Gaza is going to get worse before it gets better

Gaza is going to get worse before it gets better

Neither Israel nor Hamas believes it can afford to blink in the standoff over the territory’s future, and both have more pressing priorities than the wellbeing of Gazans

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, gestures to demonstrators at a a protest camp during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza Strip east of Gaza City on May 18, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas, gestures to demonstrators at a a protest camp during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza Strip east of Gaza City on May 18, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Friday, June 8, is going to be “bigger than any previous demonstration,” Hamas officials promised this week ahead of the latest Palestinian mass-protest at the Israel-Gaza border.

It’s an important day: the last Friday of Ramadan, declared “Al-Quds [Jerusalem] Day” in 1979 by the Iranian regime. It is also the Friday after Naksa Day on June 5, which marks the second wave of Palestinian dislocation after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War. And it may be Hamas’s last chance for a while to achieve a “victory image” in its border protests – a penetration of the border, a dead Israeli soldier, anything that might validate its claim that Israel isn’t all-powerful, and therefore that Gazans’ continued suffering in the permanent war to dislodge the Jewish state isn’t in vain.

Yet the Gaza border protests are now two months old. While Hamas can point to the enormous international attention they have garnered, it needs to show something more from the bloodshed than a public relations boon.

The world’s attention has rightly focused on the Gazans killed and wounded in the protests (though even Hamas acknowledges most of the dead are members of either it or Islamic Jihad). But closer to home, in the planning echelons in Israel and Gaza, neither side believes it has the luxury of engaging in a UN-style bout of moralizing. Too much is at stake.

IDF soldiers seen near tanks at an army base near the border with the Gaza Strip, May 30, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hamas initiated the protests (no protests can take place in Gaza without its permission, and little political activism happens in Gaza’s public spaces not at its instigation) primarily as a distraction from the growing sense among Gazans that it is responsible for no small part of their plight. Gaza under Hamas is engaged in permanent conflict not only with Israel, but with Egypt too, and even, more recently, with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.

That didn’t happen by accident. Hamas has ideological allies and patrons who often figure more prominently in its strategic priorities than the Gazans under its rule. These include its ideological forebears in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, its allies in Qatar and in the Erdogan government in Turkey, and its more recent backers in Tehran. It was in the service of some of these patrons, for example, that Hamas entered the civil war in Egypt between the Brotherhood and the country’s army, siding explicitly with the Brotherhood and dragging beleaguered Gaza into a conflict not its own. When Egypt’s army emerged victorious, it took its revenge by shuttering Gaza’s last open border in 2014.

Gazans have no love for Israel, but Hamas knows well that it cannot really explain away all Gaza’s ills under its rule as Israel’s doing.

And so it needs a distraction, some way of throwing as much spotlight and responsibility onto Israel as possible. This need is not new, nor is it going to change anytime soon. And it is achieved in only one way, at least in the limited imagination of Hamas’s traditionalist leaders: by ensuring that Israel kills, wounds, and otherwise photogenically harms as many Palestinians as possible.

This obvious strategic fact does not necessarily exonerate Israel morally or legally if it decides to respond to the border protests with vastly more force than is required to achieve legitimate military aims. (Israel says it doesn’t, and that the high number of Hamas and Islamic Jihad members among the dead demonstrates that the IDF targets instigators and violent or armed persons at the protests, and does not shoot randomly into the crowds.)

Palestinian protesters hold stones during a demonstration along the border with the Gaza strip east of Gaza city on June 1, 2018. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Nor does it necessarily incriminate those large elements among the border protesters who were genuinely and in many cases peacefully protesting Gaza’s suffering. That suffering, from daily electricity and water shortages, to economic stagnation, to the difficulty in traveling outside the narrow coastal territory either through Egypt or Israel, is real and measurable. Some of the 40,000 who stood at the border that infamous May 15, and who may again attend the demonstrations on June 8, sought simply to place their cause on the world’s agenda. That remains true whether this group accounts for most of the protesters, or only a small minority of them – and in the cloud of propaganda, it is hard to say with certainty which is the case.

But these important caveats do not change the hard and bitter truths that accompany any foray into Middle Eastern politics. One of the most fundamental of these is that the suffering of ordinary people is rarely allowed to get in the way of strategic interests or the region’s myriad redemptive ideologies.

Hamas views itself as a vehicle for the redemption of Palestine. It sees its permanent war with Israel as part of a broader program of Islamic restoration in the face of the overwhelming hard power and intellectual and cultural hegemony of Western modernity. In Hamas’s vision of itself, so much is at stake in its struggle with Israel, so vast a cause is being channeled through this otherwise small and seemingly fruitless struggle between Gaza and Israel, that the mundane deaths of Gazan civilians register as little more than a public-relations problem – and if the deaths are caused by the right party, a public-relations benefit.

It is this sense of a larger commitment that allowed Hamas to explicitly urge Gazans during the May 15 protest to rush the IDF posts on the border, at times by telling them the border had already been breached and IDF soldiers were fleeing.

Israel, too, has clear, hard goals in the Gaza clashes, and its needs, at least as it perceives them, also leave ordinary Gazans in the lurch. Israel seeks to prevent infiltration of the border fence not only because of the danger that Hamas fighters could carry out terror attacks against Israeli villages near the border, but because of the political boon such an outcome would constitute for Hamas.

Palestinian demonstrators use slingshots to hurl rocks at Israeli forces during clashes along the border with the Gaza strip east of Khan Yunis on May 18, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

The border must not only be made impregnable by the IDF, it must be seen to be so.

The reason is straightforward and fundamental to understanding Israel’s battle with the various irregular forces fighting to destroy it. Neither Hamas nor Hezbollah, nor the smaller terror groups like Islamic Jihad or the PFLP, actually have a coherent military strategy for destroying the Jewish state. They are counting on two elements for victory: that the psychological pressure their violence imposes on Israelis convinces them to leave the country – this is the “anti-colonial” strategy that presumes Israelis have somewhere else to go – or, not to put too fine a point on it, that God intervenes. That’s not a euphemism. Islamist ideologies all share a belief in the inevitable, unstoppable nature of divine justice, which they are certain guarantees they must emerge victorious even if the battle is long and seems at times unwinnable.

A warfighting culture premised on psychological pressure and religious piety naturally places a premium on image, on the perception of strength and a concomitant perception of the enemy’s underlying weakness. Without it, it would be harder to convince fellow Palestinians to expect, against all odds, a deus-ex-machina rescue.

The obsession of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah with public perception, with triumphant rhetoric even in the face of constant and often self-induced failure, can seem deeply strange to Israelis, whose own warfighting culture is rooted in the hard-nosed secularism of the state’s founding generation, and prizes pragmatism, self-criticism, and a realistic sense of one’s abilities. The IDF’s officer class emphatically values action over talk, and thus tends to view the theatrical rallies and colorful verbal threats that flow in a constant stream from Hamas and Hezbollah as signs of incompetence and weakness.

This is why Israeli leaders, both military and political, have come to believe that the Gaza stand-off is, for Hamas, more about perception than reality. Hamas isn’t trying to pierce the IDF’s defensive line, but only to go far enough to be able to plausibly claim that it did so, a claim it will use as validation for its broader strategy of permanent struggle.

Denying Hamas this validation, this small moment of grace in a long string of failures, shapes the IDF’s response at the border. The standing orders given to Israel’s troops are thus not only to prevent a serious breach of the border, but to prevent even minor ones, to deny Hamas the psychological escape it yearns for as it sits mired in Gazans’ growing animosity. And so those orders are fairly simple: Let no one reach the fence, let no one pass it, no matter what.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and other senior officers at the Gaza security fence during violent protests along the border on May 14, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Of course, nothing in this region is that simple. In the May 15 protests, this clear-cut Israeli strategy fell afoul of the second “victory image” available to Hamas in the Palestinian cultural lexicon: the image of a strong, cruel Israel killing Palestinians in cold blood.

When Israel’s weakness isn’t available as a political narrative, Israel’s cruelty can be employed to similar effect. The contradiction isn’t lost on Hamas; it is the organization’s fundamental political narrative: Israel is strong enough to be morally reprehensible and simultaneously weak and frightened enough to inspire hope that violent resistance can succeed.

And so the IDF must walk an exceedingly fine line if it wishes to deny Hamas the political release of blaming all Gaza’s problems on Israel. The troops at the border are thus ordered to prevent a border penetration, but to do so while denying Hamas the tactical victory of Palestinian deaths. Soldiers are told to shoot to wound, to try their utmost not to kill, and to be careful to target instigators and armed persons rather than noncombatants.

However one views the moral calculus of Israel’s actions at the border, the overall statistics suggest Israeli soldiers at the border closely followed these nuanced and undoubtedly frustratingly contradictory orders. A large majority of the Palestinian dead belonged to terror groups, and a large majority of those hit by IDF sniper fire received non-lethal wounds.

Both Israel and Hamas are navigating a complex psychological minefield in the border standoff. Both believe, and each for good strategic reasons, that the immediate welfare of Gazan civilians is secondary to winning the peculiar sort of war in which they are engaged.

Hamas cannot retreat, cannot shed its ethos of permanent struggle and leave nothing to show for the long years of suffering it has inflicted on Gaza.

Palestinian protesters during clashes with Israeli forces near the Gaza-Israel border in Rafah, Gaza Strip on May 14, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Israel, meanwhile, believes there is no purely military solution to Hamas’s domination of Gaza, and that the terror group’s unabashed exploitation of Gaza’s resources and capital for its war effort means that the only way to meaningfully limit its capabilities is to limit the resources and capital available for exploitation in the first place.

This is a siege, but a strange one. Inflicting too much suffering on Gaza would amount to a victory for Hamas’s narrative – Israel as strong and cruel – and so would constitute a strategic setback for Israel. But winning the staring contest is also vital to denying Hamas its second narrative of Israel as weak and retreating. Israel’s dual need to limit Hamas’s operational space without imposing too high a cost on Gaza is at the root of some of the Israeli defense establishment’s most celebrated recent innovations, including Iron Dome, the IDF’s new tunnel-detection technology, and, more recently, kite-hunting drones.

Hamas, meanwhile, will continue to do its utmost to destabilize this strategy with new modes of attack and new efforts to draw Israel into direct confrontation with Gazan civilians.

It is not clear if Israel’s final goal – Hamas’s internal domestic collapse – is likely to happen any time soon. Hamas’s final goal – Israelis fleeing their country – is not going to happen either.

The Israel-Hamas standoff isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and, presumably, neither is the international diplomatic community’s role as loudly moralizing but strategically befuddled observer.

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