Palestinians on the Israeli border near Gaza City face tear gas fired by Israeli forces to disperse them during the latest Hamas-initiated ‘March of Return’ protest last weekend. (Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The Gaza Strip: Diplomacy’s Unsolvable Equation

A months-long diplomatic push to forge a comprehensive Israel-Hamas cease-fire has yet to bear fruit

Hamas has moderated a statement issued on Sunday claiming that the Egyptian- and United Nations-mediated efforts to forge a comprehensive, long-term cease-fire agreement with Israel have failed. On Tuesday, the Iran-backed Islamist group that took control of the Gaza Strip from rival Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in a violent coup in 2007, walked-back its declaration, instead suggesting that talks had “stalled.” Hamas nevertheless reiterated a previous vow to step up the months-long “March of Return” protests.

As promised, violent demonstrations erupted on Monday in the Palestinian enclave and, for the first time, off the coast in what was described as a “riot at sea.” The ensuing clashes with Israeli troops resulted in the death of at least one Gazan with scores more injured. The chaos was accompanied by the renewed launching of incendiary objects across the border, causing wildfires throughout southern Israel.

Dr. Zaki Shalom, Senior Research Fellow at the Tel-Aviv based Institute for National Security Studies, attributes Hamas’ willingness to enflame tensions to Israel’s explicit aversion to the outbreak of a major conflagration. “The problem in Gaza begins and ends with the fact that Israel has lost its deterrence,” he contended to The Media Line.

“It’s not that the [army] does not have the ability to crush Hamas, but rather Israel lacks the legitimacy to use its powers at this time. Hamas knows this, [a reality made starker] when the Israeli government repeats publicly that it does not want an escalation. That is why under the current [dynamic] there will be no truce.”

Whereas Hamas—listed as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and European nations—is, unsurprisingly, taking its frustration out on the Jewish state, one of the group’s representatives notably blamed the impasse on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction.

Despite the signing of numerous reconciliation deals between the rivals, the PA boss is still refusing to re-assume administrative control over Gaza so long as Hamas remains armed and in control of local security forces. Moreover, Abbas’ West Bank-based government has imposed sanctions on the enclave—and even went so far as to request that Israel reduce the already-limited amount of electricity provided to Gaza—leading to a deepening intra-Palestinian divide that the UN’s special envoy to the Middle East recently stressed was in part responsible for the worsening humanitarian situation.

“Nothing has changed; Hamas must hand over full government responsibilities in Gaza to the PA in order to reach a unity deal,” Fatah spokesman Ziad Khalil Abu Zayyad asserted to The Media Line. “Additionally, any treaty forged directly between Hamas and Israel represents another step towards separating the Palestinian lands within the context of [United States President Donald Trump’s yet-unveiled] ‘deal of the century.'”

Given the prevailing circumstances, conditions in Gaza are liable to deteriorate before they improve, a scenario that could spark civil unrest, which, in turn, might induce Hamas to raise the stakes with Israel in order to divert attention away from its own internal failings.

In fact, staff members of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency—which attends to some 1.8 million Palestinian refugees and also is Gaza’s largest employer—declared a one-day strike this week to protest layoffs prompted by the suspension of American aid to the organization. This comes after thousands of people took to the streets to demonstrate against the cutbacks, with a top UNRWA official accusing the body’s labor union of “mutiny.”

While protesters have given UNRWA until Thursday to reverse course, its chief nevertheless announced Monday night that schools and health centers could be shut down as early as mid-October unless a budget shortfall of $185 million is filled.

Compounding matters is a growing shortage of fuel in Gaza, which will become progressively problematic as winter approaches and families are unable to heat their homes.

“Hamas is under siege and there are signs that people are starting to blame the group. This has occurred in the past but it is more public than ever,” Brig. Gen. (res.) Hanan Gefen, former head of the Israeli military’s elite Intelligence Corps Unit 8200, explained to The Media Line. “At the same time, Hamas has no way out because sponsors like Iran, for example, will supply it with weaponry but not finances. And Turkey only offers [sympathetic] rhetoric [unaccompanied] by tangible action. Therefore, there are few options other than the border protests as it is unlikely that Hamas will launch a full-scale attack.

“The big question for Israel,” he continued, “is how to avoid an intensification without empowering [Gaza’s terror regime]. Once you start opening things up and allowing goods to enter, a great percentage of the population will return to supporting Hamas. As such, Israel cannot do much more than provide the basics—some electricity, water and food—because Hamas remains zealous in its commitment to destroying [the Jewish state].”

Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel, former director of the Counter-Terrorism Bureau at the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and prior to that deputy commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, agrees that Jerusalem has little maneuverability. “Besides containing the friction along the frontier there is nothing that can be done, as this [battle] is between Abbas and [Hamas leader in Gaza Yahya] Sinwar. The violent consequences we are seeing is the direct result of this [internal Palestinian] politicking,” he elaborated to The Media Line.

“But the economic situation may push the parties to reach a solution, perhaps within weeks. Hamas also has concluded that it cannot govern Gaza and will try to copy the model of Hizbullah [in Lebanon] by retaining its military capabilities. Abbas cannot accept this but I expect there to be a compromise.”

The importance of bridging this gap was made more acute by a World Bank report published Tuesday warning that Gaza’s economy is in “free fall” and at risk of “immediate collapse.” The analysis found that the enclave’s GDP contracted by 6 percent in the first quarter of this year with unemployment surging to more than 50%, a number that increases to 70% among youth.

The report further noted, with palpable pessimism, that the situation can no longer be alleviated through foreign aid nor by a grossly under-developed private sector, thereby reinforcing the notion that only a complete structural and systemic overhaul is required to keep the Gaza powder keg at bay.

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