After nearly three and a half years since the end of the war on Gaza in 2014, there is a debate in Israel about conditions in the Gaza Strip. Cabinet members in Binyamin Netanyahu’s government, generals, military correspondents and analysts are raising questions about how to resolve the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. Few have made serious suggestions, despite concern that Gaza will explode in the face of the Hebrew state.
Israel’s Chief of the General Staff Gadi Eizenkot warned the cabinet about the situation and possible threats to Israel in 2018, since the possibility of war in Gaza is growing due to the humanitarian crisis there, though the likelihood of an actual war now is not high.
In the areas bordering the Gaza Strip, there were extensive military exercises simulating a war on Gaza. This comes at a time when Israel built a segregation wall with Gaza and continues to search for resistance tunnels along the border and around settlements; it discovered four tunnels in 2017, according to the Israeli army.
The Gaza Strip is suffering a serious economic and humanitarian crisis resulting from Israel tightening the 12-year siege, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) imposing punitive measures to force Hamas to submit. Hamas is the primary rival of Fatah, headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Measures included slashing the salaries of PA staff and forcing thousands into early retirement.
Palestinian analysts believe Hamas does not want a war at this point for several reasons, most notably that the two million residents of the narrow coastal strip on the Mediterranean cannot withstand another war, including more destruction of their homes and facilities, especially since reconstruction is very slow four years after the last war. They also note that despite the current stalemate, Hamas is still counting on conciliation to end the burden of the besieged Gaza Strip.
Also, that after the US administration laid out its vision and policy in the region, it needs calm to pass what it is calling “deal of the century”, which should be announced soon. The US does not want a war to spoil its plans and plots in the region.
Hossam Al-Dajni, a Palestinian analyst, believes the likelihood of Israeli military escalation against Gaza is rising for several reasons, most notably to forcibly impose “the deal of the century” and new geopolitical realities in Gaza. Also, deteriorating humanitarian conditions could cause the Gazan street to pressure the resistance to take action against the occupation.
Al-Dajni said the visit by US envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt to the Gaza border, his “hostile” remarks against Hamas, Israel’s exaggeration of the resistance’s capabilities, Washington listing the head of Hamas’s politburo, Ismail Haniyeh, as a terrorist and US-Israel war games, all indicate that matters will escalate.
Greenblatt said that Hamas must put down its weapons and recognise the State of Israel if it wants to join the Palestinian government. “Any Palestinian government must unequivocally renounce violence, recognise the State of Israel, accept agreements and commitments between the two sides – including disarming terrorists – and commit to peaceful negotiations,” asserted Greenblatt in a statement.
Al-Dajni said war bolsters Israel’s deterrence power, and Israel will use the blood of Gazans to “forewarn” the West Bank and Jerusalem, especially since the Palestinian leadership is thinking about resorting to the UN and International Criminal Court as recommended by the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Israel launched three wars on Gaza between 2008 and 2014. First, on 27 September 2008 for 22 days, which killed 1,500 Palestinians and injured 5,000; and second, on 14 February 2012 for eight days, killing 160 Palestinians and injuring 1,500.
Between 7 July and 26 August 2014, Israel launched an extensive war called Operation Protective Edge on the Gaza Strip for 51 days, killing 2,145 Palestinians, injuring more than 11,000 and destroying thousands of homes, according to official Palestinian figures. Meanwhile, 65 soldiers and four Israeli civilians were killed as well as one foreign worker, according to official figures.
Medical sources stated that 2,522 Israelis, including 740 soldiers, were treated during this period.
Al-Dajni noted there are reasons that make escalation unlikely, including Israel’s desire to continue normalising relations and integrating in the Middle East on the basis that Iran is the primary enemy. Any war or escalation could confuse the situation. He added that realities in Gaza are abysmal, which means the resistance would try to avoid war unless it is forced into it, and everyone is concerned about the impact of war.
Palestinian and Arab media assert a war is unlikely soon, and Hamas agrees. One Hamas official who requested anonymity told Anadolu news agency that “it is unlikely Israel will launch a new war on the Gaza Strip”. Nonetheless, “Hamas took several precautionary measures during the occupation’s war games in anticipation of any deceptive action,” he said. Overall, however, Hamas “is not concerned about escalation by Israel”.
The media reported that Israel could attack Gaza as the army began war games at settlements in the Gaza Strip. An army statement noted: “The military exercises are pre-planned and aim to improve the readiness of the army in the south [near the Gaza Strip].”
As debate continued about a war in Gaza, tensions rose on the border with Syria after Tel Aviv announced Saturday that it shot down an Iranian drone that breached its airspace, and it bombed at least 12 Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria.
An Israeli F-16 jet was subsequently shot down by the Syrians. Amid these tensions, Hamas’s military wing, the Al-Qassam Brigades, announced Saturday it has stepped up action due to developments on the Israel-Syria front.
The Brigades issued a statement announcing “elevated readiness to protect the people and respond to any Israel attacks due to events in occupied northern Palestine”.
In response to these developments, Hamas’s rhetoric on Syria shifted. Ties with the regime were severed in 2012 after the start of the Arab Spring, but this week the group said it is Damascus’s right to defend itself against Israeli attacks.
Ismail Radwan, a leading Hamas figure, told the press in Gaza that shooting down an Israeli jet is “self-defence due to perpetual Israeli attacks”. Radwan called for “intense efforts by everyone to confront the occupation and offset attacks”, asserting that Hamas and the Palestinian people stand in solidarity with Syria against Israel.
According to political analysts, the statement by the Al-Qassam Brigades “reveals a change in the game plan and indicates a unified stand among the ‘axis of resistance’ in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iran”. Analyst Ibrahim Al-Madhoun, who is close to Hamas, said the statement reveals that “the Brigades are ready for any coming battles, and if Syria or its people are attacked or Lebanon and its resistance, Al-Qassam Brigades will side with its allies and not allow the occupation to bully our Arab brethren.”
Al-Madhoun believes the announcement “is significant for Palestinian resistance and a strong link to allies who are united in animosity towards Israel. It also undermines the occupation’s ploy to separate resistance forces and pick on them individually. This declaration will make the occupation rethink a thousand times before attacking Lebanon or Syria.”
In Israel, cabinet members are quarrelling over humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip, after Eizenkot warned that economic collapse in Gaza could trigger military confrontations.
According to Israel Today, Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz suggested constructing a man-made island off the Gaza coast, but Minister of Defence Avigdor Lieberman disagrees. It added that the smaller cabinet for security and political affairs discussed in January concerns of security agencies that deteriorated security conditions in Gaza could trigger confrontations.
“At the end of discussions, it was decided that an emergency team from the National Security Council would prepare a plan, including practical suggestions, for dealing with the situation and present it to another hearing within three weeks,” the newspaper reported. “One of the suggestions to calm the situation is to ensure that European and Far East countries are supporting Gaza economically – a notion Israel has promoted for years.”
The other suggestion, continued Israel Today, is “Katz’s manmade island where a port would be built with European funding, including infrastructure especially a power plant and desalination plant. That would provide job opportunities and hope in the Gaza Strip, and free Israel from its responsibilities towards the Gaza Strip.”
The newspaper added that “cabinet members and defence agencies agree with Katz, but Lieberman doesn’t because it would be similar to rewarding Hamas.” Nonetheless, the report continued, Katz succeeded in getting a commitment from Netanyahu to vote on his proposal at the next cabinet meeting. But due to Lieberman’s objections, it seems Netanyahu is avoiding holding another cabinet meeting on the matter.
According to the Popular Committee for Confronting the Siege on Gaza, an NGO, catastrophic conditions in the Gaza Strip are serious consequences of 12 years of systematic Israeli siege and three brutal Israeli wars, as well as a decade of inter-Palestinian divisions that negatively impacted the overall condition of Palestinians, particularly on the humanitarian and economic fronts.
The NGO further reported that the population in Gaza grew by half a million during the years under siege, which require services, infrastructure, housing and education to also grow, but this did not happen because of the siege and wars.
Poverty rates in Gaza are at 80 per cent; one million refugees and half a million citizens live on aid; unemployment among youth rose to 60 per cent, and 80 per cent of Gaza factories are partially or completely shut down.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly