Gaza faces uncertain future
UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov did not mince words when he briefed the UN Security Council on the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“The humanitarian crisis [in Gaza] has deepened, the political stalemate between Hamas and Fatah has worsened and the prospect of another deadly round of violence is growing by the day,” Mladenov said July 24.
Violence flared in recent weeks between Hamas and Israel. Since the start of July, Hamas and other militants in Gaza fired nearly 300 rockets and mortar shells towards Israel and the Israeli Air Force launched about 200 missiles and artillery shells against targets in the besieged coastal enclave, Mladenov said.
Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007 after winning the Palestinian legislative elections and a violent struggle against Fatah, led by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.
The latest ceasefire between Hamas and Israel was agreed after another bout of violence on July 20 but observers see the situation as fragile. The ceasefire “hangs by a thread,” said Gary Grappo, a former US ambassador and head of mission of the Middle East Quartet in Jerusalem.
The escalation is the most serious flare-up since the 2014 war that led to the death of more than 2,100 Palestinians and 66 Israeli soldiers as well as seven civilians in Israel. It comes when the humanitarian situation in Gaza is deteriorating, with electricity supply reportedly down to three hours per day. More than half of the population lives below the poverty line and unemployment stands at almost 50%.
Israel has closed the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing into Gaza — only letting in goods deemed as “humanitarian” — in reaction to incendiary kites and balloons being launched into Israel from Gaza. The devices reportedly destroyed 3,500 hectares of Israeli land.
Despite the ceasefire and partial reopening of the commercial crossing on July 24, the situation in Gaza “is not sustainable at all,” said Omar Shaban, the founder of PalThink for Strategic Studies, a think-tank in Gaza. “Everything is getting worse by the hour,” he said.
In a development that could deepen the humanitarian crisis, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) terminated the contracts of 100 emergency personnel and will move 900 other employees to a part-time system by the end of the year. The decision came after UNRWA reported a large funding gap after United States withheld funding to the agency.
Speaking to the leadership of the Israel Defence Forces, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel was not interested in a war against Hamas. However, he warned the Islamist group that Israel was not deterred from starting a military campaign. “So everything that happens from here on with regard to the Gaza Strip is solely the responsibility of the Hamas leadership,” Lieberman was quoted as saying.
The Israeli government has come under “huge pressure from the population in the south to deal with the fires along the Gaza border,” Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, said in comments to the British Israel Communications and Research Centre.
While the relative calm has been praised, a stable peace does not seem imminent. “None of the underlying issues in Gaza have been resolved,” said Nathan Thrall, project director for the Arab-Israeli conflict at Crisis Group.
Gaza suffers under a land, air and sea blockade and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority against Gaza remain in place.
Hamas “wants to give up responsibility for governance,” but the PA “doesn’t want to take it,” Thrall said. Despite efforts to achieve unity, Fatah and Hamas remain divided.
Israel, Shaban said, would see further kites and balloons from Gaza as equivalent to rockets. Lieberman’s message to Hamas was clear: Prevent the launch of kites. The main factions in Gaza will aim to adhere to this, Shaban said, but the situation is “very fragile.”
Observers were divided on whether Hamas was keen to agree to a long-term deal to guarantee stability.
Grappo said this as “highly unlikely in the near or even medium-term future,” pointing to Hamas’s opposition to recognising the state of Israel and use of violence. He predicted a continuation of the economic blockade on Gaza by Israel, Egypt and the PA.
Thrall said Hamas seeks an “arrangement that lets it keep its weapons while turning over responsibility for governance of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority.” Towards that end, Hamas “is prepared to enter a ceasefire with Israel of several years in exchange for the lifting of the blockade.”
Without a lifting of the blockade on Gaza, Thrall said: “Hamas intends to avoid a new war while using some of its non-military forms of leverage… to pressure Israel and call international attention to the blockade.”
The situation in Gaza is likely to remain desperate. “This is too much for humans or animals to bear,” Shaban said.