E07 — Gaza Is Heating Up Again. Why?

Hi everyone and welcome to The Israel Podcast. I’m Avishay Ben Sasson Gordis and this week I’ll be talking about “Why Gaza is Warming up Again”.

As you all probably know, three years ago, in the summer of 2014 Israel fought a war in Gaza. What started out as operation “protective edge” ended up lasting more than 50 days, and costing the lives of 73 Israelis, mostly IDF soldiers, and roughly 2200 Palestinians, 936 of whom were confirmed combatants. I use this weird turn of phrase since the question of how many of those killed were non-combatants is a highly contested one. Since that summer, both Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian organization that controls the Gaza strip, have made it clear that they wish to avoid another round of fighting. Yet, in the past few weeks tensions around Gaza are flaring again and talk of another war in Gaza is in the air again.

Before I attempt to explain how we got here, here is some background that might help with the story. Naturally, I won’t be able to cover everything and I definitely won’t be able to speak to all possible perspectives, but I’ll do my best to do this very touchy subject the justice it deserves.

The Gaza Strip is a tiny and densely populated piece of land in Israel’s southwest border. When I say tiny, I mean really tiny. It’s 25 miles long, and its width varies between 3.5 and a little less than 8 miles. This space is home to 1.8 million Palestinians more than half of which are refugees or decedents of refugees. More than half of Gaza’s inhabitants are under 18 years old, 40% are unemployed, and at least 70% rely on welfare funds to some degree. Between 1967 when Israel conquered the strip from Egypt, and the Oslo accords of 1994, Israel fully controlled the strip, and several settlements were established there. In 2005 Israel dismantled these settlements and withdrew its military from the area in a unilateral move known as the disengagement. However, Israel retained control of the comings and goings from the strip and movement of individuals and goods in and out of Gaza was highly regulated. This was due mainly to security concerns, as Gaza positioned itself for decades as the ground of extreme forms of resistance to Israeli presence. Both Intifada’s — the one that began in 1987 and the one that began in late 2000, started in Gaza. And while the second Intifada was dominated by suicide attacks in Israel that came from the West Bank the fighting in Gaza had its distinct flavors. Most notably the firing of rockets and mortars into the settlements and into Israel proper.

Exactly ten years ago, In June of 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from Gaza, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic movement, overthrew the Palestinian Authority’s rule in Gaza and established its own government there. This was the result of over a year of violent internal clashes that resulted when President Abbas and his secular Fatah movement tried to prevent Hamas from governing after Hamas won the elections for the Palestinian legislature. So in short, political battle spilled to the streets and Hamas with its military wing set up to battle Israel, took over Gaza in a matter of days. Since then, the Palestinian Authority has been in control of the West Bank and Gaza was held by Hamas. And while the Palestinian Authority negotiates peace with Israel intermittently, and conducts security cooperation with the IDF, Hamas and the other terror organizations that operate in Gaza have been preparing for war with Israel, and occasionally fighting it. Until 2009 the pattern was of fairly regular peaks in which fighting flared between Israel and the Gaza organizations. Following operation Cast Led, from 2009 onwards, the pattern changed and has been characterized by a large conflict every few years, and smaller skirmishes every so often. The latest of these conflicts/wars was the one that happened, almost by mistake in 2014.

What do I mean by saying that the 2014 Gaza war happened “almost by mistake”? Well… Israel didn’t set out to fight a war in Gaza that summer, nor did Hamas. Growing political and economic pressures on Hamas, combined with an escalating circle of violence which I’ll shortly recount led to the outbreak of violence. Once it started, Hamas was determined not to end the fighting without some payoff for the price it felt it paid. Hamas’ troubles began after its leadership experienced a crisis with two of its main supporters — Iran and Syria — when Hamas leadership would not back the Syrian regime in its civil war. Hamas leadership was kicked out of Syria and settled in the small Gulf state of Qatar, and funding from Iran was cut. The situation worsened after the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regime — which was very close to Hamas — was overthrown by the military in 2013. The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt shut down almost completely since, and is still mostly closed, and the Egyptian military began a campaign to shut down the tunnels that connected Gaza to Egypt and that played a critical role in Gaza’s economy. After Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza when an attack tunnel from Gaza was discovered on Israeli soil, the situation in Gaza became especially dire. The collapse of inter-palestinian reconciliation talks, shut off the final channel that may have relieved the stress in Gaza. As a result, when the summer of 2014 approached Hamas was isolated and in economic crisis. The kidnap and murder of three Israeli youths in the West Bank by Hamas operatives led Israel to conduct a major operation all through the West Bank against Hamas, further straining the movement’s situation. Soon afterwards, a group of Israelis kidnapped and burned a Palestinian youth in Jerusalem. In Gaza other groups began shooting rockets and mortars, but Hamas stayed out. Finally, Israel killed a Hamas operative it suspected was involved in firing at Israel, and the movement joined the fray. As the violence increased, Israel tried to achieve a cease-fire with the help of Egypt but Hamas that was hoping to relieve the economic pressure it faced would not settle for a return to former conditions and demanded that they be bettered. When Hamas combatants appeared from a tunnel in Israel’s territory, Israel decided to embark on a larger operation targeting Hamas’ underground infrastructure that crossed into Israel in about 30 places. 
 Fighting raged for more than 50 days at great cost to both sides, and since then Israel has acknowledged that it is in its interest that the economy in Gaza function well. Nonetheless, no major policy changes were enacted and tension in Gaza, though not explosive, remained high. In the meantime, both Israel and Hamas have been preparing for another conflict. Hamas has been recuperating its tunnel infrastructure, including tunnels that cross into Israel, and Israel has been developing methods to counteract these tunnels.

In the past couple of months the pressure in Gaza is on the rise. At the heart of the problem is an electricity crisis. Until recently, the people of Gaza received at best eight hours of consecutive electricity followed by an eight hour outage. They relied on three sources for their power: a small Gaza power station, two Egyptian power lines, and Electricity from Israel paid for by the Palestinian Authority. The lines from Egypt are more often than not, out of order, and two other sources, are suffering due to actions of the Palestinian Authority that are backed by Israel. First, the station in Gaza. That station runs on diesel, but in April of this year the Palestinian Authority announced it would no longer pay the taxes for the diesel, effectively shutting down the station, and bringing down the daily power supply to four or so hours a day.

In the last few weeks, they announced that they would cut back on the payments that cover the cost of the electricity provided by Israel. This Sunday, Israel’s cabinet approved the decision to accept the Palestinian Authority’s decision and cut Gaza’s power supply from Israel by more than a third. All of this as we head into the hottest months of the year, and trust me when I tell you that it gets really hot in that part of the world. Water treatment plants are already malfunctioning, and stress on other critical systems is also increasing. To make matters worse, the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, decided to cut paychecks to former Palestinian Authority employee who live in Gaza by 30%. Those salaries were paid since Hamas took over Gaza to people who were basically sitting at home doing nothing. But without this income, and the consumption it permitted, things are only going to get worse. Abbas blames Hamas for his actions, saying that the movement obstructs attempts to reinstate the rule of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza. He is basically saying that he will no longer pay for their government to rebel against his.

The situation has gotten somewhat worse in recent weeks due to international political developments. As I’ve mentioned earlier, Hamas political wing relies heavily on support from Qatar. As of two weeks ago Qatar has become a pariah state in the Arab world with Saudi Arabia closing of its only land border, and preventing Qatari planes from using its airspace. As other Arab states followed the Saudi leadership (and the tone set by President Trump in defiance of the State Department and the Pentagon), Qatar found itself in what is very nearly a de facto blockade. The reason for this diplomatic assault on Qatar is purportedly, its close relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, and its support for terrorist organizations. And while Hamas’ military branch seems to enjoy Iranian support, the political wing still depends on Qatar and on the physical access to Gaza controlled by Egypt, neither of which seems to be playing in Hamas’ direction right now. This relates directly to the electricity crisis, since absent Qatar’s open wallet, it’s unclear who would pay for Gaza’s power.

Hamas has been signaling its discontent with the developing situation by allowing demonstrations of several hundred people close to the border with Israel, after months of preventing them. Last week and Islamic Jihad (that’s name of the organization) operative was killed from shots fired by Israeli soldiers at such a demonstration. In addition, its senior officials have been threatening that Gaza is “set to explode” if the crisis persists. As you probably realize, the situation is beginning to resemble the conditions that led to the war in 2014. And when you consider Hamas’ concern that Israel is close to finding a reasonable solution to Hamas’ most effective weapon — its tunnels — you can see why there is fear that the movement might accept the costs of another conflict in the hopes of breaking the strategic deadlock while it can still effectively threaten Israel.

What I just described is no secret yet no one seems to be able to find a way out of this deadlock. Abbas’ move makes sense since why should he pay for a rogue region ruled by his political rivals? Israel is perfectly understood in not wanting to provide electricity without having someone pay for it. Hamas won’t pay Israel since even if Israel would be willing to deal directly with its government (which it won’t), Hamas sees itself as a resistance movement to Israel, and can’t afford publicly and probably fiscally, to pay Israel. But why doesn’t Israel just let the Gaza strip and Hamas loose? Why maintain control of what comes in and out of Gaza, and oppose a seaport or some other solution that would allow Gaza some breathing space. This poses two problems: First, very realistic security concerns. Hamas already has advanced anti tank missiles, rockets that cover most of Israel’s territory and drones. Israel is concerned that any opening would be used by Hamas to smuggle more weapons. Second, and more importantly, Israel’s current government is in a difficult place given its larger policy regarding the Palestinians.

Since 2007 Israel’s policy was founded on the idea of the Palestinians with whom it has peaceful relations will receive benefits, and those who fight Israel will suffer as a consequence. This policy might possibly work when you the peace process is progressing and the Palestinian Authority is on good terms with Israel. However currently, Israel’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority could be described as “complicated” at best. So while making Gaza better off, may be in Israel’s interest, any benefit to Gaza would be perceived as rewarding violence and weakening the standing of the non-violent Palestinian Authority. Not to mention the fact that it’s one thing to admit that a thriving Gaza is less likely to explode, but an entirely different thing to actually commit to policy that rewards a government controlled by a terror organization.

While I can speak at length about Hamas’ violence and internal Palestinian and Arab strife, as an Israeli, I mostly tend to ask myself what Israel can do to further its interests. In this case my answer to myself is that a different policy regarding Gaza could only work in the context of a different policy regarding the Palestinian issue in general. A policy shift I would welcome, but that I doubt will happen. Nonetheless, I still hope and believe that a conflict this summer will be averted, thanks in part to the painful memories on all sides from the summer of 2014.

Before I conclude, I’d like to mention one group of people who suffer from this situation and that any analysis of the type I just did will usually leave out — the people of Gaza. In Gaza there are almost two million people who live a miserable life due to choices of mostly other people. For them, and for anyone else who would be affected by another war, I really do hope that those in power on all sides find a way out of this conundrum.

This is it for this episode. Thank you again for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, consider rating the podcast on iTunes, and listening to previous episodes.

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