by Yossi Mekelberg
There is something in the way Israel and Hamas engage in Gaza which is reminiscent of two bullies in the school yard who, before they come to their senses and talk through their differences, first feel compelled to use their fists to bloody each other.
Over the past weeks hostile incidents have increased on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. The form these hostilities take is not unfamiliar, and neither side has any interest in a full-blown conflict. Instead, Hamas is trying to break with the status quo by launching dozens of incendiary balloons into Israel, causing fires and burning fields; and Israel is reacting with air strikes on what it describes as Hamas targets, and in addition has halted all financial aid from being transferred to the Gaza Strip and prevented diesel fuel shipments to the only power station in the blockaded territory. Both measures are bound to cause further hardship to the two million Palestinians in Gaza, including a reduction in their power supply to three or four hours a day, making the lives of ordinary Gazans even more difficult than they already are.
On this occasion, as on quite a few others in the past, Egypt has assumed the role of the mediator attempting to prevent escalation, with Qatar weighing in, desperately trying to prevent what might lead to another round of bloodshed. Both sides know from experience that days, even weeks, of fighting won’t end in a decisive victory for either, only some tactical gains at best. Experience also teaches us that this deadly ritual always ends with many Palestinian casualties and the destruction of infrastructure in the tiny piece of Hamas-controlled territory; while Hamas keeps firing rockets and missiles deep inside Israel, disrupting life there, though with limited number of casualties thanks to Israel’s effective air-defence systems, until another cease-fire is brokered.
Egypt was quick to send senior intelligence officials to meet Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders to try and de-escalate the situation; however, it will take more than leaning on the leadership of these organisations to ensure long-term calm along the border with Israel. For Hamas especially, its options are to either demonstrate to the people of Gaza that it can improve the dire conditions they have endured since it came to power in 2006, or else fashion itself as the last Palestinian movement to continue the armed struggle against Israel. And even then, its leaders can only hope that the long-suffering population will still stay loyal to them.
Nevertheless, the Hamas 2020 model is mainly a status quo organisation that would like to consolidate its control over the Gaza Strip in the hope that if and when elections are held it will make substantial electoral gains there, as well as in the West Bank, which at the moment is firmly controlled by Fatah. As frustrating for Israel as are the incendiary balloons, especially for its citizens living close to the border, they are mainly a disruptive irritant; unlike the strategic threat represented by Hezbollah’s capabilities on the country’s northern border with Lebanon, these balloons are more of a reminder by Hamas that it is mainly interested in the implementation of understandings reached earlier this year that Israel will ease its blockade in exchange for calm along the Gazan border. Hamas, for now, is refraining from the use of firearms, including rockets and missiles, to signal that it wants to avoid raising the threshold of violence, but nevertheless is keen to remind all concerned that the current situation is unacceptable, for the organization itself and the people of Gaza.
For Hamas to maintain its power base in Gaza it needs to improve living conditions in this tiny piece of land, which is one of the most densely populated areas on earth, and it can’t do that unless Israel eases the blockade and Egypt allows more people and goods to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing. On the face of it there is nothing unreasonable in what Hamas is asking. The Gaza Strip has never recovered from several rounds of hostilities in which infrastructure has been partly or completely destroyed, let alone the horrendous consequences of 14 years of blockade. In their meeting with the Egyptian officials who visited Gaza this week, Hamas asked for controversial dual-use goods to be allowed to enter the Strip, for restrictions on trade to be eased by issuing permits for up to 100,000 Gazans to work in Israel and the West Bank, for their fishing zone to be enlarged, and for the maintaining of the continuous and predictable movement of people inside and outside Gaza; and together with UNRWA to enable projects that will create jobs and improve lives.
While the interests of both Israel and Hamas favor an easing of the blockade in exchange for calm along the borders, not only to avoid further conflict but also to create a culture of dialogue and long-term coexistence ranging from a permanent cease-fire to a permanent peace, the continuing distrust and hostile rhetoric serve only to further undermine those mutual aspirations. Israel still refuses to accept that Hamas is a political fact of life, even if an undesirable one that it has little hope of eliminating militarily, and that it is not going to be challenged from within Gaza no matter how miserable Israel makes the lives of its people. Moreover, it has also not faced the fact that Hamas is not the same movement it was when it came to power, but is now a much more pragmatic one despite its rigid ideological framework.
In this context both Israel and Hamas, with the proactive involvement of the international community, must ensure that the security and wellbeing of Gaza’s people does not become a bargaining chip and that both sides, despite their mutual suspicions, learn to build a constructive and peaceful coexistence.
Article first published on Arab News.
Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg