yet, until the PA regains control over the Strip, prosperity and security for the people of Gaza remain a fantasy.
The author is an Israeli Fulbright scholar at New York University’s International Relations program, researching Middle Eastern politics and the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.