Hamas is being careful to avoid escalation, but that could change very soon

Despite a dire economic situation, Gaza’s rulers are opting for a measured response to border protest deaths. But a mass protest planned for Land Day on March 30 could lead to war

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A picture taken on March 30, 2018 from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border from the Gaza Strip shows tear gas grenades falling during a Palestinian protest, with Israeli soldiers seen below in the foreground. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)
A picture taken on March 30, 2018 from the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz across the border from the Gaza Strip shows tear gas grenades falling during a Palestinian protest, with Israeli soldiers seen below in the foreground. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

Fifty-two point one percent.

That is the current unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip. Every second adult is unemployed. Among the young, educated population, the rate is even more striking: over 70%. The numbers are almost incomprehensible.

Gaza’s economy is stuck and has no growth stimuli. Residents may have more hours of electricity per day than in the past — eight — but their future is looking dimmer than ever. If anyone is wondering why we have been seeing another increase over the last two weeks in so-called “popular terrorism” — incendiary balloons, improvised explosives, etc. — the Strip’s economy can supply a sad but sufficient explanation.

And that is just the beginning. At the end of the month Palestinians will be marking “Land Day,” a year since the tactic of mass demonstrations on the border was first implemented. And if until recently it seemed like the Hamas terror group and its leader Yahya Sinwar had an achievement or two to show for it — notably the $15 million monthly cash transfer from Qatar that enabled salary payments to Hamas employees — that has now vanished.

Hamas doesn’t seem to be planning a major escalation of tensions, at least until the end of the month. It is using the weekly Friday protests and other activities as a means of letting off steam. Gazans have been increasingly critical of Hamas over the halt in salary payments and the lack of response to the recent killing of three teenagers by IDF forces during border riots.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar wave during a rally marking the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Islamist terror movement, in Gaza City, on December 14, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Instead of being dragged into an all-out war, Hamas has opted for increasing the daily tensions with Israel. But when the organization speaks about a “million-man march,” it is clear that March 30 will bring something different. And in the Gaza pressure cooker, in which the young generation has no hope, it is likely we will find many of them near the fence, with Hamas’s encouragement.

The terror group, which has ruled the Strip since taking over by force in 2007 and openly seeks Israel’s destruction, is currently dealing with a tough financial challenge. Its decision to reject the Qatari cash payments, transferred with the consent of the Israeli government, has necessitated ed a reevaluation.

Suddenly, the movement’s spokesman is seeking donations in Bitcoin. Its Al-Quds TV network has closed down. And it is taking steps it refrained from in the past, such as taking over the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel and expelling all Palestinian Authority staff. With that, Hamas has risked Israel closing the crossing.

But since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is trying to preserve any sort of status quo with Hamas, Israel has agreed to cooperate with staffers paid by the terror group, and the crossing — the only one for goods entering Gaza — is continuing to operate normally.

Israeli trucks carrying diesel fuel enter the Kerem Shalom crossing on the Israel-Gaza border, October 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

In case anyone was wondering, the taxes currently collected on the Palestinian side for the goods passing through Kerem Shalom are going to Hamas. In other words, the movement did a simple trick: refusing the cash if it requires an Israeli approval, but asking for Israeli approval for keeping the crossing functional, where it will anyway receive the money it wants.

Hamas’s bold move at Kerem Shalom stems from another point: that reconciliation chances with the PA these days are close to zero.

Hamas’s politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh has spent the last two weeks in Cairo. He returned with four Hamas members who had been held in Egyptian jail for years after they were captured in Egyptian Rafah on their way to a training camp in Iran. Haniyeh also discussed a series of steps that would stabilize the situation versus Egypt and versus Israel.

For now, it’s clear to both Hamas and Egypt that Israel, before the April 9 elections, will not agree to any dramatic step that could harm Netanyahu’s chances of being reelected as prime minister. But public pressure is having an effect in Gaza; hence the spike in violence.

How will it look at the end of the month, with the planned Land Day protest? That is hard to predict.

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