The Deadly Political Paralysis behind the Gaza Flare-up
Fighting in Gaza killed 25 Palestinians and four Israelis on 3-6 May. In this Q&A, our Israel/Palestine Analyst Tareq Baconi links the violence to a continuing failure to ease restrictions on Gaza as agreed in a November ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Gaza’s dominant Palestinian group.
What happened in Gaza on 3-6 May?
On 3 May, around 5,000 Palestinians in Gaza gathered near the fence area separating the Gaza Strip from Israel for the Great March of Return protests that have been taking place every week since 30 March 2018. During the past year of protests, which were predominantly civilian-led and unarmed yet also included incidents where demonstrators used incendiary kites, burning tires and flaming balloons, Israeli army snipers used live-fire against protesters, killing a total of 275 and injuring more than 17,000 to date. During the protest last Friday, Israeli fire struck a number of protesters in the head and torso, rather than the lower limbs, causing several severe injuries. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, both factions in the Higher Committee of the Great March of Return, retaliated with gunfire, wounding two Israeli soldiers. Israel responded with strikes against military installations throughout the Gaza Strip, killing two members of al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing. Two of the seriously injured protesters who had been targeted by Israeli snipers earlier that day succumbed to their wounds.
Events unfolded rapidly afterward. On Saturday and Sunday, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other factions in Gaza fired close to 600 rockets indiscriminately into Israel, killing four Israeli civilians, the largest number of fatalities by rocket fire from Gaza since the 51-day Gaza war that began on 8 July 2014. Israel’s anti-rocket defence system, Iron Dome, intercepted 250 rockets, the majority of those that targeted populated areas.
In Gaza, Israel carried out more than 320 airstrikes, targeting military sites, weapons manufacturing depots, as well as residential buildings, shops and media institutions. Gaza’s Health Ministry stated that Israel’s attacks killed twenty-five Palestinians, including a fourteen-month-old baby and her pregnant aunt. Israel denied responsibility for the latter two deaths, claiming they were caused by misfired Hamas rockets. Israel also resumed its policy of targeted assassinations, which had been dormant since 2014, killing Hamid al-Khodary, a member of Hamas. The Israeli army claims that al-Khodary had been responsible for the transfer of Iranian funding to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Throughout the latest escalation, Egypt and the UN sought to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The leaders of Islamic Jihad and the Gaza political bureau of Hamas, Ziyad al-Nakhalah and Yahya Sinwar respectively, were already in Cairo, where they had travelled on Thursday to discuss implementation of past ceasefire agreements. By late Sunday night, the parties reportedly agreed on another ceasefire, which came into effect at 4:30am on Monday, 6 May. Although the flare-up has subsided, Palestinian factions issued a statement stressing that there will not be a lasting cessation of fire until Israel implements its obligations under past agreements.
Why did this outbreak of fighting in Gaza happen?
This escalation is part of a recurring trend that has been taking place since November 2018, and in other guises for the past twelve years. To a large extent, the current flare-up has its origins in failure to implement fully the ceasefire agreement Israel reached with Hamas, which was negotiated under UN and Egyptian auspices last November. That agreement stipulated that Hamas would restrain the scale and severity of the Great March of Return protests in return for Israel easing the restrictions it continues to impose on the Gaza Strip through a blockade that was officially instituted in 2007, following Hamas’s takeover of Gaza. As Crisis Group reported in November, the agreement was to advance in phases. The first step was to remove the risk of an unwanted escalation, while subsequent phases entailed measures that would address the humanitarian and economic situation in the Gaza Strip in more sustainable ways.
Since November, Hamas has largely maintained its side of the bargain, an assessment generally supported by Israeli security officials, who acknowledged Hamas’s cancelation of border protests in mid-March and restraining of them in late March and, on another occasion, stated that a rocket fired at Israel from Gaza was launched by mistake. Hamas has reduced the occurrence of violent and disruptive tactics among protesters, such as the use of incendiary devices, flaming kites and nightly disturbances, and it limited both the number of protesters and their proximity to the fence area. In return, Israel allowed monthly batches of Qatari fuel and funds to enter the Gaza Strip and expanded the naval area that Palestinian fishermen in Gaza can access.
However, the steps above were not consistently implemented (there were incidents of fire from Gaza and incursions by Israel, and at times Israel reversed its expansion of the fishing area and halted some of the Qatari payments) and the parties were not able to move beyond this initial calming of the situation. The ceasefire agreement stipulated other measures to lighten the blockade. These included permanently opening the strip’s two civilian crossings, one bordering Egypt and the other leading into Israel (there is a third crossing used only for goods); granting more permits for Gaza Palestinians to work in Israel; expanding the movement of imports and exports from the strip; and addressing the fuel shortages and electricity crisis in a sustainable manner to allow for the effective functioning of the power plant and other infrastructure in Gaza.
All these measures are fundamental for Gaza’s economy to function. While steps have been taken to address some of these issues – including through the provision of Qatari fuel, the announcement of further humanitarian projects by Qatar, and some progress toward donor-funded projects that have been in the works for years, including desalination and sewage treatment plants – Gaza’s situation remains precarious as the blockade has stunted the economy. Recognising this situation, the November ceasefire agreement stipulated that the blockade on Gaza be substantially lifted.
Although the two parties successfully avoided larger escalations, they have remained stuck at the very first phase of the agreement (that of taking the most preliminary steps to ease the blockade and prevent an escalation), thereby increasing the risk of subsequent flare-ups. As Israel failed to take additional measures to ease restrictions, Hamas began to renege on its commitment to restrain protests. This dynamic, evident since November, follows a familiar pattern: the two sides resume their confrontation; it typically ends with both reiterating their ceasefire commitments; Israel then fails to implement them, generally due to domestic constraints; in response, Hamas pressures Israel by removing restraints on the protests and other disturbances, giving rise to a new escalation.
Because even limited, temporary relief such as the injection of funds or fuel prompts Palestinian factions to reduce their protests, the Gaza issues tends to recede from the agenda both in Israel and among international stakeholders such as Egypt, the EU, the U.S. and the UN. This then alleviates the pressure and urgency on Israel to pursue further action in Gaza, leaving Palestinian factions on a treadmill of limited fuel and food relief, which is unsustainable given the general state of the economy.
That dynamic has played out once again. In March, during the most recent escalation prior to the one that ended on 6 May, the factions again reaffirmed their commitment to the ceasefire agreement. Hamas said it would restrain the large-scale “million-person” march that was planned for the one-year anniversary of the Great March of Return on 30 March, coinciding with Israel’s election campaign. For its part, Israel committed to resuming the transfer of Qatari fuel and funds, which were increased from $25m to $30m per month ($10m per month for fuel and $20m per month in funding for jobs and poor families). Political campaigning in the run up to the hotly disputed 9 April Israeli elections disincentivised Netanyahu from providing any major relief to the Gaza Strip, although Hamas claims it received assurances that Israel would implement the March ceasefire agreement after the voting. Israeli press also independently reported on such an understanding.
To break the cycle of limited ceasefire implementation, followed by escalations, Palestinian factions are now, as of Monday morning, demanding that all measures of the November ceasefire agreement be implemented comprehensively, in one go, rather than through the phased approach that has so far proven ineffective. It is unclear whether, at the time the latest ceasefire came into effect, Israel had accepted this demand. As of 7 May, Qatar has pledged $480m in funds for development and humanitarian aid to be distributed in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, with reports that $30m will be transferred to Gaza imminently as part of the ceasefire agreement. It remains unclear whether the factions will stick to their threat to escalate even after the passage of Qatari funds. Such an injection of relief could persuade Palestinian groups not to resort to an immediate escalation, yet ultimately leave both sides mired in the same unresolved dynamic, with a return to fighting – and, eventually, war – only a matter of time.
Why did the fighting break out now specifically?
The Gaza Strip has sunk to unprecedented levels of impoverishment and Hamas is hard pressed to demonstrate that its tactics over the course of the past few months are yielding results. Not only had Hamas largely co-opted the Great March of Return protests (which were originally initiated by Palestinian civil society), it had also negotiated with Israel to restrain that popular mobilisation in return for economic relief into the Gaza Strip that has not yet materialised. As Muslims prepare for the beginning of Ramadan this week, misery in the Gaza Strip is acute, with many families unable to afford basic goods and services.
Against this backdrop, several developments within Israel convinced Hamas that it might be able to force concessions in the limited window between the 9 April elections and 29 May, the date by which Netanyahu has to form a new governing coalition. First, during the period before Netanyahu forms his next coalition, which is expected to be more hawkish than his previous one, Hamas believes he may have greater freedom of manoeuvre to make concessions. Second, the flare-up took place days before Israel’s Memorial Day commemoration on 8 May, Independence Day celebration on 9 May, and the Eurovision contest that is set to take place in Israel on 14-18 May. (The Eurovision date coincides with 15 May, the day that Palestinians mourn the anniversary of the Nakba, their dispossession and dispersal that accompanied the creation of the State of Israel; unless there are signs that a ceasefire agreement is being implemented, that anniversary is likely to prove volatile.) Several Israeli ministers took pains to deny speculation in the Israeli press that these events, and especially the Eurovision contest, would give Israel an incentive to agree to a ceasefire. Contrary to these claims, Israeli defence officials say they were instructed by the political leadership to reach a ceasefire before Independence Day and the Eurovision contest.
What could happen next?
Neither Hamas nor Israel wants a new war. In past escalations, as in the current one, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have relied on rocket fire to try to compel Israel to meet its ceasefire commitments and lessen the blockade. While in this case, the immediate impetus for rocket fire from Gaza was to retaliate against Israel’s use of lethal force during the Friday protests, the overarching objective was to compel implementation of the November and March ceasefire agreements. A ceasefire has come into effect, but it is unclear whether the flare-up will succeed in moving Israel to take steps beyond immediate de-escalation.
The escalation of the past two days has also demonstrated the risk of remaining mired in the preliminary steps of the ceasefire agreement, while putting off implementation of longer-term solutions for Gaza. The careful balancing act that both parties have adopted in past flare-ups appeared a lot less calculated in this round. The deaths of Israeli citizens increased pressure on Netanyahu to respond. Similarly, Israel’s resumption of the use of targeted assassinations, with the killing of al-Khodary, was a significant threat to Hamas, one that could have compelled the movement to react even more forcefully. These developments suggest that the risk of a wider war from future flare-ups is now higher, even if the current cessation of fire holds.
What should be done to prevent further escalation of the Gaza conflict?
In the immediate term, as Crisis Group has repeatedly advocated since November, Israel should stick by the terms of the November ceasefire agreement and allow for greater quantities of goods to enter and especially exit the Gaza Strip; facilitate the transfer of Qatari fuel and funds into Gaza unhindered; and increase the permits it allocates to Gaza Palestinians to travel into Israel and the West Bank. Once these measures are implemented, and assuming Hamas complies with its own commitments under the November ceasefire, Israel should consider means of addressing Gaza’s humanitarian suffering in a more sustainable manner, by allowing large-scale humanitarian aid and economic development projects. Neither Israel nor Hamas is under the illusion that addressing Gaza’s humanitarian needs will bring about a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in the meantime it will serve the interests of both parties and lessen the suffering on both sides.