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Stopping an Unwanted War in Gaza
Stopping an Unwanted War in Gaza
Israel's military launched strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip 25 March 2019, the army and witnesses said, hours after a rocket from the Palestinian enclave hit a house and wounded seven Israelis. Mahmud Hams / AFP

Stopping an Unwanted War in Gaza

As in 2014, Hamas and Israel appear close to a conflagration that neither party desires – though now a shaky ceasefire seems to have taken hold. Crisis Group’s Israel/Palestine analyst Tareq Baconi explains how the parties got to the brink and how they can step back.

What happened?

In the early morning of 25 March a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed in Mishmeret, north of Tel Aviv, destroying a family house and wounding seven Israelis, including a twelve-year-old girl and two infants. The rocket launch came not long after two other rockets were fired from Gaza toward Tel Aviv, on 14 March, causing no injuries. Israel had responded to the earlier attack by bombing 100 targets used primarily for military purposes by Palestinian factions, as well as empty buildings, throughout the strip. The largest of those factions is Hamas, which took control of Gaza in 2007, prompting Israel to impose a blockade on the coastal enclave. The Islamist movement remains the de facto governing authority and, alongside other Palestinian factions such as Islamic Jihad, leads Palestinian military attacks against Israel.

Despite the 14 March response’s scale, it caused no fatalities and four injuries. It appeared calculated to deter further rockets while avoiding an escalation between Israel and the Palestinian factions in Gaza. Israel declared that the rockets that landed near Tel Aviv had been fired in error. (Israel believes it maintains deterrence by proclaiming zero tolerance for projectiles coming from Gaza, whether launched intentionally or not.) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government appeared to prefer not to engage in another military campaign in Gaza, at least until after Israel’s 9 April elections.

The rocket launched at Mishmeret seemed, at first, more likely to lead to a significant escalation, though no Palestinian faction assumed responsibility. For one thing, the mere fact that the rocket was fired showed that Israel had failed to deter factions in Gaza with its 14 March response. Secondly, the political pressure on the Netanyahu government to react powerfully was stronger this time because of the attack’s seriousness – this rocket travelled farther than previous ones and caused civilian casualties. Rocket fire at civilian centres, whether targeted or indiscriminate, is a war crime. Thirdly, the forthcoming elections, which served as a restraint on 14 March, provided reason to retaliate on this occasion, as the government wanted to demonstrate that it could restore deterrence.

In a joint statement, [Hamas and other Palestinian factions] warned Israel that they would respond sharply to any escalation.

Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he was cutting short his trip to Washington, where he was scheduled to speak at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference and attend a White House dinner today. He promised to “respond forcefully”. His electoral challengers from the right had already criticised what they say is his past restraint in the face of rockets from Gaza. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, for instance, said Netanyahu’s reactions have “caused Hamas to stop fearing Israel”. Former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who is Netanyahu’s main rival in this election, and is running from closer to the centre, similarly lambasted the prime minister for failing to respond “aggressively and forcefully” to previous attacks.

Anticipating major bombardment, Hamas and other Palestinian factions went underground. In a joint statement, however, they warned Israel that they would respond sharply to any escalation. In the past twelve years, since the blockade was imposed, Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip, whether large-scale incursions or efforts to break up popular protests, have also entailed war crimes. Israel closed all the crossings into the Gaza Strip, called up reserves, including two armor and infantry brigades, and restricted sea access for Gaza fishermen until further notice.

Why did it happen?

Hamas and Israel have been engaged in indirect ceasefire negotiations under Egyptian and UN mediation since July of last year. The talks produced a November ceasefire agreement: Hamas committed to end rocket fire into Israel and promised to restrain the intensity of the Great March of Return, the protests in the Gaza-Israel fence area that began on 30 March 2018. Israel in turn said it would extend the nautical limit for Gaza fishermen and agree to allow Qatar to pay Gaza government salaries and supply fuel to Gaza’s power plant. The parties agreed that after the immediate risk of escalation was averted, they would take measures toward a sustainable resolution of Gaza’s economic challenges. Yet while Hamas has demonstrated its capacity to restrain the protests, Israel has shown little willingness to advance the ceasefire beyond the initial agreement to allow Qatari assistance. Since November, the talks have stalled without progress toward fulfilling Hamas’s central demand – that Israel loosen the economic stranglehold on the strip.

There is a widespread belief that a military assault on the strip is inevitable after the Israeli elections.

Hamas has long used rocket fire as a means of pressuring the Israeli government to return to negotiations and to grant concessions in Gaza. After the two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv ten days ago, the ceasefire discussions resumed. But, if rocket fire has been somewhat effective in bringing Israel to the table, it has largely failed to alleviate the blockade. From 14 March, the Great March of Return Higher Committee, which includes Hamas, expanded its “night disturbances” – whereby demonstrators blast loud noises and explode devices close to Gaza’s periphery in order to disturb Israeli civilians and generate pressure on the Israeli authorities. The latest rocket was likely an attempt by Hamas to force Netanyahu to choose between fulfilling Israel’s ceasefire obligations or suffering greater embarrassment among his political rivals and constituents. Hamas believes its hand is strong at present because the Israeli government wants to avoid an escalation ahead of the elections. In this sensitive period, Hamas assumes it has the best chance of pushing Israel to compromise without getting dragged into a full-scale war.

Then there is the reality that Gaza’s economic straits are increasingly dire. The Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, dominated by Hamas’s main rival Fatah, is exacerbating the enclave’s plight by imposing sanctions as a means of undermining the Islamist movement’s governance. Sources describe the strip’s economic suffering as “unprecedented”, due to these restrictions, giving Hamas’s armed wing incentive to seek some means of alleviating the pressure. The rocket fire might well have been one such means.

It is a very short-term strategy. As sources from Gaza tell Crisis Group, there is a widespread belief that a military assault on the strip is inevitable after the Israeli elections, given that all the main contenders are running on platforms that proclaim readiness to respond with force to similar provocations in the future. In the view of Gaza militants, the rocket fired at Mishmeret reminds the incoming Israeli government of Hamas’s military capacity and removes Israel’s ability to choose when to escalate. The idea appears to be that the rocket might provide urgent relief from particularly acute economic difficulties, gaining Gaza two weeks of respite and Hamas a bit of political credit. Furthermore, threatening to escalate at a time that is inconvenient for Israel, the factions believe, could enhance their negotiating power and undermine Israel’s ability to decide when the next war will be.

What else helps explain the rocket incident?

The context is not limited to the ceasefire discussions. Hamas and other Palestinian factions view Israeli policies elsewhere within the Occupied Palestinian Territories as provocative violations of Palestinian rights. Particularly notable are the tensions around the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where a standoff between Israel and Muslim religious authorities over access to the Bab al-Rahma/Gate of Mercy building could further mobilise Palestinian protests. In the West Bank, Israeli army incursions have gathered pace over the past few months, as have Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians and Palestinian attacks on settlers and soldiers. The economy is shaky, following Washington’s decision to defund aid projects in the Palestinian territories and Israel’s choice to withhold the PA’s tax revenue. Hamas views all these policies as paving the way for President Donald Trump to roll out his proposal for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinian factions see these factors, alongside Israel’s refusal to honour its ceasefire obligations, as an escalation in their own right.

Hamas officials told Crisis Group that they faced a choice between allowing Gaza to descend into chaos [...] or maintaining a firm grip on the strip.

In this particular instance, however, more immediate events played a role. On 24 March, in the Ketziot prison in southern Israel, Hamas prisoners stabbed two guards as they were being transferred to another location. The ensuing clashes left twelve Palestinian prisoners wounded, with several of them taken to a nearby hospital. The tensions in Israel’s prisons have been building for many months, caused primarily by Israel’s decision to install systems that would prevent communication between prisoners and the outside world through mobile phones that are smuggled into the prison. Israel claims that it put in the blocking devices after catching Hamas prisoners using a contraband phone to orchestrate West Bank attacks. Palestinian factions saw this measure, along with Israel’s decision to disperse prisoners across several wards, as aggressive. Palestinians have long accused Israel of using repressive and often violent tactics against prisoners, including through armed raids, the use of pepper spray and gas grenades to deal with prisoner populations. Prisoners have traditionally played an important role within Palestinian factions, and have a major say in these movements’ decisions even while jailed. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been vocal in protesting what they view as repression of prisoner rights and have promised to retaliate. In statements issued after the latest rocket fire, Palestinian factions in Gaza reiterated solidarity with the prisoners, ahead of a prisoner hunger strike that is planned for 7 April, suggesting that the missile was also a response to the Ketziot clashes.

Within Gaza, where many people cannot afford basic goods, the economic predicament presents the Hamas government with significant challenges. Popular unrest erupted last week under the banner, “We Want to Live”. Though the protests were largely peaceful and civilian-led, Hamas cracked down brutally, beating up and imprisoning activists and journalists amid strong condemnation from human rights organisations. Hamas, for its part, viewed the protests as an existential threat, believing that the PA had instigated them to force its government’s collapse. Hamas officials told Crisis Group that they faced a choice between allowing Gaza to descend into chaos, at a time when both war with Israel and the Trump administration’s peace proposal seemed imminent, or maintaining a firm grip on the strip ahead of various anniversaries around which Palestinians are planning to mobilise and form a united front in the ceasefire discussions with Israel. Hamas has since announced many prisoners’ release. Yet the economic and political causes of the protests have not gone away, and the crackdown has only added to Gazans’ list of grievances.

What could happen next?

On 25 March, the Israeli government began bombing locations throughout the Gaza Strip. These included both military sites used by the Palestinian factions in Gaza as well as commercial and civilian sites. Even if he prefers to avoid an escalation, Netanyahu had to show a strong hand in order to rebuild deterrence and deflect his political rivals’ criticisms. There is a chance that he might employ the strategy from two weeks prior, hitting hard to seek to establish deterrence but in a manner that would allow Hamas and other factions to limit their response. But the stakes are now much higher, and the factions quickly began firing back. The line Netanyahu now has to walk to satisfy his constituents and rivals without risking an escalation is much thinner. As in 2014, Israel and Hamas are at the brink of a violent conflagration that neither party desires. Egypt continues to mediate between the parties in an effort to contain the escalation and reinstate a ceasefire, which at best looks shaky.

Israel’s lethal response to previous protests [...] underscores the possibility that there will be many civilian casualties in Gaza.

If, as Gaza militants hope, the rocket fired at Mishmeret restarts ceasefire discussions while pre-empting an escalation, if only until after the Israeli elections, there are still several possible triggers of violence on the horizon. Foremost are two major anniversaries: 30 March, the one-year marker of the Great March of Return, which coincides with Land Day, when Palestinians commemorate six Palestinian citizens of Israel who were killed while protesting government confiscation of their lands in 1976; and 15 May, when Palestinians remember the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, their mass flight and expulsion from what is now Israel in 1948. On the first anniversary, 30 March, the Higher Committee has called for a “million-person march” in the Gaza Strip and across Israel, the West Bank and the Palestinian diaspora in Syria and Lebanon. Israel’s lethal response to previous protests, which a recent UN Commission of Inquiry has revealed could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, underscores the possibility that there will be many civilian casualties in Gaza, and elsewhere, risking further destabilisation.

What should be done?

For the past twelve years, the situation in the Gaza Strip has followed similar dynamics. While Israel seeks “calm” on its southern front, it has been unwilling to relax the blockade’s chokehold. In ceasefire discussions that typically follow short-term threats, such as rocket fire, or major escalations, Israel entertains policies of easing access for people and goods in and out of the strip in order to stabilise the coastal enclave. Yet, as past ceasefires have shown, after the immediate threat of major conflict subsides, Israel typically fails to sustain the momentum toward carrying out such agreements, thereby reinforcing the dynamic of short-term escalation, followed by ceasefire discussions, non-implementation and new flare-ups.

To avoid an immediate confrontation, Israel and Hamas, with Egyptian and UN mediation, should build on the current shaky ceasefires and encourage the parties to return to the implementation of the November ceasefire arrangement. Both sides recommitted to that agreement after the two rockets landed in Tel Aviv on 14 March. This agreement had initiated six months of Qatari funding and fuel transfer into the Gaza Strip as urgent relief. The six-month period was originally planned to end in April, and was to be followed by secondary and tertiary phases once the risk of war had passed. The latter phases were to include measures to restore Gaza’s electricity, increase the number of Palestinians allowed in and out of the strip, expand the entry of merchandise, extend the range off the coast in which Gazans can fish, and generally ease the blockade. Unless the parties adopt these policies, within a political framework that addresses the humanitarian calamity in Gaza, the short-term escalations are likely to recur, and, eventually, lead to a new war.