Gaza has been a routine security threat to Israel since Hamas took control of the territory in 2006. Over the years, Hamas’ militant ideology has pushed the group to recurrently provoke confrontation in the hopes of eventually forcing Israel to end its isolation of Gaza. But by directly clashing with Israel’s nationalist ideology, these threats have only encouraged Israeli political leaders to further wear down Gaza’s Palestinian citizens through similar acts of attrition.
The health and economic threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, however, have recently opened a door to potential de-escalation. With Israel’s unemployment now at 25 percent, the economic fallout from COVID-19 has undercut arguments of the country’s more security-oriented nationalists, who have long wanted a more expansive military campaign against Hamas. Even the most hawkish of Israeli politicians have been notably quiet in their opposition against potential Israeli outreaches to Hamas, as the crisis absorbs much of the nation’s economic and political energy. This has granted space for Israel to begin negotiating a long-contested prisoner swap with Hamas — a move Israeli nationalists have long opposed without Hamas committing to further deescalations. Successful negotiation would introduce a new level of pragmatism into the relationship.
For Hamas, Gaza’s limited health system is dependent on the goodwill of Israel and Egypt to bring in medical supplies. And with COVID-19 already spreading in the region, it's highly likely the militant group will soon need external medical support to prevent a full-scale humanitarian crisis that would undermine its public legitimacy. For this reason, Hamas is unlikely to pursue direct confrontation with Israel in the coming weeks, lest risk tightening the siege just when it needs help
Additionally, Hamas’ primary economic benefactor, Qatar is facing the dual crisis of COVID-19 on its domestic economy, as well as plummeting global demand for energy. Though Qatar remains far from going broke, Doha’s gaze (and financial priorities) may increasingly turn inwards to manage the financial fallout at home. Qatar is thus not guaranteed to grant Hamas new economic support, especially if the group causes a conflict with Israel that then requires significant reconstruction.
Risks for Escalation
But while the need to focus on managing their respective COVID-19 crises has created space for limited outreach, there are still many factors that could reset Israeli-Hamas relations back to their previous status quo. In Gaza, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) group could restoke tensions. Compared with Hamas, this hardline Islamist faction is more willing to provoke a conflict with Israel even at substantial economic cost, partially because it wants to showcase Hamas as being too soft on Israel. PIJ provocations have brought Hamas and Israel close to conflict in the past, and if it sees Hamas as growing too dependent on Israel for medical supplies and economic aid amid the COVID-19 crisis, the group will likely try to derail any cooperation through violence.
Should Israel fail to provide enough medical aid to help manage Gaza’s COVID-19 outbreak, anger among Gazan citizens could also compel Hamas to risk military confrontation by allowing protests or confrontations along Israel’s southern border. If such confrontations result in any Israeli casualties, it could spur a more strident response from Israel.
But Israel’s new unity government is likely to do what it can to avoid a major operation in Gaza. Another war in the region would be an expensive proposition, further harming Israel’s already coronavirus-ravaged economy. Putting many young Israeli soldiers into close quarters would also risk spreading the virus among the military’s ranks, particularly if Israel experiences a second wave of infections later this year. Whatever security operations Israel does carry out in response to potential provocations in Gaza is thus likely to follow the same pattern as they have the past two years — that is, targeted operations designed to minimize threats rather than escalate them. But even then, Israel will still prefer its quiet, budding cooperation with Hamas over any military action that could shift any of its valuable time and resources away from the pressing COVID-19 threat brewing within its borders.
If Israel can ensure that Hamas feels assured of medical aid during COVID-19, and if Hamas can keep the PIJ from conducting rogue acts of aggression against Israel, Israel and Hamas may emerge from the pandemic with a relationship less hindered by the ideological differences that have driven their conflicts for so long. This could, in turn, yield a deeper, ongoing trend in which both sides increasingly accept that they are better off compartmentalizing their conflicts rather than fighting recurrent, expensive wars that neither are able to cleanly win. The longtime foes may still be far from permanently accepting one another permanently, but the road to tolerating each other, even tensely, is now becoming more apparent.
In Gaza, COVID-19 Creates Space for Israeli-Hamas Cooperation is republished with the permission of Stratfor Worldview, a geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm.