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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.

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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.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Firentis

      Well, this is refreshingly realistic. I haven’t seen stuff like this here since Noam Sheizaf stopped writing here.

      The problem is that 1&2 are linked. Hamas is recognized internationally as a terrorist organization with the long-term goal of destroying Israel and it hasn’t renounced that goal. As Hamas embraces and allows the protests it undermines their legitimacy by tying them with its own. As it is the protests are marred by being tied to revanchist demands for “return” which is just Palestinian euphemism for destroying Israel. Had they been explicitly tied to lifting the siege they would be far more effective. Both of these factors and the rather successful Israeli ability to paint these as attempted Hamas-backed invasions of Israeli borders mean that they basically politically irrelevant.

      The problem with #3 is that humanitarian concerns are only likely to increase pressure for humanitarian, not political solutions. Lack of clean water? Internationally funded desalinization plants. Lack of electricity? Supply of gas. Lack of medicine? International aid in the form of medical supplies. Israel has no problem with any of these. It would be Hamas rather than Israel that would want to tie the solution of these issues to political considerations. The pressure would build on Hamas rather than on Israel.

      The only challenge that would tip the status quo would be Hamas pacification. Or alternatively something unexpected. The other two are non-factors.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Firentis: Suppose the head of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas get you on a conference call, and they say “Firentis, we’re at the end of our rope. We’ll do whatever you suggest. You just have to give us a detailed plan that tells us EXACTLY what we should do, and you have to tell us exactly what we can expect in return from Israel. We need a concrete roadmap.”

        What do you tell them? What’s the endgame?

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          My dear Yahye Sinwar and Mahmoud Abbas,

          Too much blood has been shed over this land in which both of our peoples was born. Enough is enough. Let us put the bloodshed behind us and move forward to building a future that is bright for both of our peoples. Both of our peoples deserves their own country and both have deep emotional, spiritual and cultural bonds to every piece of this land. We must find a solution that is built on both of these truths. Let us work together step by step to build a future where these two countries – Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people, and Palestine, the nation state of the Palestinian people, will cooperate to provide the best possible life for their citizens in a spirit of friendship and cooperation.

          As a first priority let us deal with the humanitarian situation in Gaza. For the past 11 years Israel has faced off with Hamas and this has had a major detrimental impact on the citizens of Gaza. Wars have been fought. Much infrastructure has been destroyed. As we open up a new page in our relations it is imperative that a unified Palestinian leadership take full control of the Gaza Strip which will maintain security and ensure the end of rocket attacks and other hostility towards Israel and its citizens. To facilitate this Israel will allow passage of Palestinian security forces from the West Bank into Gaza and we expect the Hamas movement to formally submit itself and its military wing to the authority of the Palestinian National Authority. The Palestinian National Authority will ensure that those forces that reject this new spirit of friendship will not be able to undermine the emerging peace between our two peoples. In order to ensure the improvement of conditions in the Gaza Strip and as soon as the PNA has ensured security in the Gaza Strip Israel will lift its restrictions on the import and export of goods from the Gaza Strip and will allow passage of citizens between the two territories. Israel will likewise increase the supply of water and electricity to the Gaza Strip pending the convention of an international conference that would provide funding and support for the rehabilitation of the infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.

          In tandem we invite the representatives of the Palestinian people to an international conference in Washington with the presence and support of international and Arab countries to work out the details of a permanent peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian people on the basis of the formula of two states for two peoples. The goal of such a conference will be to ensure that the Palestinian people can fully exercise their sovereignty within their own country while ensuring the security of Israel and of Israeli citizens.

          With the acceptance of this proposal Israel will make preparations for the steps outlined and looks forward to a productive and fruitful relationship today, tomorrow and for many years to come. I realize that it will take time for all wounds to heal but it is my firm hope that this can be the starting point for peace between our countries and our peoples.

          yours in peace,
          Firentis

          Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            @Firentis: Not bad, except Israel hasn’t made an offers to negotiate for about 20 years, and the settlements keep expanding, along with olive grove burnings, land theft, and administrative detentions. Several Israeli officials have expressed the view that there will be no Palestinian state – ever, not matter what they say or do.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            How do you get 20 years? Olmert’s offer was less than 10 years ago.

            The Palestinians didn’t accept it. Since then there has been a realization that the Palestinians aren’t interested in peace with a Jewish state.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            @Firentis: specifics, please. Remember, you’re the King of the Jews: what borders are you offering the Palestinians? Are you offering them full statehood – will they have control over immigration, borders, airspace, or will that be under Israel’s control?

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Sure. No problem.

            Negotiations on the basis of two states for two peoples as the letter points out with mutual recognition of Jewish State / Palestinian State.

            Territory: Based on the Makovsky Option #1 Map
            https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/4d35fc943f32e.pdf

            Jews finding themselves in Palestinian territory get evacuated.

            Israel keeps most of Jerusalem including sovereignty over Old City. The Waqf continues to control the Temple Mount. A special corridor is enabled for access to the Old City/Temple Mount from Palestine with access/exit to the Old City to be controlled by separate authority with its own security forces. All visitors go through security checkpoints from both the Palestinian and Israeli access points. Some of the Arab eastern neighborhoods of Jerusalem could be handed over to Palestine (Sur Baher, Umm Taba, Shuafat).

            Israel leases the Jordan Valley for a period of 5 years followed by joint Israel/American/Palestinian patrols of the border after that. Jews from the Jordan Valley leave over the 5 year time period.

            Palestinian refugees get resettled in the evacuated settlements in the Palestinian State or in 3rd countries. Immigration to Palestinian state under Palestinian control.

            Palestine has a strong police force and no army.

            Airspace will be under Israeli control. Border crossings with Jordan and Egypt under Palestinian control.

            Other issues can be settled in negotiations.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bruce Gould

            @Firentis: “Airspace will be under Israeli control. Border crossings with Jordan and Egypt under Palestinian control.” So the Palestinian state has no borders it controls, it can’t decide who immigrates?

            It’s not a bad plan you’re proposing, but Israel hasn’t put any proposals on the table for a long time – you’d think if Israel wanted negotiations they would stop building settlements? “Israel to approve plan to build new settlement in al-Khalil”

            https://www.presstv.com/Detail/2018/11/01/578743/Israel-Palestine-settlement-Hebron

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Do I hear someone yearning for the realism of Noam Sheizaf? Very good. Here is a piece of realism from Noam Sheizaf that is precisely relevant here. When the Palestinians take a non-violent route they are either utterly ignored by an Israel that is always looking for an excuse to say “we have time, it’s quiet, what’s the problem?”–or Israel viciously clamps down and in fact tries to convert things to violence, which it says it fears but secretly loves because controlled violence–not too much, not too little–is Israels’ preferred mode of interaction and peaceful protest is what it fears most. It is only when things get violently out of hand that Israel starts listening. And Israel only listens to violence. Realism by Noam Sheizaf:

        By Noam Sheizaf |Published March 11, 2016
        Why do we only listen to violence?
        Two intifadas increased Israeli willingness to make territorial withdrawals. Wars in Lebanon and Egypt led Israel to withdrawals from those territories. Despite all that, the Palestinian Authority is trying to maintain quiet and security for Israelis but receives nothing in return. If I were Palestinian I might come to a disturbing conclusion.
        https://972mag.com/why-do-we-only-listen-to-violence/117773/

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        More intelligent realism by Noam Sheizaf:

        By Noam Sheizaf
        September 11, 2013
        Why I oppose recognizing Israel as a Jewish state
        A country can, at least in theory, be ‘Israeli and democratic.’ It cannot and will never be ‘Jewish and democratic.’
        https://972mag.com/why-i-oppose-recognizing-israel-as-a-jewish-state/78751/

        Reply to Comment
    2. Brian Cohen

      Why does 972 publish this obvious propaganda when all one has to do is turn on the news to see Palestinians violently rioting on the border? “Hamas’ pacification”??? “a shift to nonviolent protests”???? Are there no editors at +972 who are not marxist-leninist throwbacks?
      “Hamas pacification”? Hamas is a self-proclaimed heavily armed Islamofascist military dictatorship that suppresses Palestinian civil and human rights. They are just as armed as the were last week (probably more). They are just as violent as ever – ask any of the hundreds or more jailed Fatah or other political prisoners in Hamas cells.
      Hamas has been pacified? Hamas is being pacified? How stupid do you take your readers to be? (obviously, with trash like this I really won’t be coming back to 972 at all)
      It’s outright falsehoods like this article that make 972mag look, I’m really sorry to have to say this but, stupid.
      Seriously. Months of daily reports in the international news on violent rioting on the Gaza border by Palestinians. Rocks, bombs, molotov cocktails, scores of daily aerial firebombs, not to mention the illegal rocket attacks on Israeli civilians (which are war crimes) and you publish somebody whining about a “shift to nonviolent protests”?
      It makes the backers of 972 look like dupes for Pallywood propaganda.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “with trash like this I really won’t be coming back to 972 at all…It makes the backers of 972 look like dupes for Pallywood propaganda”

        Brian Cohen gives himself away with these kinds of statements. These are the responses of a JPost-style cultist, someone who knows what he knows, goddammit, and ain’t nobody gonna tell him different, no sir no way. And the response of someone who has no better answer, finally, than to draw on the ultra-cheesy, thoroughly discredited “Pallywood” meme.

        Bruce Gould effectively skewers all of this with one succinct post. I urge readers to read the Nation article he links to.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Bruce Gould

      Breaking news: “An emerging cease-fire agreement aimed at calming months of violence on the Israel-Gaza border will last for three years and see a significant easing of the blockade on the Hamas-controlled territory…”

      https://www.timesofisrael.com/emerging-gaza-ceasefire-to-significantly-ease-gaza-blockade-report/

      Here’s the question: would it have happened if the protests/riots/whatever you want to call them hadn’t happened?

      Reply to Comment