Stability Is Still Possible in Gaza. Here's How.
On August 5, after twenty-nine days of fighting, Israel and Hamas accepted the Egyptian proposal for a seventy-two-hour unconditional cease-fire. The cease-fire was meant to provide a calmer environment for direct and indirect talks on stabilizing the relations between Israel and Gaza. At this writing, fire has been renewed—and indeed might even escalate—but the efforts to restore the ceasefire and to then establish the terms of a broader and more enduring understanding also continue. This fluid phase in the process might continue for some time before such an understanding is reached. The following is an attempt to sketch the basic requirements for transforming any cease-fire the parties may agree on to more stable relations between Gaza and Israel, and between Israelis and Palestinians more broadly.
The Strategic Environment
Any attempt to establish a more stable relationship between Israel and Gaza must begin with ascertaining the causes of these relations’ current instability and the circumstances that caused the most recent eruption of violence. In the broadest sense the failure of U.S.-led efforts—most recently, the attempts by Secretary of State John Kerry to broker a permanent status agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority—provided the environment in which the eruption of violence could be expected.
Regionally, during the past year Hamas has found itself in unprecedented isolation. This was partly self-induced—resulting from Hamas’ decision in 2011 to support the Syrian rebels and to relocate its headquarters away from Damascus. The decision alienated some of the movement’s most important regional supporters: Iran and Syria. But in part the isolation resulted from developments over which Hamas had no control, most important among them was the counter-revolution in Egypt in early July 2013 which ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’s natural allies. The latter development led to very tough Egyptian measures to isolate Gaza by closing the Rafah crossing even more hermetically than before and, even more important, by destroying the network of tunnels that Hamas had built under the Gaza-Egyptian border. The tunnels were designed to circumvent the restrictions imposed by Egypt and Israel in the aftermath of Hamas’ take-over of Gaza in June 2007 by allowing the smuggling of weapons and goods to the Gaza Strip. The cumulative effect of these developments was to leave Hamas physically isolated and without regional allies. Not surprisingly, Hamas leaders were desperate to find a way to escape this growing isolation.
Internally, some members of Hamas’ military wing may have also turned to violence in order to thwart the April 2014 reconciliation agreement which they saw as enabled by excessive Hamas concessions. Thus, the abduction and killing of the three Israeli teenagers on June 12—a development that spurred the recent escalation—may have reflected the desire of some among the military wing to thwart the reconciliation efforts.
Another important development was the Israeli government’s negative reaction to the Palestinian national reconciliation agreement. The reaction was propelled by the perception that given Hamas’ ideological commitment to Israel’s destruction, such a move cannot but imply a PLO retreat from its commitment to peace. The battle against the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation may have also induced Israel to view the aforementioned abduction and killing as a Hamas operation and to assert that in reconciling with Hamas, PA President Mahmoud Abbas had entered into a partnership with a murderous organization. In turn, such framing led the Israeli government to take another series of measures against Hamas, notably the re-arresting of tens of Hamas operatives who were previously released from Israeli jails in the framework of the Gilad Shalit deal. Hamas responded with escalating rocket fire against Israeli towns and agricultural settlements in the south, later reaching even north of Tel Aviv.
The cumulative effect of the different components of this strategic environment amounted to an incentive structure that favored escalation over stability. Israel felt that the newly created Palestinian national reconciliation government was legitimizing a movement committed to its destruction and Hamas felt increasingly isolated, if not strangled, and thus with little to lose.
Stabilizing Israel-Gaza relations would therefore require transforming this environment in at least two ways: first, affecting the intra-Palestinian balance by strengthening the Fatah-led PA while weakening Hamas; and second, altering the parties’ cost-benefit calculus in a fashion favoring peace and stability over war and destruction. Accomplishing this, in turn, would require that the parties involved make significant if not paradigmatic changes in their approach—changes that will then be translated into specific policy moves.
Changes in Israel’s Approach
To contribute its share to stabilizing Israel-Gaza relations, the Israeli government would need to change its approach in the following ways: First, it would need to accept that Hamas is a permanent feature of the Palestinian scene—that while its military capacity can be degraded by recurring violent confrontations, it is a popular movement that cannot be destroyed—at least not at a cost acceptable to Israel.