Why Gaza’s status quo is unlikely to change

In Gaza, despite Hamas’ pacification, a shift to nonviolent protests, and UN warnings of collapse, Israel shows little intention of lifting the blockade.

By Tareq Baconi

Palestinians protesting on the fence with Israel during the 22nd Friday of the Great Return March, August 24, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)
Palestinians protesting on the fence with Israel during the 22nd Friday of the Great Return March, August 24, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

Ceasefire discussions between Israel and Hamas appear to be progressing, following an increase in hostilities in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have agreed to adopt “new tactics” and curb potential militarization in the Great Return March protests, in exchange for an easing of the blockade. However, the coming days and weeks are likely to remain fragile.

These ongoing developments in the Gaza Strip are testing the limits of the dynamic that has shaped relations between Hamas and Israel since a stifling blockade was first imposed on Gaza eleven years ago. This dynamic has generally taken the form of an equilibrium of belligerence, whereby both Israel and Hamas rely on force to negotiate short-term gains while avoiding political or ideological concessions.

Since 2007, Hamas and other factions have relied on rocket fire and tunnel attacks to protest the hermetic blockade of the Gaza Strip, which they view as an act of war that legitimates the use of force in self-defense. Ostensibly in response to these rockets, Israel carries out military incursions, extrajudicial targeted assassinations, and has, so far, inflicted three devastating assaults on the territory.

The dynamic, which is largely defined by what happens on the battlefield, has given way to indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel. Through various rounds of ceasefire and related discussions, Israel has pursued what it calls “calm for calm,” whereby it alleges to cease military operations in the Gaza Strip if Hamas stops rocket fire and tunnel attacks. Hamas, on the other hand, has conditioned such calm on the lifting of the blockade.

The two parties have unofficially operated within this framework for eleven years, during which Hamas has become increasingly effective at policing resistance to ensure the longevity of ceasefires. Israel, meanwhile, has failed to sufficiently ease the blockade, relying instead on what its security establishment openly refers to as “mowing the lawn.”

Shortly after Israel’s last such operation in the summer of 2014, a report issued by the state comptroller berated the government for failing to develop an effective strategy toward the coastal enclave. Inadvertently, the report highlighted that, for the Israeli government, the status quo around the Gaza Strip is in fact quite sustainable and did not merit any long-term strategy.

A Palestinian laborer works amongst the rubble of destroyed Palestinian houses, damaged during the 2014 war on Gaza, September 9, 2015. (Emad Nassar/Flash90)
A Palestinian laborer works amongst the rubble of destroyed Palestinian houses, damaged during the 2014 war on Gaza, September 9, 2015. (Emad Nassar/Flash90)

In other words, Gaza’s resistance front does not present Israel with any real threat and, accordingly, there is no compelling reason to change the present situation by, for instance, lifting the blockade. Under Hamas’ governance, Israel has cultivated a perfect fig leaf that justifies its policies of separating the Gaza Strip from the remainder of the Palestinian territories — policies that can be traced back to the early days of Israel’s creation. By containing Hamas in Gaza and adopting military tactics to manage the resistance, Israel has secured a situation whereby it can indefinitely maintain its hold over the Palestinian territories without having to deal with the political questions underpinning such control.

Nonetheless, three crucial developments today are testing this equilibrium of belligerence and the sustainability of Gaza’s blockade.

The first is the challenge arising from Gaza’s civil society. Against the backdrop of a failed Palestinian leadership, civil society in Gaza has taken its own initiative and mobilized around the core tenants of Palestinian rights, including the right of return. The Great March of Return, now in its 31st week, comprises weekly protests calling for the return of the refugees to their homes, now located in Israel.

While march organizers insist that their demonstrations are nonviolent and have remained largely so since they began, Israel has used lethal force in response, primarily in the form of sniper attacks.

The Great March of Return challenges the dynamic with Israel because, unlike Hamas’ rockets, marchers are bringing attention to Gaza and to Israel’s illegal tactics through peaceful means. In seeking to mitigate this challenge, Israel has sought to present the protests as an invasion of its borders, intentionally misrepresenting the nature of the fence that separates Gaza from Israel. Israel has also relied on disproportionate force to militarize the protests and encourage their disintegration into violence. To date, Israeli snipers have killed around 200 Palestinians and injured close to 20,000 others.

Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar inspects the border with Egypt from the Gaza Strip town of Rafah, July 6, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar inspects the border with Egypt from the Gaza Strip town of Rafah, July 6, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The second challenge to the status quo arises from Hamas itself. In March of last year, Hamas issued a new political document that underscored the movement’s acceptance of the 1967 borders with Israel, and the creation of a Palestinian State with Jerusalem as its capital. The document was widely seen as Khaled Meshal’s final effort to articulate Hamas’ demands and create an opening for engagement with the international community before leaving his leadership position.

The principles outlined in the political document were not new. Hamas has long indicated a willingness to accept the 1967 lines, even as successive Israeli governments refused to do so. Yehya Sinwar, Meshal’s successor, has sustained this position and expanded efforts to publicize the movement’s goals. In a notable interview, Sinwar articulated Hamas’ outlook directly to the Israeli public and underscored Hamas’ desire to avoid war with Israel, noting the need to lift the blockade for calm to prevail.

Under Sinwar’s leadership, Hamas has come out in full support of the Great March of Return, indicating Hamas’s endorsement of nonviolent popular resistance while simultaneously threatening to politicize and arm the protests. This paradox demonstrates Sinwar’s conviction that armed force, while perhaps undesirable, is also unavoidable as a means of securing short-term concessions from Israel.

Hamas’ strategic use of violence was most apparent during of the official period of the Great March of Return, from March until May, when Hamas fired no rockets. This was a notable strategic decision to hold fire, despite Israel’s killing of tens of Palestinians and injuring thousands more. Hamas resumed its rocket fire only in August, after indirect negotiations with Israel had already begun under UN and Egyptian mediation — a clear example of using the battlefield to ensure a solid bargaining position.

Teargas canisters fired by Israeli troops fall over Palestinians during a protest at the Gaza Strip's fence with Israel, Friday, July 13, 2018. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Teargas canisters fired by Israeli troops fall over Palestinians during a protest at the Gaza Strip’s fence with Israel, Friday, July 13, 2018. (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)

However, Hamas’ diplomatic overtures have so far proven futile. Israel’s narrative that Hamas is a terrorist organization bent on its destruction has allowed it to sustain policies of non-engagement at all costs and to continue circumventing Hamas’s political demands, including those supported by the international community. Israel’s conditions for engagement with Hamas are full disarmament and commitment to the same principles as the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the absence of such concessions, which would meet Israel’s desire for full Palestinian pacification under its unyielding control, the blockade remains the most effective means of dealing with Hamas. Another military operation in Gaza, while possibly unappetizing for the risk-averse Netanyahu government, would also not be too unacceptable a price to pay to sustain the status quo.

The third, and possibly most powerful, challenge to the prevailing dynamic is Gaza’s steady and heart-wrenching collapse. The UN has already declared 2020 to be the year that the Gaza Strip will become uninhabitable. More recently, a World Bank report warned that Gaza’s economy is in “free fall,” with every second person living in poverty. A widespread humanitarian catastrophe, in the form of a famine or an outbreak of cholera, would swiftly turn the world’s attention toward Gaza.

With full support from the Trump administration, Israel’s government is working to mitigate this challenge by lobbying for humanitarian assistance to Gaza, even while Palestinians suffer from U.S. funding cuts in other sectors. However, while aid is vital to ease Gaza’s suffering, Israel’s intervention is merely a cynical attempt to maintain the sustainability of the status quo with little financial or political cost. The only way to end the suffering in Gaza in a sustainable and just manner is through an unconditional lifting of the blockade.

Indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel are unfolding against this backdrop. Netanyahu recently warned Hamas that unless the marches cease, Israel will deal “powerful blows” on Gaza, but also reportedly clarified that his government does not have any intention in toppling Hamas. Familiar tit-for-tat escalations reveal the power of the battlefield in shaping the negotiations. With greater humanitarian support into Gaza now likely, Israel is well-placed to continue denying Hamas’s political overtures and to overlook the capacity of leaders such as Sinwar to push through a settlement that could mitigate the loss of life and alleviate the economic hardships in Gaza.

The dynamic of the past decade appears quite robust. Until one of the three challenges – popular resistance, Hamas’s pacification, humanitarian collapse – or another unpredictable event tips the balance, Israel is likely to remain committed to the status quo. For the demonstrators in Gaza, this promises a grim prospect, not only in terms of the blockade, but also with regard to being met with live fire as they protest for their inalienable Palestinian rights, and inevitably, an escalation into another devastating attack.

Tareq Baconi is the author of Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance (Stanford University Press, 2018) and a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. This article first appeared on Palestine Square, the blog of the Institute for Palestine Studies USA.