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Rumours of war, rumours of peace: Assessing Gaza's uneasy status quo

June 17, 2015 at 9:51 am

Almost a year on from the beginning of Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ and the ceasefire that ended hostilities has largely held, albeit with dozens of Israeli attacks on Gaza civilians, the continued blockade, and some half a dozen rocket launches. While the Israeli army and Palestinian factions prepare themselves in the event of a new confrontation, recent developments suggest that Gaza stands between the deterioration of a tense stand-off and a more substantial truce.

After August’s ceasefire, Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip never actually stopped, but instead returned to a grimly familiar level of routine shootings and incursions. By April, according to a coalition of more than 40 international aid agencies, there had been “more than 400 incidents of Israeli fire into Gaza” over the previous seven months.

From January 1 to March 31, 2015, Israeli forces killed 1 Palestinian, wounded 16, and conducted 6 land incursions and at least 67 shooting attacks in Gaza, during a period of zero rocket fire. It is similar to the state of affairs after ‘Operation Pillar of Defense’; from November 22, 2012 to February 22, 2013, Israeli forces killed 4 Palestinians and wounded 91 in Gaza, in daily attacks.

Thus once again, Israel has followed up a Gaza ceasefire agreement with almost daily violence targeting fishermen, farmers, protesters, and others. Of course, the same level of fire from Gaza into Israel would already have prompted another war; but few commentators have rushed to note the ‘restraint’ of Hamas and other Palestinian groups.

In addition to its actions in Gaza’s territorial waters and inside the border fence, the Israeli military is busy preparing for a future offensive. These preparations include spending millions of shekels on special training facilities for tunnel warfare, new “urban warfare training”, and building a 50 square meter, three-dimensional model of the Gaza Strip to help “prepare for operations”.

Some Israeli communities close to the Gaza border fence “continue to host IDF units“, as well as boasting “trained civilian armed response teams.” In April, Israeli media reported that the army is “training for the possible reconquering of the entire [Gaza Strip]” in another round of fighting described as “only a matter of time.”

Earlier this month, the Israeli army held a military exercise close to the Gaza Strip which it described as a “pre-planned part of yearly training exercises” intended to “maintain military preparedness.” In May, meanwhile, the US government cleared a $1.9 billion package for the Israeli military to resupply its air force with precision-guided munitions.

Palestinian factions have also been readying themselves for renewed hostilities. In March, al-Qassam Brigades (AQB) said it had rebuilt a number of its military bases and training facilities near the Gaza border fence. “No sooner has the war come to an end, than the AQB started a new stage of the conflict in preparation for the battle of liberation”, the statement read.

The rebuilding of the tunnel infrastructure is also reportedly underway, as is the manufacture of home-made rockets, to replace those fired or destroyed last year. It’s not just Hamas either. The Popular Resistance Committee’s al-Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades for example, the third largest armed faction in Gaza, has also shared its preparations for renewed fighting.

Since the August ceasefire, AQB has not fired a single rocket into Israel. According to Haaretz security correspondent Amos Harel, by May 30, 2015, rockets had been fired just six times from Gaza in 10 months, “all of them into open areas.” On June 3, and again on June 6, there were two more launches. Those last two incidents, causing neither damage nor injuries, were attributed to individuals claiming affiliation with Islamic State. Just “minutes” after the rocket fire on June 3, “Hamas sent a message to Israel via Egypt that responsibility for the attack lay with a Salafist group.”

Israel has responded to the sporadic rocket attacks of the last month with airstrikes on AQB-linked sites across the Gaza Strip. No matter which group actually carries out an attack, Hamas is held responsible. However, according to Israeli analysts, there is a discrepancy between on the one hand, tough “public declarations by Israel’s government”, and, on the other hand, Israeli actions such as “punitive attacks on Hamas [that] do not harm anyone.”

This approach was described in The Times of Israel by Avi Issacharoff as “embrace and contain, rather than pursue direct military confrontation.” Israeli journalist Ben Caspit went further, claiming that the Israeli army “is in favour of negotiations” with Hamas leading to “understandings.”

Issacharoff noted that Israel has allowed Qatar a “foothold” in Gaza through its representative Mohammed Al-Emadi, while also approving a visit by Turkey’s religious affairs minister. On June 10, Yesh Atid MK Haim Jelin complained of “negotiations between Hamas and Israel under our noses, via foreign embassies.” Responding, Deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan reportedly said that Hamas, “as the only effective body in Gaza”, does not want an escalation.

On June 8, Ya’alon defended a policy he described as “determined and decisive”, yet “also one that is measured and responsible.” He also vowed to “act with similar force [to ‘Operation Protective Edge’] in the future”, should Israel be “required to.” In the context, this June 3 photograph of Hamas forces watching Israeli bulldozers working on the border fence symbolises the uneasy status quo; there are rules to be observed, beyond the rhetoric.

Hamas, meanwhile, faces its own challenges. While AQB has held its fire for ten months, the Israeli strategy of strikes in response to Salafist rocket fire carries risks; what would happen, for example, if there were – even unintentional – casualties? An official statement on May 27, following Israeli airstrikes, said that Hamas “holds Israel fully responsible for the escalation and warns that it should not continue with this folly.”

The organisation will have taken heart from evidence of its continued popularity in a recent poll, where 39% of Palestinians in Gaza said they would vote for Hamas in parliamentary elections, up from 32% a year ago. In the West Bank too, support for Hamas had risen. However, 63% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip expressed dissatisfaction with the achievements of last year’s war, compared to the losses incurred.

According to Dr Saleh al-Na’ami, a Gaza-based journalist and university lecturer, neither party is interested in renewing hostilities. Hamas, for its part, “recognises that people are not ready” for a new war, while Israel knows that “it achieved nothing” with last year’s offensive. Dr. al-Na’ami cautioned, however, that should Gaza’s residents “feel there is no hope for the reconstruction or end of the siege”, then “they might prefer to go for a war that might bring a kind of change.”

While many in the Israeli media have discussed an apparent ‘split’ between Hamas’ political leadership and AQB over short-term strategic decisions and regional relations, analysts in Gaza play this down. Dr. Adnan Abu-Amer, a lecturer and commentator based at Gaza’s Al-Ummah University, points out that the difference of opinions is “normal”, because “any decision is decided democratically” and all levels of the group “commit to the final decision whatever it is.”

In the past week, stories have appeared concerning a possible truce deal being mediated indirectly by various parties – including a meeting between Tony Blair and Khalid Mish’al, where the former is reported to have discussed proposals for a longer-term calm in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzouq this week headed to Doha for talks with Mish’al that are said to include the potential for a long-term ceasefire agreement.

Hamas official Salah Bardawil, however, has denied any “contacts for a long-term period of calm under the auspices of any country”, stating that the group has no intention of coming to an arrangement separate from the agreement that ended hostilities last August. The remarks are likely directed at concerns about regionally or internationally-mediated understandings between Israel and Hamas turning Gaza into its own “mini-state.”

In parallel with these developments, there are also signs of small-scale efforts to defuse some of the hostility between the Egyptian regime and Hamas, with the latter’s officials holding a meeting with Egyptian intelligence chief Khalid Fawzi based on Qatari mediation in Doha. Hamas foreign relations chief Osama Hamdan, speaking to Aqsa TV on June 8, welcomed the decision of an Egyptian court to remove Hamas from a list of terrorist organisations.

Thus the summer begins with a kind of stalemate. For its part, Israel knows that a repeat of last year’s attack would be costly; both in terms of international legitimacy, and the lives of its own citizens. Invading the Gaza Strip, and retaining ground forces in an open-ended, renewed form of military rule would be even worse, on both counts.

Hamas, meanwhile, seeks a breakthrough for Gaza’s residents, and looks to relieve the pressure on the organisation. Thus Israel will probably tolerate isolated rocket attacks in open areas, while Hamas will remain “interested in calm” and continue its crackdown on the Salafists.

There are other factors too, such as a possible prisoner exchange, and the lack of a solution to Palestinian political division. But a more fundamental breakthrough is difficult to foresee; one Israeli defense official told Haaretz this week: “Why do we need to agree to a port or airport, or to other such decisions in return for quiet, as long as the quiet is being preserved by Israeli deterrence?”

This is a risky strategy. A blockaded Gaza Strip, lying in ruins and with rampant unemployment, is no recipe for ‘calm’. Furthermore, a rapid deterioration is also possible; the roots of last year’s war were at least partly in the West Bank, through events no one could have predicted. So Gaza is stuck between war and peace, battered and fenced-in, with no end in sight for the suffering of its population.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.