The Gaza Strip and its residents are barreling towards disaster, brought on by crippling unemployment, a nonexistent economy, water and electricity shortages, a growing population and the “Islamic dictatorship” of Hamas, while the IDF is trying — and thus far succeeding — to keep the coastal enclave’s terrorist leaders deterred and contained, a senior IDF officer from the Southern Command said Sunday.
The army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, rattled off worrying statistics from the Gaza Strip: 41.2 percent unemployment, the highest unemployment rate in the world, according to the World Bank; a per capita GDP of NIS 6,488 ($1,725), which if Gaza were a country, would put it near the lowest in the world, between Haiti ($1,750) and Burkina Faso ($1,724), according to the International Monetary Fund; an economy that is mostly made up of foreign aid and charity from international organizations; and a population of 1.9 million — and growing.
Moreover, reconstruction following the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, has been slow, in part because Hamas has siphoned off a substantial portion of the reconstruction materials in order to create new attack, defense and smuggling tunnels, according to Israeli authorities.
“Hamas is not rebuilding Gaza, it’s rebuilding its military capabilities,” the officer told reporters.
As Hamas is working around the clock to rearm and dig deeper fortifications and attack tunnels, the IDF and Defense Ministry are shoring up Israel’s protection against the threat of terror attacks and rocket fire from the Gaza Strip and preparing for the next round of conflict, he said.
Though many details of the project remain secret, Israel is in the process of creating “a barrier that will provide a response to above-ground and below-ground threats,” the officer said.
The barrier will include an underground concrete wall to prevent tunneling at certain depths, along with a sensor-laden fence.
“If the budget comes at the right rate, then the barrier will be built in a matter of months,” the officer said.
The IDF is also working to improve its subterranean fighting tactics, along with its strategies to defend — and potentially evacuate — Israeli communities along the Gaza border.
“We’re turning the underground into a death trap for Hamas. We’re putting a lot of effort into that,” the officer said.
“We’re preparing to protect communities during an operation and improving the defenses. We’re also preparing a plan to evacuate communities. There will be flexibility in making decisions of if we have to evacuate communities, and which ones,” he added.
In June, a senior Defense Ministry official (who was almost certainly Avigdor Liberman) told reporters that Israel could not stomach a drawn-out war of attrition so “the next confrontation must be the last in terms of Hamas’s regime.”
The senior officer in the IDF’s Southern Command would not confirm that the army’s battle plans include the ousting of Hamas from the Strip, but said the next bout would be “heavy” and would deliver a “harsh blow” to the terrorist organization.
Beyond that, the officer would only say that “the plans were are preparing will follow the instructions that are set for us on the political level.”
The senior officer, echoing claims made with other defense officials and politicians, noted that a worsening economic and social situation in Gaza creates a sense of desperation, that “there is nothing to lose.”
In what has become a constant refrain over the past two years, the officer added: “An outburst, in our opinion, is just a matter of time.”
However, he stressed, for now Hamas is deterred.
To hell in a handbasket
Despite Israeli and international attempts to control the flow of building materials, cement coming into the Strip, first goes to the military wing of Hamas where they “take what they need” and from there it goes to civilians, the official said.
As such, only a fraction of the buildings that have been approved for construction have actually been built, the officer said.
In addition to the illicit pilfering of materials and funds coming into the Gaza Strip, Hamas has also levied “draconian taxes” on the people of Gaza, charging NIS 5 ($1.33) for every package of cigarettes and NIS 30 ($8) on every carton of fruit, according to IDF figures.
Hamas’s alleged commandeering of building materials and funds further disincentivizes Israel from easing the restrictions on imports into Gaza and allowing residents of the Strip to enter Israel to work.
“Hamas is using every alleviation we give for its own interests,” he said, pointing to recent attempts to illegally bring cars and electronics into Gaza through the Kerem Shalom and Erez Crossings.
“People who leave through Erez, pass messages [to Hamas operatives in the West Bank] and direct attacks, and Kerem Shalom is being used for smuggling,” the officer said.
Besides the beleaguered Strip’s economic woes, Gaza is on track to almost entirely run out of potable water by 2020 and become “uninhabitable,” according to a 2015 United Nations report.
The postponement of elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip only adds to the atmosphere of desperation and unrest in the coastal region, the senior officer said.
When asked about some residents of the Strip who reportedly cross into Israel with weapons, not to carry out attacks, but specifically in order to get arrested, the official responded: “As they say, sometimes an Israeli prison is better than life in Gaza.”
Two weeks ago, in a “abnormal” incident, an 8-year-old Palestinian child entered Israel, the officer said, only to be picked up by security forces and eventually returned to Gaza.
The calmest in decades
Though Israel’s military sees conflict with Hamas as a matter of when, not if, the years since Operation Protective Edge have seen little violence emanating from the Gaza Strip.
‘The past two years haven’t been the quietest in a decade, they’re the quietest in decades’
“The past two years haven’t been the quietest in a decade, they’re the quietest in decades,” the officer from the Southern Command said.
Since the 2014 war, Israeli forces have wounded hundreds of Hamas members and killed 34, the majority of them in clashes along the security fence; yet there has only been one case of Hamas hitting back — a few shots fired at troops in the Gaza Strip as they uncovered and destroyed a tunnel into Israel.
“That points to deterrence,” the officer said.
None of the 40 rockets from Gaza that have hit Israel have been fired by Hamas, but rather by Salafist and other more extreme groups, usually as a result of “internal conflict,” according to the officer.
The Israel Air Force strikes Hamas installations in response to the rocket fire, regardless of its origin, in order to force Hamas to better control the “rebellious groups” in Gaza, the official said.
“We’re trying not to hit civilians, and we’re trying not to hit civilian infrastructure,” he said.
Brushing off the allegation that Israel strikes “sand dunes” in Gaza, the officer showed slides of recent targets, including antennae, factories that produce concrete structures for tunnels and military outposts.
Over the past two years, those retaliatory air and artillery strikes have been more measured, with the notable exception of a massive aerial bombardment in August against key Hamas strategic assets, after a rocket struck Sderot.
“We took advantage of an opportunity” — i.e., the rocket attack on Sderot — “to both send a message and to test some of our capabilities,” the officer said, being deliberately vague about what those capabilities were.
With no end to Hamas or permanent solution for Gaza in sight, the officer had little hope to offer, other than the vigilance and preparedness of the IDF for the war to come.