By Ronen Hoffman*
(FPRI) — Over the past few weeks, media attention in Israel was mainly focused on developments on the northern front, such as threats from Iran, Hezbollah, Syria—and the potential limits posed by Russia on the Israeli air force’s maneuvering space above Syria. Without diminishing the seriousness of the threats in the north, it seems that the challenges facing Israel on the Gaza Strip front in the south are similarly serious.
In many ways, Gaza is a ticking bomb that could ignite a local fire—and perhaps a regional one—with the potential to drag Israel into a ground military operation. Such an operation would entail high prices not just for number of casualties, but also for the possibility that by the end of the operation Israel would have to resume its pre-1994 role as Gaza’s governor when it was directly responsible for funding the area’s infrastructure (electricity, water, sewage, and health system). Gaza turned out to be Israel’s main problem coming from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long avoidance from defining a clear policy on the general Palestinian issue and particularly on the Gaza challenge. While former Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert had a clear long-term policy for Gaza (under Sharon, Israel completely disengaged from Gaza and under Olmert, Gaza was included in the negotiations with Mahmoud Abbas as a part of the future Palestinian state), under the current Netanyahu government, as with many other political issues, the policy on Gaza is reactive, short term, and shortsighted.
On the declaratory level, Israel has refused to politically recognize Hamas as the government in Gaza, but at the same time, it holds Hamas responsible for Gaza’s entire security and economic situation. Senior Israeli officials, e.g. Education Minister Naftali Bennett (2014) and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (2016), threatened to forcefully overthrow the Hamas regime, but so far, Israel has refrained from sending troops into Gaza with the aim of destroying Hamas. In fact, Israel’s policy under Netanyahu aimed solely to deter, weaken, and restrain Hamas. The long continuity of that policy has turned out to be a de facto recognition of Hamas by Israel as the sovereign of the Gaza Strip.
From one violent eruption to another, it became clearer to Israel that the Hamas leadership is the exclusive authority responsible for the Gaza Strip, since every violent cycle was ended with an armistice between Israel and the Hamas as if there are two equal players. Additionally, the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) unwillingness and inability to return to the Strip and to regain its control over Gaza has strengthened that view. The practical implication from Israel’s lack of a political, proactive, long-term strategy over Gaza created “quiet for quiet” intervals between violent rounds. That status quo model weakens the PA and strengthens the narrative that the current Israeli government is trying to assimilate, according to which there is no partner for a long-term political arrangement on the Palestinian side.
Consolidating Hamas’ sovereignty in the Gaza Strip, the weakening of the Palestinian Authority, and the deepening split between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip do not serve Israel’s long-term interests. On the contrary, they only perpetuate the deep economic distress and the humanitarian crisis which Hamas is trying to extricate from this adversity through the help of international elements imposing responsibility on Israel.
Key International Players
Since apparently neither Israeli nor Hamas initiative for change in the situation is expected in the foreseeable future, and since it is clear that such a change is necessary in order to avoid a major explosive crisis in Gaza, it is appropriate to review the position and policies of the other players in the arena and to examine whether they will be able to act as a catalyst for this necessary strategic change.
First, the Palestinian Authority: President Mahmoud Abbas is waging a determined economic struggle against Gaza in order to weaken Hamas. He has stopped paying salaries to government officials in Gaza and stopped transferring funds to supply electricity and fuel to the Strip. Abbas unequivocally conditioned his return to Gaza as full PA control: “one authority, one law, and one weapon.” Abbas’ policy makes the Gaza issue to be even more complex for Israel since any Israeli humanitarian gesture in Gaza means disregard for the PA effort to diminish Hamas’ power.
Second, Egypt: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime is ready to conduct a dialogue with Hamas based on the organization’s willingness to cooperate with Egypt in its war against Salafist jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula. In fact, Egypt expresses willingness to deepen its involvement in the Gaza Strip and assume greater responsibility for establishing peace and stability, promoting reconciliation between the PA and Hamas, easing restrictions on the Gaza Strip, and promoting economic projects for the benefit of Gaza’s population. Although for the time being Egyptian efforts have not succeeded, for Israel, Egypt is certainly a potential strategic partner in regard to long-term arrangements in Gaza, but for this reason Israel must first formulate its own clear long-term policy toward the Gaza issue.
Third, the United States: it will be interesting to see whether President Donald Trump’s peace initiative, which is expected to be presented to the relevant parties within a few months, will reflect a U.S. understanding that the first step necessary to jumpstart a political process between Israel and the Palestinians must be dealing with the humanitarian situation in Gaza. For the time being, there is no sign that the U.S. is willing to intervene and pressure Israel or Hamas in any long-term aspect. What makes the U.S. role in the process very complicated is Trump’s decisions to move the American embassy to Jerusalem and to cut aid for Palestinian organizations. These two moves are perceived by the Palestinians as evidence that the U.S. has never been an honest broker in this conflict.
Prospects for a Gaza Deal
In the meantime, in the absence of local or international momentum for a fundamental change, the situation in the Gaza Strip is deteriorating not only from the economic aspects of poverty and unemployment, but also from a social and political standpoint. There are growing tensions and stress among the population, particularly noticed amid the young, relatively educated generations which grew up in Gaza. They feel angry and frustrated; many of them hold extreme worldviews towards Israel even compared to Hamas. The use of media and social networks, as well as the ability to influence international elements, creates a consciousness among the new generation that sees Israel as the main party responsible for the situation in Gaza, even more than in the past.
The opening conditions for the possibility of a long-term solution are even more complex and challenging since it is clear that the main Israeli pre-condition for any possible strategic change will be the demilitarization of Hamas from its strategic weapons (missiles, rockets, and terror-tunnels) or at least significantly limit its military buildup. It is also clear that Hamas sees its military power as key to its existence as a movement and as a regime. Demilitarization of Hamas could only be possible if a decisive and determined international coalition of regional stakeholders—headed by the United States, which has the power and the authority to persuade and lead the parties—gets involved. This coalition will actively lead such a process as part of a future arrangement that will involve the integration of Hamas into a unified Palestinian government headed by the PA. As long as Abbas, who is weak and not healthy, is still the head of the Palestinian Authority, the chances for that are extremely small.
The issue of the economy in Gaza will also play a major role in any potential long-term agreement. The combination of armed activity, political conflict, and a prolonged closure has so far exacted a large price from the Gaza Strip’s economy. A real long-term rehabilitation of Gaza will generate a wide overall change in the living conditions and the well-being of the population and hence will affect security and stability domestically and in the region.
From the purely economic aspect, that international coalition will lead the transformation of the Strip into a developing environment with advanced industrial zones, tourism, innovative transportation channels, and infrastructures that meet the needs of the residents. The possibilities for a significant change in the economy include the development of tourism along the seashore, the development of the service sector, the renewal of agricultural exports, and even the establishment of a high-tech industry, as happened in Ramallah and Nablus. Gaza has also an estimated 30-40 billion cubic meters (bcm) of offshore natural gas, which was discovered in the year 2000 and is potentially capable of supplying its energy needs for 20 years, but that requires large-scale investments.
International agencies, i.e. World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Development Bank, that have the reputation and the “know how” need to be involved in order to achieve conditions that will lead to real economic change. Minor, tactical symbolic steps will not achieve the desired goals and in the long term may lead to further deterioration. Small steps may evoke the illusion of progress, but they do not provide a real answer to the problem.
For Israel’s long-term interests, it is essential to construct a comprehensive plan, a sort of “Marshall Plan,” that will enable the Gaza Strip to achieve real economic reconstruction—without Hamas being able to oppose it or prevent it. That creates a dilemma for the Israeli government as to the Palestinian Authority’s potential consent for the creation of such a plan. It is expected that the PA will support such a move only by extending it to the areas of Judea and Samaria while demanding a renewal of a political process that will eventually lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state based on the borders of 1967. Although at present it seems unlikely that the Israeli government would agree to make even one step in this direction—with the expected U.S. peace plan and with a possible new coalition in the Israeli government that will follow the next coming elections in Israel—a resumption of serious negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians could be a reasonable scenario.
Therefore, the process of transforming the Gaza Strip into a developing region with positive momentum is very complex, although not impossible. This process may take a long time, and building trust requires a degree of patience and consistency among all the parties involved. To enable the initiation of this vital process, Israel must formulate principles for a long-term policy, including action from international actors, primarily the United States, to assist in doing so. For the sake of its own long-term national interests, Israel must be prepared to lead such a process proactively and resolutely, even if it encounters serious obstacles along the way.
About the author:
*Dr. Ronen Hoffman, a 2018-2019 Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, is an academician and former member of Knesset 2013-2015. He served as a member of Israel’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee as well as the chairman of the sub-committee on Foreign Affairs and Public Diplomacy.
This article was published by FPRI.