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The Next Round in Gaza

Middle East Report N°149 25 Mar 2014

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

The ceasefire between Israel and Gaza has eroded during the past several months and recently threatened to come to an abrupt end. The day after three members of Islamic Jihad were killed by Israel in a border clash on 11 March 2014, the group, apparently in coordination with Hamas, launched the largest salvo of rockets toward Israel since the last major escalation (known in Israel as Operation Pillar of Defence), in November 2012. In a little over a day’s mediation, Egypt restored quiet. But with Hamas’s fortunes declining and Gaza suffering its worst isolation and economic constriction in years, it is likely a matter of time until a flare-up escalates to major conflagration – unless the sides reach an understanding to extend a fragile quiet. Given Hamas’s isolation and worsening relations with Cairo, it is hard to imagine full implementation of the ceasefire Egypt brokered to end the 2012 fighting. But a rump deal, comprised of that ceasefire’s core elements, still could lessen the chance that Hamas and Israel will be dragged into a conflict neither currently desires, while helping both to secure advantages beyond the Gaza-Israel theatre.

Periodic escalations between Israel and Gaza militants are the rule, not the exception. Their shared border has witnessed regular, low-scale violence punctuated by short, intense escalations, typically when one or both sides feel the implicit rules of engagement have been undercut. Hamas and Israel have been headed toward such a clash since 3 July 2013, when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was deposed, and Cairo, as part of its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi-jihadis in Sinai, initiated a push to further isolate Gaza by closing the tunnels under its border with Egypt. Among Hamas’s limited tools for dealing with its downward spiral is directly participating in a military escalation in the hope that a new crisis would bring about at least temporary alleviation of the closure; call the world’s attention to the resultant economic distress; increase sympathy for the territory in Egypt and elsewhere; and embarrass Egypt’s leaders about their role in immiserating Gaza.

For the time being, Hamas has rejected this option, as it cannot afford a new round of hostilities. It is politically isolated and in severe economic distress. It can neither count on Egypt’s sympathies nor easily rearm during or after a future crisis. Hamas is hamstrung by the burdens of governance and by the fact that it would bear the brunt of any Israeli offensive. As a result, it chose a softer and less risky alternative this month: giving greater leeway to other factions that wish to attack Israel.

Islamic Jihad, with its massive retaliation for the killing of its militants, saw an opportunity to push to the forefront of the national struggle. In contrast with Hamas, it demonstrated continuing fidelity to the principle of resistance, and, by negotiating a ceasefire directly with Egypt, emerged from Hamas’s shadow, positioning itself as a regional player. Hamas too saw an advantage in the escalation: sending a message that Gaza would not remain passive in the face of isolation and misery.

Hamas leaders reasoned, accurately, that so long as they stayed out of the conflagration and the rocket fire was limited in distance and duration, a major operation would be avoided. Israel also calculated correctly, calibrating its pressure on Gaza so as to signal its seriousness to Hamas, but not strike it so hard as to provoke a much larger confrontation or threaten its control, to which Israel sees no desirable and realistic alternative. Such assessments are fraught with risk. Neither side currently wants a large-scale confrontation, and both hope to maintain or at least extend a fragile equilibrium, but the two major Israeli operations in the past six years, and numerous mini-escalations in between, demonstrate the likelihood of an eventual miscalculation.

If neither side wants to fight, neither do they intend to press for peace. Both are convinced the next round is coming, so will not take militarily disadvantageous steps. But while far from a robust ceasefire, they could unilaterally implement a more limited arrangement that satisfies core, short-terms needs. Gaza has three. What passes for normal life requires sufficient fuel, particularly diesel for electricity; building materials that enable economic activity and maintain basic infrastructure; and a reliably open Gaza-Egypt crossing at Rafah, for entry and egress of persons (goods are provided by Israel). For Israel, the key is stopping rockets. Neither side can get all it wants: Gazans likely will continue to find the border area off limits, fishing zones constricted and, most important, imports restricted and exports blocked – as they have been, increasingly, since the second intifada. Israel, under any scenario except an unlikely Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, cannot completely stop rockets that have been falling on its territory for nearly as long. However, both sides can regain what they in the past have demonstrated a willingness to live with.

A realistic assessment requires acknowledging that military operations will continue on both sides. The question, for now, is how to keep these within relatively narrow bounds, thus saving lives and creating space for dealing with broader political issues. The more Hamas can provide a semblance of Gaza’s basic needs, the better it will be able to enforce a political consensus among the factions to stop the vast majority of rockets and halt entirely the firing of those with the longest ranges and heaviest payloads. Its police can handle much of the rest, though they cannot prevent every freelancer attempting an attack without factional approval.

Meanwhile, Palestinians, Israelis and the international community can lay the groundwork for Palestinian reconciliation and rebuild the fundamentals of a peace process in which both sides have long since lost hope. More broadly, what is good for Gaza, and even Hamas, could turn out to be good as well for Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. With the U.S. looking to extend Israeli-Palestinian negotiations past April, Abbas could demand steps to ease Gaza’s closure and improve its economy as a condition. That would improve his standing in Gaza, especially important now that his detractors within Fatah, particularly those from Gaza, are openly campaigning against him. Israel, should it accept Abbas’s demands, could earn credit for taking action that reduces the risk of a new escalation, while lowering the other costs it might have to pay to extend talks.

In all things Israeli-Palestinian, even modest goals are highly ambitious, and in Gaza, doubly so. Within a fluid and evolving region, Gaza is a venue where various states and actors play out their allegiances and rivalries, including Salafis of several stripes; Egypt; the Muslim Brotherhood in the form of its local affiliate, Hamas; Iran; Hizbollah; the Gulf states; and claimants to power within Fatah. It is a central impediment to a more durable ceasefire agreement that while neither Israel nor Hamas now has what it wants, both have what matters most to them in the short term. Israel has a ceasefire, albeit imperfectly upheld; Hamas has control of Gaza, even if under difficult conditions. Neither wishes to give even a little more for what it already has. But if they do not, both could lose what they now possess.

Jerusalem/Gaza City/Brussels, 25 March 2014
 
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