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Analysis

BICOM Analysis: Behind the Gaza stand-off

Key Points

  • Both Israel and Egypt are concerned at the possible emergence of a permanent Islamist enclave in Gaza.
  • However, as the cost to Israel of destroying Hamas’s rule by force would be high and the results uncertain, the most likely scenario, for now at least, is the continued survival of Hamas-run Gaza, whether or not the current ceasefire is renewed.
  • Israel’s control over access to the Gaza Strip looks set to face increasing challenges from smuggling tunnels under the Rafah border and boats attempting to land on the coast.

Introduction

Nearly three years have now passed since Hamas’s election victory on January 25, 2006 heralded the Islamist movement’s arrival to the front rank of Palestinian politics. In June, 2007, Hamas seized power in Gaza, and has since maintained itself as the sole governing authority there.  Hamas’s control of Gaza is opposed by the Arab League, and remains outside of and opposed to the frameworks of negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians. Nevertheless, the movement’s hold on the area remains secure. This means that there currently exists a de facto situation whereby 40% of the Palestinian population west of the Jordan River live under Hamas rule. The weakened six month ceasefire between Hamas controlled Gaza and Israel is due to expire on December 18. It was hoped that the temporary lull, agreed indirectly through Egyptian mediation, would enable the re-commencement of negotiations over the fate of kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, as well as allowing the residents of western Negev towns to enjoy a period of normality.[i] It is currently unclear whether it will be renewed at all, and if it is, what form the renewed ceasefire will take.  This document looks at the current situation in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and will seek to outline the strategic and tactical debate on both sides.

Gaza: the present situation

Under the terms of the ceasefire, Hamas was to cease the cross-border rocket fire directed at the Israeli communities in the western Negev.  If this was achieved, Israel would gradually ease the embargo on Gaza which began after the Hamas seizure of power there in July, 2007. Overall, it has considerably reduced the amount of rocket and shellfire on the communities of the western Negev and allowed residents there to enjoy a welcome period of normal life. During the ceasefire Israel has continued to supply the fuel and electricity needs of Gaza, whilst allowing an increased volume of goods to enter Gaza from Israel.

But the ceasefire failed to eradicate rocket fire entirely, In the very first week mortar shells were launched by Islamic Jihad and Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, who claimed to be avenging Israeli actions in the West Bank, where the ceasefire does not apply. Since then, the occasional rocket and mortar fire from Gaza has routinely led to the borders being closed to goods on the following day  but has not brought the lull to an end. 

The southern exit from the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian controlled Rafah crossing, has also been sealed since June 2008.  Egypt has on a number of occasions opened the crossing to allow Gazans requiring medical care to enter and exit the Strip but has adamantly refused to allow goods to pass through. Egypt fears the possibility that allowing goods to pass through Rafah would lead to the sense that Cairo has accepted some responsibility for the Strip – a sense which it wishes very much to avoid. [ii] 

The ceasefire has come under serious strain since early November.  On November 4, IDF forces carried out an operation to abort a Hamas plan to construct a tunnel between Gaza and Israel in order to carry out the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. Six Hamas fighters were killed in the course of the operation.  In the following two weeks, Palestinian organizations fired more than 140 rockets into Israel, 17 Palestinian fighters were killed in IDF operations, and the crossings have remained mostly sealed because of the violence. Over the last weekend more than 20 Qassam rockets and mortar shells were fired from Gaza. One rocket landed in the industrial zone of Ashkelon, now a regular target as a result of the increasing range of the rockets. Defence Minister Barak subsequently announced the suspension, again, of the transfer of goods from Israel into Gaza because of the attacks.

A situation of conflict, rising and falling in intensity, is a predictable state of affairs between Israel and a Hamas controlled entity formally committed to its destruction. But what is the likely direction of events? Even if the ceasefire continues to deteriorate, might Hamas rule in Gaza endure, simply because of the high cost to Israel of bringing it to an end, Hamas’s firm hold on the territory, and the absence of any alternative authority which could control the area in its place? Observation of the debate on both the Israeli and Hamas sides offers some clues.

Divisions in Hamas

A recent report in Haaretz newspaper revealed emerging divisions between the Hamas political leadership in Damascus, headed by Khaled Ma’ashal, and the Gaza leadership.  The paper quoted a document sent by the Damascus leadership, in which it expressed its displeasure at what it regards as the Gaza leadership’s deliberate foiling of Egyptian efforts to mediate a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah in Cairo. The document suggests that the Gaza leaders are foiling reconciliation efforts because they do not wish to give up exclusive power in Gaza. The Damascus leadership are apparently concerned because Fatah repression of Hamas in the West Bank is damaging the movement’s chances of growth there, and because the de facto split in the Palestinian national movement does not serve the overall interests of the Palestinians. The Haaretz article also notes repots that the Gaza leadership are currently pushing for its representation in the Shura Council, Hamas’s controlling body, to be increased from 34% to a controlling 51%.[iii]

These reports suggest that control in Gaza has opened up a new dynamic in Hamas. The individuals engaged in the government of the Strip appear to be developing policy designed above all to enable them to stay in power. The Damascus leadership may object, but the Gaza leadership of Mahmoud Zahar and Said Siyam have proved adept at seeing off internal rivals, and it is difficult to see how the Damascus leadership can coerce the Gazans into obedience. This raises the question of whether the Gaza Hamas leaders are content to reach a de facto modus vivendi with both Israel and Egypt, whereby without formal relations or a formal diplomatic process, Hamas-controlled Gaza simply continues in existence, in a state of latent but manageable conflict with its neighbours. 

It is likely that there are those in Hamas who favour such a situation.  However, there is also growing evidence of increasing Islamist radicalization within Hamas in Gaza, which may end up preventing this, by engaging in actions which provoke an Israeli response. According to recent reports, the ultra-conservative al-Qaida style Salafi Islamism is on the rise in the Hamas armed wing, the Izz a din al-Qassam Brigades. It is claimed that the current leader of the Brigades, Ahmed al-Jabari, is a Salafi, as is his deputy, Nizar Reyyan, and the majority of the five Brigade commanders within al-Qassam. Such elements would oppose any long term ceasefire with Israel.[iv]

Their capabilities are increasing as a result of smuggling of weaponry into Gaza from northern Sinai. They are now thought to have in their possession advanced wire-guided anti-tank weapons systems, as well as large numbers of RPG-29 grenade launchers. Reyyan has been responsible for overseeing the creation of a military force modelled on Hizballah in the Strip – including territorial commands, organized brigade and battalion formations, and specialized units, and involving subterranean fortifications and tunnels. 

The rise of support for ‘Salafiyya’ within Hamas, especially in the movement’s armed wing, could prove the factor which prevents the emergence of a long-term, de facto rule by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, by causing escalation which hastens a large scale Israeli military response. There has also been a notable rise in non-Hamas affiliated Salafi groups in Gaza, such as the Jaish al-Islam.

A shift in the opposite direction, whereby pressure from the Damascus-based leadership might eventually induce the Gaza leadership to give up exclusive control in Gaza, currently seems unlikely. In the same way that the establishment of the PA in 1993 caused the increasing irrelevance of the overseas PLO structures, it may well be that Hamas’s control of Gaza is serving to sideline the Damascus leadership. 

The debate in Israel

Israel of course rejects the legitimacy of Hamas rule in Gaza.  However, the Israeli response since the Hamas coup of June 2007 has been to pragmatically respond to events – responding to attacks but refraining from a major operation to destroy Hamas rule in the Strip – while making clear to Hamas that this approach will continue only for as long as Hamas avoids escalating the situation beyond a certain point.

Israeli policy toward Hamas-controlled Gaza has included a number of seemingly contradictory moves indicating a general lack of clarity in its approach. Whilst Israel has responded to rocket fire by sealing the goods crossings into Gaza, in recent months, Israel has placed less stress on the issue of the extensive smuggling taking place via the tunnel network between northern Sinai and Gaza. This lack of clarity has been reflected also, for example, in Israel’s response to attempts to land boats in Gaza by a variety of Arab and international bodies. Keen to avoid a PR disaster, the Israeli authorities chose to allow three boats from the Free Gaza movement which set out from Cyprus to land in Gaza but turned back a boat chartered by Libya, which is technically in a state of war with Israel. An Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said last week that Israel would respond to the boats on a case by case basis, which appears to be a softening of Israel’s position.[v]  

Despite having withdrawn from Gaza in 2005, the Israeli government accepts its responsibility to provide for the humanitarian needs of Gaza, as determined by an Israeli High Court ruling, due to the ties of dependency built up over the years of the occupation. But given that one of the aims of the disengagement is to rid Israel of the responsibility for Gaza, might some in the Israeli government think that a gradual weaning of Gaza from dependency on Israel is welcome in the long run?

Whilst the slightly more relaxed attitude of late to the tunnels and to the sea access may indicate a marginal shift in this direction, there is little evidence at the moment that Israel is doing anything more than responding to events, rather than implementing a clear strategy. There are voices in Israel calling for a more direct confrontation with Hamas. But the approach of ‘keeping the lid’ on the situation derives mainly from the heavy cost of a military operation to destroy Hamas rule in Gaza or to prevent the smuggling of goods under the Rafah border, and the fact that it is not clear what would follow such an operation. Israel has no desire to remain in occupation in Gaza. The West Bank Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, would not wish to be seen to receive control of the Strip as a result of an IDF operation. The threat from Hezbollah over the Lebanese border is also a factor to be considered.  Israel is watching the growing political and military strength of Hezbollah with concern, and the possibility of conflict there increases Israeli caution over becoming embroiled in Gaza. 

Conclusion

The benefits of the ailing ceasefire are under question in Israel.  Both Israel and Egypt are concerned at the possible emergence of a permanent Islamist enclave in Gaza.  For the Egyptians, such an enclave would offer an unwelcome focus for Islamist opposition to the current regime in Cairo.  For Israel, the entrenchment of a Hamas regime in Gaza represents a cardinal obstacle to substantive advancement toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians, despite recent advances in co-operation between Israel and the PA in the West Bank. 

But the most likely scenario, for now at least, is the continued survival of Hamas-run Gaza, whether or not the ceasefire is renewed. Hamas faces no internal challenge in the Strip, where it is has successfully consolidated its control, and appears unlikely to share power with its Fatah rivals. The cost to Israel of destroying its rule by force would be high and the results uncertain.  Therefore something resembling the current situation is likely to continue until either an unpredictable escalation brings about a major Israeli operation, or Hamas itself, influenced by the increasingly radical elements within it, chooses to launch a provocation. At the same time, the increasing scale of the smuggling from Egypt, and the various attempts to land boats on the Gaza coast, will increasingly challenge Israel’s determination to control access to the territory.

 


[i] “Israel agrees to Gaza ceasefire,” BBC News, June 18, 2008.

[ii] Khaled Abu Toameh, “Egypt: Rafah closed until Shalit freed,” Jerusalem Post, August 14, 2008.

[iii] Avi Issacharoff, “Documents obtained by Haaretz reveal rift among Hamas leaders,” Haaretz, November 25, 2008.

[iv] Jonathan Spyer, “Al-Qaida style extremism gains real power within Hamas,” Jerusalem Post, December 3, 2008

[v] Israeli-Arabs plan to go to Gaza by boat, Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post, December 3, 2008