Since the end of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Aug. 2014, there has been a deceptive appearance of calm along the border between Israel and Gaza. It took the collapse of Hamas-dug tunnels to redirect attention back to the fragility and volatility of relations between the militant Islamic movement that rules Gaza, and the Jewish state that blockades it.
Most observers would agree that neither side is interested or would benefit from another round of violence. However, there is genuine fear that internal political dynamics, an unforeseen trigger or a mere miscalculation might lead to a new flare-up.
Inflicting daily misery on Gazans is a combination of Israeli punishment for electing Hamas, and an unfounded belief that it will lead to a popular uprising against the current governmentYossi Mekelberg
The collapse of the tunnels, claiming the lives of at least nine Palestinians, unleashed predictable and provocative rhetoric from both sides. Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar said the organization had rebuilt its tunnels “deep into the territory occupied in 1948.”
In contrast to Zahar, who is known for his uncompromising approach toward Israel, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya emphasized the defensive nature of the tunnels in a speech during the funeral of two of the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was explicit in threatening that any attack via Hamas’s cross-border tunnels would lead to worse retaliation than in 2014.
Gaza is still reeling from the destruction inflicted on it by Israel during Operation Protective Edge. From the three available crossings into the enclave, goods are only passing through Israel’s Kerem Shalom crossing. Erez, the other Israeli crossing, and Rafah, the passage to Egypt, are restricted to movement of people, but in both cases in a very limited way.
This, in addition to air and sea blockades, considerably limit the Hamas government’s ability to provide for its citizens. This has resulted in a growing malaise among ordinary Gazans. In a society in which more than 40 percent of its population is unemployed, there is only a few hours a day of electricity, and drinking water is in short supply, agitation and radicalization are almost inevitable. This situation weakens the hands of those within the Hamas leadership who want to avoid a direct clash with Israel.
Moreover, following the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, the encirclement of Gaza and the political isolation of Hamas have been exacerbated. In the past, taxing commodities coming from Egypt via the Rafah tunnels was one of the main sources of income for the Gazan government, but this has decreased significantly.
Egypt has been flooding these tunnels, increasing the shortage of basic commodities and depriving Hamas of income. Adding insult to injury, an Israeli minister and close political ally of Netanyahu, Yuval Steinitz, publicly said the flooding of the tunnels was at Israel’s request.
Additional pressure to break the deadlock by resuming armed confrontation with Israel is encouraged by Hamas’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Beyond what might be an instinctive tendency toward the use of military force, it is also a reaction to deteriorating conditions on the ground, and not wanting to be left out when there are attacks on Israelis by Palestinians in the West Bank.
Hamas’s military leadership might be tempted to defy its political one, while ignoring the tragic outcome of past experiences of armed clashes with very little political gain. Without at least some improvement in living conditions in Gaza, those who push for armed struggle are gaining the upper hand.
On the Israeli side, the government and security establishment have been toying with two contradictory approaches. One approach maintains that as long as Hamas is in power in Gaza, sustaining tight control is imperative for Israeli security. Inflicting daily misery on Gazans is a combination of Israeli punishment for electing Hamas, and an unfounded belief that it will lead to a popular uprising against the current government.
The other approach argues that only by relieving part of the strangulation of Gaza, and allowing economic activity and some normality, will the motivation to support extremism and conflict be reduced sufficiently. In Israel’s divided government - which includes strong, extreme right-wing elements - the security paradigm of exerting pressure on Gaza dominates.
More commodities are entering Gaza these days than for a long time, but there is a long list of products that are regarded as having dual military and civilian use, and are prohibited. Commodities classified as dual use do not necessarily have an obvious military application. The list of prohibited items seems arbitrary, and is deeply damaging for the Gazan economy.
Tunnels and militancy in Gaza are symptomatic of the situation there, one that is the result of a lack of diplomatic solution, and is aggravated by Israeli and Egyptian policies. One should not belittle the adverse contribution of Hamas and other militant groups in the deterioration of Gaza to its present state. However, policies that only punish the Gazan people strengthen hardliners within the organization, and the more extreme elements outside it.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.