How to Avert a New War in Gaza
Tensions between Israel and Hamas reignited this spring in the worst fighting since their 2014 war, sparking fears that another full-scale conflict could break out this summer. Certainly the incentives for escalation continue. There have been Gazan injuries during the riots along Israel-Gaza border; the murder of an Israeli student in the West Bank last week, decried as a terrorist event, is another.
Up to now, both sides have repeatedly used diplomatic back channels to restore calm, at least temporarily. This pattern cannot hold endlessly. Gaza needs long-term strategic changes to address the underlying instability.
For Hamas, serious escalation remains undesirable. It already faces a strategic crisis trying to rule Gaza day to day, and it has no reliable strategic patron that can ensure a continuous flow of economic aid. It also remembers well the 2014 war, which led to massive damage throughout Gaza without any tangible achievements for itself.
Israel’s decision making is more complicated. Terrorism and other military threats emanating from Gaza are intolerable in their own right, and can encourage terror in the West Bank. On the other hand, Israel does not want further humanitarian deterioration in Gaza, which can influence the election process in Israel, as well as harm the chance of success for the U.S. peace plan. Moreover, Israel doesn’t want a distraction from its highest national security threat, namely Iranian and Hezbollah entrenchment in Israel’s northern arena.
There are things both sides can do, in their own best interests, to keep this steady, if uneasy, deterrence working.
First, Israel should maintain its military superiority and deterrence over extremist factions in Gaza – primarily Hamas, but also Palestinian Islamic Jihad – which makes these extremist factions reluctant to conduct significant terror activity against Israel.
Second, both sides should maintain communication channels, mostly through Egyptian (and if needed Qatari) mediators. That mechanism has been deepened in recent years, and can help clarify intentions, mitigate miscalculations and open the door for negotiation efforts and ceasefire talks.
Third, both sides must also build upon recent initiatives to improve Gaza’s dire economic situation. Qatar provides humanitarian aid that has helped improve Gaza’s electrical infrastructure. Israel has also expanded fishing zones, promoted an initiative to build an industrial zone near the Israel-Gaza border and increased the number of Gazans allowed to work in Israel.
Israel should go further though: It should also consider a wider worker transfer program into Israel and continue the electrical, water and sewage infrastructure improvement projects for Gaza. These efforts can coincide with the United Nations and donor countries establishing more industrial areas along the Israel-Gaza border. There is also a need to provide incentives to promote international and Israeli private investment in a high-tech sector inside Gaza. For Gaza’s economy to flourish, its internet speed will need to double and become much cheaper.
Assistance for providing basic services to Gaza, such as health and education, also requires rethinking. U.S. funding cuts to the Palestinian Authority and United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – a problematic organization to be sure, but also a major food and education supplier to Gaza – could worsen the situation. Instead of completely cutting off financial support for Palestinian services, the United States should gradually push the international community away from funding UNRWA, and toward other support agencies less connected to Gaza’s current failures, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Finally, the Gaza Strip’s political structure and its dependence on the Palestinian Authority (PA) for economic support and management – although Hamas has effectively controlled Gaza since a coup d’etat in June 2007 – hinders its development. Without PA support, Gaza’s economy and infrastructure will deteriorate further under Hamas’ mismanagement.
Since Gaza is becoming increasingly ungovernable, Hamas is looking to offload some of its responsibilities. This creates an opportunity to overcome the current political stalemate through a different form of governance in Gaza. Reconciliation between Hamas and the PA looks impossible, but a government led by technocrats, individuals with expertise in the service and infrastructure areas where Gaza is deficient, could put more capable managers in charge of Gaza. That would provide an opportunity for the PA to return to Gaza and for greater aid from Israel, Egypt and the international community.
With neither Israel nor Hamas wanting another war, the fragile situation between them might seem the best that can be achieved. However, it doesn’t take much for low-grade conflict to escalate. Gaza’s deterioration requires more comprehensive economic and political steps if war is to be averted.
Ram Yavne is a Brigadier General (retired) and former head of strategic planning in the Israel Defense Forces. He is a Distinguished Fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), where Ari Cicurel is a policy analyst.
Originally appeared in Bloomberg on August 12, 2019.