Why Gaza reached an impasse

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.
Israel’s latest coalition spat has, somewhat surprisingly, been between two of its junior partners rather than between Likud and another party. In it, Education Minister Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi has blamed Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beytenu for continued escalating violence in the Gaza Strip on the grounds that the relatively pragmatic and restrained policies he had formulated and taken ownership of had failed.
Mr. Liberman has also reportedly engaged in secret talks with Qatar’s envoy to the Gaza Strip with a view to securing the return of Israeli civilians held by Hamas, as well as the remains of Israeli soldiers who died during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, while considering potential ways to alleviate the coastal enclave’s humanitarian crisis. Given that these talks took place against the background of Cyprus potentially hosting a seaport for the Gaza Strip, it is likely that Liberman favors, or is at least seriously considering, an easing of the embargo over the coastal enclave in exchange for Hamas releasing Israeli prisoners and the remains of fallen Israeli soldiers.
However, irrespective of policies considered and formulated by senior members of the Israeli government, it is unlikely that these will affect significant change in the Gaza Strip. One of the most compelling, but overlooked reasons for this is that the Israeli government is simply too weak to oversee and execute a policy as controversial and divisive as significantly easing the blockade on Gaza. Israeli governments are, arguably, inherently weak. While pure proportional representation for the sake of greater democracy is a somewhat admirable sentiment, in a modern Israeli context, it has led to most governments lacking secure enough majorities to pass controversial legislation without the fear of being toppled.
By way of example, the current Israeli government’s very survival is threatened by building works on national infrastructure being conducted on Shabbat. If such a matter is existentially threatening to the government despite there being a lack of security implications, how much more so is a policy that endangers the lives of thousands of Israelis living in the Gaza periphery? The last times that comparably polarizing measures were enacted were in 2011, when Gilad Schalit was exchanged for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners; Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005; and when Israel committed to the Oslo Accords in 1993. At all of those points, Israel’s governments were stronger than the current one. To this end, I very much doubt that a weak government under Benjamin Netanyahu’s stewardship would risk alienating the support of a large coalition partner for the sake of easing Gaza’s humanitarian situation.
Additionally, while short-sighted and selfish, an unstable Gaza is a useful Gaza for Netanyahu and his Likud inner circle. Having been dogged by allegations of corruption and sleaze since the 1990s, 2018 was supposed to be the year that Netanyahu would finally stop staring down the barrel of one or more indictments, and have to face justice. Despite the Israel Police recommending that he be charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust, no indictments against him have materialized.
Concurrently, the respective risk levels emanating both from Syria and the Gaza Strip increased, with escalations of violence on both fronts. While it would be fallacious and conspiratorial to suggest that Netanyahu engineered these situations, he has certainly benefited from them. National security and counter-terrorism have long been Netanyahu’s fortes and talking points, with time spent as an officer in one of the world’s most prestigious special forces only boosting his credentials. Irrespective of how his time in Sayeret Matkal was spent – when Israel was a fundamentally different country, at a radically different time, facing wholly different (and mostly conventional) security threats – that still counts for a lot.
PERHAPS IT’S a cynical argument to make, but an Israel facing imminent security crises is an Israel that has come to expect Netanyahu to lead it through them. In politically precarious times, volatile security situations actually benefit him. Regardless of corruption allegations, Israel has become over reliant on “Mr. Security.” To this end, ensuring that the Gaza Strip remains semi-volatile is actually in Netanyahu’s best interests, as they effectively perpetuate his primary raison d’être.
CONVERSELY , A number of factors emanating from within Gaza also contribute to the coastal enclave’s and Israel’s current deadlock. Both Israelis and Palestinian Gazans are arguably led by weak governments. However, where Likud only risks the slim prospect of electoral defeat if they implement a suitably unpopular policy, Hamas may face an attempted coup.
Hamas is literally an Arabic acronym which translates into English as the “Islamic Resistance Movement,”,and as the effective government of Gaza, it must balance its original purpose with effectively administering the coastal enclave. However, assuming that an easing of the blockade is dependent on Hamas returning the bodies of Israeli troops and living captives, then it will almost certainly compromise its identity as a resistance organization. In a deeply asymmetric conflict, Hamas’s most powerful weap- ons are psychological, not physical. To this end, the trauma that it continues to inflict on Israeli society by refusing to relinquish the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul for burial cannot be underestimated. Doing so would be tantamount to surrendering their most damaging weapon. And when Israel was forced out of southern Lebanon in 2000 because of the toll its presence was taking on civilians, such a decision would likely not be taken kindly among Gazan Palestinians.
Furthermore, even if such an agreement were to be reached between Hamas and Israel, it would likely be contingent on there being a period in which hostilities emanating from Gaza had completely ceased, primarily rocket and airborne incendiary device attacks. However, preventing any such attacks from occurring is almost certainly beyond Hamas’s capabilities. At this later stage of 2018, Hamas is ultimately a much-weakened and a less effective organization than it was as recently as 2014. That it is simply incapable of preventing disaffected youths from launching crude incendiary devices into southern Israeli communities – or smaller and more violent factions such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad from firing rockets and mortars – is not an unreasonable assessment to reach. Rather than risk further local ire by attempting to do so, it is easier for Hamas to take ownership of the threat, hence, that is why it claims that the squads responsible for launching incendiary devices into Israel are part of its own organization.
Thus, it appears that Gaza has reached an impasse. While Israel is arguably more able to affect change in the coastal enclave than Hamas, it is extremely unlikely to, because of both its own government’s weaknesses and Prime Minister Netanya- hu’s need for a volatile security situation to justify his continued leadership.
Conversely, Hamas cannot take the steps necessary to alleviate Gaza’s situation without compromising its identity as a resistance movement and risk inciting further local anger. Instead, the most likely outcome is some kind of continued status quo, with increasingly violent spikes of violence until a conflict similar to that of the summer of 2014 breaks out. Until then, the real losers will remain the civilian populations of the Gaza Strip and adjacent southern Israeli communities.
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. He can be followed on Twitter @danielhalevy.