Israeli inaction in Gaza likely to feed local extremism

A Palestinian woman shouts slogans during a March of Return protest at the border fence between Israel and Gaza, east of Gaza City August 31, 2018.  (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
A Palestinian woman shouts slogans during a March of Return protest at the border fence between Israel and Gaza, east of Gaza City August 31, 2018.
If Israel has a coherent policy toward the Gaza Strip, it would be a strategy of inaction, potentially intended to catastrophically degrade and undermine Hamas’s rule over the coastal enclave. However, this policy is flawed. Its unintended consequence will almost certainly be to further empower even more dangerous extremist factions and tendencies, which will likely continue posing security threats to Israel – and particularly its southern communities – in the foreseeable future.
Although not moderate, Hamas is – relatively speaking – more moderate than Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and certainly more moderate than Islamic State. This is comparable to Iraq after 2003 and Algeria in the 1990s. When the more mainstream Ba’ath Party and Islamic Salvation Front were deliberately displaced, they were replaced by far more extreme and violent alternatives – al-Qaeda of Iraq and Armed Islamic Group of Algeria.
The Gaza Strip is somewhat of an anomaly. Despite its strategic location, regional hegemons (both Israel and Egypt) have actively sought to avoid controlling it. This was demonstrated by Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the coastal enclave in 2005, and how Egypt did not attempt to retake control of it in the Camp David Accords. However, it nevertheless very much falls into Israel’s area of responsibility with regard to policy formation, and it has spent years posing Israeli officials with a plethora of security dilemmas and threats.
Most recently, Israel’s default response has been attempting to preserve the Gaza Strip’s status quo. However, this is a high-risk, lowyield policy that fails to acknowledge or sensibly respond to a number of important realities. Failure to do so ultimately worsens Gaza’s situation, while it also increases both the threats and risks Israel will face.
One of the greatest mistakes of Israel’s policy of inaction toward Gaza is that by stymieing local development, it is actually worsening a bad situation rather than locking it into an uncomfortable status quo. This is most apparent on examination of Gaza’s infrastructure, which Israel continues to prevent from developing and improving through its longstanding siege of the Strip, despite the enclave’s steady degrading as a result of wars and conflicts in 2009, 2012 and 2014.
This has resulted in an increasingly dire humanitarian situation in which running water, functioning sewage-processing plants and regular electricity supplies range from rare to non-existent. This, combined with high unemployment, semi-regular Israeli air strikes and the constant threat of war, has led Gaza to a humanitarian crisis.
When Gaza’s extreme youth population bulge is taken into consideration, conditions are particularly ripe for political radicalization. This would likely be exacerbated by Hamas’s tendency to restrain other factions attempting to conduct attacks of any kind against Israel, which are not viewed too dissimilarly from the Palestinian Authority’s security cooperation with Israel in the West Bank.
IT IS therefore natural that this radicalization would most likely manifest itself as a migration of support – especially among young Gazans – from Hamas to the factions they perceive as most convincingly taking action against Israel. Currently, I assess that this is Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has been unusually active in its efforts against Israel in recent months, likely due to Hamas being too weak to restrain them.
In the longer term, this support is unlikely to last. For all its fervor, Palestinian Islamic Jihad positions itself as being the vanguard of the Palestinian revolutionary movements, and deliberately refrains from the political process. Instead, Salafi-Jihadi groups such as Islamic State are likely a more appealing alternative.
While there is no quantitative evidence to firmly suggest that there is in fact a significant migration of support from Hamas to Salafi-Jihadi factions, anecdotal evidence and historical precedents suggest that this outcome is becoming ever more likely.
In the past two years, a number of Hamas fighters have defected to Islamic State in the Gaza Strip, or left Gaza to fight for Islamic State elsewhere. As these fighters return to a Gaza in a profoundly worse condition than they left it, they may find themselves as the leadership nucleus of what may evolve into a Salafi-Jihadi anti-Hamas insurgency. There may be a point reached where Hamas is viewed as being so ineffectual that Salafi-Jihadis may openly challenge it for power, and Gaza undergoes another internal conflict along the line of 2007. While this may sound far-fetched, given Israel’s policy of preventing Hamas from governing effectively, historic precedents may suggest otherwise.
In 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front won Algeria’s first free and fair democratic elections, but was almost instantly prevented from taking power by the army, which launched a coup. This was followed by approximately 10 years of civil war, where the marginalized Islamic Salvation Front was eventually superseded by the far more extreme Islamic Action Group.
Similarly, when the vestiges of the Ba’ath Party were completely marginalized and prevented from taking part in Iraq’s post-invasion rebuilding, the country’s Sunni constituency gravitated to more extreme actors who were still able to protection their sectarian interests, including al-Qaeda of Iraq, which would eventually go on to become Islamic State. To this end, a logical result of Israel’s deliberate undermining of Hamas may very well lead their displacement by an even more extreme entity.
Admittedly, there are no easy answers to Gaza’s predicament. On one hand, Israel should allow its situation to have festered and reached the point it is currently at. On the other, why should it be expected to demonstrate goodwill to a group that has not indicated any reason willingness to moderate its policies?
Hamas is still committed to Israel’s destruction, and it is extremely unlikely it will moderate itself in the foreseeable future, if at all. However, there is a better way for Israel to proceed. Ironically, this is most likely ending its seeming policy of doing its upmost to ensure that Hamas fails in its attempts to effectively govern Gaza.
The writer is a graduate of the universities of Leeds and Oxford, where his academic research focused on Iranian proxies in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. He lives in the UK and is the founding director of the Ortakoy Security Group.