Israel, Gaza stuck in each other’s throat

As the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip continues to deteriorate, Israel and the Hamas leadership know that there is no military solution and that efforts must be focused to reduce poverty.

al-monitor Israeli firemen extinguish a fire in a field near the Israel-Gaza border that was reportedly caused by an incendiary balloon launched from the Gaza Strip, Aug. 24, 2020. Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images.

Aug 25, 2020

“You have no idea what we would pay to have Gaza sawn off from the mainland, pushed and swept away from us into the wide open Mediterranean,” a senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity recently. “Not just us. The Egyptians, too, would like this to happen as would the Palestinians in Ramallah who would not touch Gaza with a ten-foot pole,” the source added, arguing that Israel’s military occupation of the Gaza Strip following the 1967 Six-Day War was one of the cardinal mistakes in the history of the state. “[Egyptian] President Anwar Sadat did not even demand the return of Gaza within the framework of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and even had Israel tried to force him to take it back, he would have refused.”

The Gaza Strip defies military or diplomatic solutions, as everyone in Israel and everywhere else knows. That does not deter successive Israeli politicians from pledging to “solve the problem.” Late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005 and threw the keys into the sea. As head of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu promised that once in power as prime minister, he would instruct the military to topple the Hamas regime, rid the enclave of terrorists and restore calm. Various defense ministers made similar claims. Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Liberman declared that if appointed he would present Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh with a 48-hour ultimatum to return the Israeli civilians and bodies of soldiers held by his organization, or else. Yamina leader Naftali Bennett presented grandiose plans to “pulverize” Hamas and bring it to its knees once appointed to the job. After taking office in 2019, the chief of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Aviv Kochavi announced a policy of “lethality” on Gaza.

They all made promises, but once on the job were forced to accept the inevitable conclusion — that there is no military solution to the Gaza problem. Even leaders of Blue and White party Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, both former IDF chiefs turned politicians, goaded Netanyahu during three election campaigns over the monthly cash deliveries that Qatar transfers to Hamas under Israeli auspices, dubbing it “protection” money. Currently, as ministers of defense and foreign affairs, respectively, they have accepted that the “protection” money is what keeps Gazans’ heads just above the waterline and maintains the fragile, relative calm on the piece of the most densely populated land on earth where no Israeli would survive longer than two weeks.

When Israel declared independence in 1948, 150,000 Arabs lived in the Gaza Strip. By 1967, when Israel conquered the enclave, there were already 400,000 residents there. In 1994, after the signing of the Oslo Accord and the return of PLO leader Yasser Arafat and his people from exile in Tunis to the West Bank and Gaza, the population was about 900,000. The population had grown to almost 1.4 million by the time Israel disengaged from Gaza in 2005, and now numbers close to 2 million.

Forecasts for 2035 put that figure at 3 million, crammed into a strip of land 40 kilometers (25 miles) long and 5-12 kilometers (3-7.5 miles) wide. Most Gaza residents are still defined as refugees living in one of the poorest, and some would say most miserable, places on earth. The enclave’s southern gate to Egypt is closed, as is the northern one to Israel. The Mediterranean is to its west, and to its east the flourishing Israeli communities of the Negev Desert that are bombarded daily with explosive-laden balloons dispatched from Gaza, and occasional rockets. The IDF responds with symbolic retaliation designed mainly to defuse public anger in Israel but to avoid escalation into full-scale war.

“The Hamas takeover is Gaza’s greatest tragedy,” a former senior security source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “After Israel withdrew Gaza was supposed to become a pilot for Israeli-Palestinian peace. All they had to do was recognize Israel and accept the 2002 principles of the Quartet — the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union — and launch a massive rehabilitation campaign. Instead, they turned Gaza into a giant terror base and invested all their energy in manufacturing rockets and other weapons. Gazans know they can bring about an end to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip within five minutes by simply rejecting terrorism and recognizing agreements with Israel. Until that happens, the despair there will keep growing.”

Israel, unfortunately, so to speak, cannot determine who will lead the Palestinians, but there is some hope nonetheless. “Today’s Hamas is not the Hamas of the year 2000,” a senior Israeli military official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Events happening in the world also influence Gaza, the era of social networks is forcing the regime to heed residents’ concerns.” The goal that Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar has now set is “not to destroy Israel, as it was since Hamas was established, but to save the residents of Gaza and ensure their welfare. That makes the situation less explosive and more manageable.”

Israel, too, has undergone a sobering process. According to many military and defense figures, Israel no longer has any motivation to unseat Hamas or replace it. “There is no alternative to Hamas, the Palestinian Authority will not go there because they want nothing to do with Gaza, and Hamas is the only thing averting total chaos there. We are learning to deal with them, as they are learning to deal with us. Sinwar is listening to his residents and right now they are his top priority, not the struggle against Israel,” the senior military official said.

Israel’s current tactic is to keep Hamas “on an even keel,” just as one balances the blood sugar level of a diabetic. “There is no shame in fighting poverty in Gaza,” a top IDF officer admits on condition of anonymity. “Our interest is to alleviate poverty there. Currently, with 65% unemployment among those aged 20 to 30, the demographic that will shape Gaza’s future, the despair just keeps growing. They are not marrying and having children because they cannot support families, the incidence of suicide is high, as is the addiction to drugs and sleeping pills. Both we and Sinwar have an interest in changing the situation,” he said.

The IDF, as previously reported by Al-Monitor, would like to allow more Gazans to work in Israel. “Every Gazan who works in Israel makes 400 Israeli shekels [$118] a day, six times the average wage in Gaza. Each worker feeds 10 people. In total, this pours $250 million dollars into the Gaza economy each year, which is about 12% of its gross domestic product. The security risk [of allowing in workers] is relatively low, and it is a risk that Israel can afford to take because the potential benefit is huge — giving hope to the Gazans locked inside the Gaza Strip, providing them with a horizon of sorts. When they have something to lose, they look at life differently,” the top IDF officer said.

Meanwhile, tensions have been escalating along the Gaza border in recent days. The incendiary balloons are back, the IDF retaliates with nightly raids, Sinwar is demanding additional concessions and more Qatari money comes in each month. More of the same. The Gaza Strip and Israel are stuck facing each other — each one a bone in the throat of the other, with no change in the offing.

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