20 December 2018

How close are we to a new conflict in Gaza?

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

Hamas’s new political and military leader, Yahya Sinwar, was recently saying that Israel’s blockade imposed to this Palestinian territory will be gone by the middle of October. The deadline passed. Prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that neither making peace with Hamas, nor having a war against the Palestinian group will benefit his electoral campaign. It will not bring also a long-term peace to Israel. None of the two sides want a military conflict. The messages are transmitted through homemade missiles hits and air counter-blows. Hamas’s aim is to get, with protests, what they will never get with a conflict. But each Friday, massive protests’ day, can also mean war.

Image source: Mediafax

At the middle of august, during a press conference with local media from Gaza Strip, Hamas’ new political and military leader, Yahya Sinwar, was stating that Israel’s blockade on this Palestinian territory will be gone by the middle of October. The date had a double significance:

  • It was imposing an expectation horizon, a deadline which, in Hamas’ point of view, even passed, was showing what Israel, but also Egypt, should do to calm enclave’s explosive situation;
  • Defined Hamas’s leadership main objective, to raise the economic blockade imposed in 2007, with devastating effects over the life of Palestinians who live in Gaza Strip.

The deadline passed these days.

For the time being, Yahya Sinwar was repeatedly saying for the international press that Hamas group is not interested in a conflict with Israel. Hamas’s leader also stated that “an explosion is inevitable with the current situation”. Also, to keep up the pressure, Palestinian marches continued towards the security fence between the Strip and Israel, they diversified methods, procedures, tactics by which Palestinian protestants are trying to balance forces reports with the Israeli part.

Of course the price is huge, for the Palestinians tenths of young loses, and for the Israeli part international image’s degradation, but war means war!

The two parts are already in a direct conflict, obviously, not in its violent-military form, but they are developing operations, are using tactics, proposing armistices, they are threatening with “destructive” fight backs.

What is happening at the moment the border between Gaza Strip and Israel shows some sourness from the past confrontations:

- despite the rhetoric, none of the parts seems to want a military conflict. The result is not offered just by military power. For the international image, two Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas can balance the death of hundreds of Palestinian combatants. The Palestinian part, on the other hand, needs another political philosophy than the sacrifice one;

- as we showed previously, no Israeli victory is fully accomplished, as “surgical” as the air hits can be, as many tunnels as could be discovered and destroyed, as many “operators” as could be neutralized, considering that the Israeli side does not want Gaza Strip back. And, generally, military victories started to be irrelevant if are not accompanied by extensive political agreements, by a proper reception in international media;

- new Palestinian leaders seem to be aware that, before accomplishing the “comeback dream”/ Haq Al-Awda, there are still concrete things, related to the struggle for survival, which must be supported, which they should make compromises for.

We are in October 2018, Hamas’s deadline to raise the Israeli blockade put over Gaza Strip passed some days ago, Israeli Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, born in 1958, Chisinau, Moldavia, who speaks also Romanian, is threatening with counter-attacks, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, continues boycotting Hamas, being the only playing card that he has left, and prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that neither peace with Hamas, nor the war with the Palestinian group will benefit his electoral campaign. The parliamentary elections are just around the corner. Do not forget Egypt, mediator in Israel-Hamas dialogue, which is starting to lose patience, being pressured by radicalism exports coming from the Strip, which catches on fire Sinai Peninsula’s North, blocking the economic development and tourism from the area.

Last decade’s conflicts between Israel and Hamas had some sort of a cyclicity, 2008-2009 / Operation Cast Lead, 2012 / Operation Pillar of Defense, 2014 / Operation Protective Edge, at every two-three years. This time, four years already passed and none of the sides seems to be interested in a military conflict, even if the rhetoric is as vehement as always. And, despite the rhetoric, the statistic is even worse.

According to a World Bank Report, published on 27th of September, Strip’s situation is closer and closer to collapse:

- 70% from Gaza’s young Palestinians do not have a job;

- in the first quarter of 2018, the economy in the area decreased with 6%;

- cutting funds which were coming annually from US and URRWA/ United Nations Relief and Works Agency (which was, relatively, balancing loses produced by the Israeli blockade), made the situation worse.

The Palestinians, as well as Israel’s leadership, know that the situation can easily go out of control. According to Ahmed Bahar, Hamas deputy in the Palestinian Legislative Council / Parliament, “the current blockade will lead to Gaza’s explosion against Israel”. Raising the blockade would allow, according to Israeli part, Iran’s access in the strip, something that Jerusalem sees as unacceptable.  Still, they are looking for solutions. The messages between the two parts are transmitted through homemade missile hits and air counter blows. Sometimes, the message is addressed to Egyptian mediator, to accelerate the negotiations.

Just like what happened this week, when, during the visit of Egyptian Intelligence’s Director, general Abbas Kamel, were launched, from Gaza Strip towards Israel, two missiles, quite performant, each with an accurate target.

The attack was not recognized by the two important groups from Gaza Strip, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but its accurate execution and the simultaneity with Egyptian dignitary’s visit, left some questions behind, showing that:

- Hamas wants a bigger involvement from Egypt, especially in convincing Mahmoud Abbas to raise its own blockade of Gaza Strip (the Egyptian visit continued with meetings in Israel and West Bank);

-  Hamas is communicating that it can hit civilian targets and Israeli cities close to the border;

- Hamas is threatening by showing that it has the necessary capabilities to hit also in the depth of Israeli’s territory (the other missile landed on the sea, along with the country’s central area).

Israeli’s answer came immediately, by attacking more than 20 targets: tunnels, underground military infrastructures, military production workshops. For the Israeli determination to become more visible, at the border with Gaza Strip were dislocated, in daylight, tens of tanks and armored carriers, over 60 being registered by a photograph from Reuters, the biggest number after the 2014 conflict.

Still, forceful answer, especially Israeli’s Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and even the dislocation of a significant number of military equipment, was not followed by the attack decision, potentially on War Cabinet’s agenda, assembled immediately after the hits exchange.

Also, the Israeli military answer was a lot under the intensity of the July one, during a  similar attack coming from Hamas. For things to be clearer, both parts’ manifested constraint, after Palestinian sources announced signing an armistice, with Egyptian mediation, on 18th of October, the Israeli authorities also announced that there were eliminated the security restrictions imposed in villages close to Gaza’s Strip border, and life in these villages come back to normal.

 “Missile’s diplomacy”, launched and unrecognized, worked this time, for Hamas. They made a superior, uppermost point, on negotiations agenda, about raising Gaza’s Strip blockade. For the Palestinian leaders it is a survival problem, for the Israelis it is a perspective that would open a Pandora Box, with immeasurable consequences over country’s security. The military solutions did now show its efficiency, and the political ones did not show up yet.

According to Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Administration negotiator for the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, the biggest responsibility is Hamas’s, which “through threats and violent attitude, warns the international community to improve the humanitarian situation from Gaza Strip”.

US Administration is hardly to be seen by the Palestinians as a mediator between sides, because of regional political and diplomatic decisions taken recently. The international community has, on the other hand, other crisis to solve. So Gaza’s Strip evolutions depend, lately, exclusively on Israeli and Palestinians political leaders.

As for the statements, except for some political accents, Israel and Hamas seem to have got to the conclusion that a new conflict would not solve Gaza’s Strip problem, maybe would just ensure “another 5 years of peace”, according to Israeli Defence Minister’s statement. If for Israeli, the status-quo of the situation is an acceptable option, for Hamas, it is not enough. After two hundred deaths, in 30 weeks of protests, Hamas’s leaders cannot comeback in the community they are leading only with reopening the Erez border point for those few combustible cisterns acquired with donations from Qatar. It is not enough.

For that end, the demonstrations will continue at the border between Gaza Strip and Israel. Maybe not at the level of those 20.000 protesters registered at the top moments. Maybe Israeli’s military authorities’ measures, to extend the separation area along the border, will also contribute at calming the situation.

Each Friday (the next one is the 31th one since the protests started), between Palestinians and Israelis, positioned along the 50km of barbed wire border, sensors, video camera, burnt rubber’s black smoke is heightening, and the Mediterranean breeze carries the dragon fires towards Israeli’s olive orchards.  Sometimes they are trying, by using explosive charges, but also the physical force of tens of demonstrants gathered at only one point, to destroy the fence and to get into Israel’s territory.  According to fence’s constructor, 30 seconds are enough for an organized group to produce a breach.

Hamas will not end these protests, because its aim is to get through it what it will never get through a conflict. Hamas will guide it. Hamas will ensure that it has the expected media effect.

But 20.000 protesters are hard to control. The excesses cannot be avoided. And a conflict, grown for years because of the tensions between the two communities, is only expecting a sparkle. This will be hard, if not impossible, to stop in the political emulation periods, like the electoral campaign, which is about to start in Israel.

The situation is stable, there are restraints from both parts, but each Friday can bring a new conflict, the fourth one, between Hamas and Israel. The next Friday is the 31th since the protests began.