Israel needs to loosen its choke hold on Gaza to avoid another war

On Saturday, Palestinian mourners carried the body of an 11-year-old boy who was fatally shot by Israeli troops a day earlier during a protest at Gaza’s border with Israel. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)
On Saturday, Palestinian mourners carried the body of an 11-year-old boy who was fatally shot by Israeli troops a day earlier during a protest at Gaza’s border with Israel. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

Israel and Hamas are again on the brink of all-out war.

On Friday, Israel killed three Palestinians in response to continued protests along the Gaza border fence. Earlier this month, the most intense round of fighting since 2014 erupted after Israel further tightened its blockade, citing the damage wrought by burning kites.

And the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) has announced it would be cutting jobs and services in Gaza following the withdrawal of American funding, risking further instability.

The only way to conclusively defuse the persistent violence is for external parties to mediate a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel that commits to three longer-term goals: lifting the blockade, reversing policies that have been aimed at isolating Gaza from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories, and ultimately addressing the Palestinians’ call for self-determination.

The blockade Israel has imposed on the Gaza Strip is entering its 11th year. The United Nations and human rights organizations have deemed it a form of collective punishment, and legal experts agree it contravenes international law. Perhaps more importantly for the Israeli government, the blockade has evidently failed to achieve its alleged goal of ensuring “calm” for Israel’s southern towns.

It is time to revisit the factors that have given rise to the present dynamics between Hamas and Israel.

The blockade was ostensibly put in place because of Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. In reality, it is merely the culmination of decades-old Israeli policies of deploying disproportionate military force and exerting intentional economic pressure toward Gaza. Since 1948, Israel has carried out 12 wars on Gaza, unleashing violence through occupation, reoccupation, extrajudicial assassinations and military onslaughts — decades before the creation of Hamas or the group’s use of rocket fire. Since the early 1990s, years before Hamas was a viable political actor, and more than 15 years before it came to power, Israel imposed access restrictions, blockades and mechanisms of “economic de-development” in Gaza.

Israel’s current system of external control, coupled with sporadic wars, has given rise to an equilibrium of belligerence between Israel and Hamas.

Israel uses overwhelming military force to seek a “calm for calm” formula, whereby it has tolerated (and even abetted) Hamas’s control over the Gaza Strip, so long as rocket fire from Gaza could be deterred. Hamas, in turn, has used rocket fire to renegotiate terms of access into Gaza, rejecting the “calm for calm” formula and arguing instead that “calm” can only be guaranteed following a lifting or easing of the blockade. The movement views the blockade itself as a violent act of war that merits self-defense by rocket fire.

Israel’s alleged goal from the blockade was to force the collapse of the Hamas government. Its actual goal, however, is to pacify the Gaza Strip, possibly under Hamas’s rule, and perhaps more importantly, to maintain the Gaza Strip as a stand-alone entity that is separate from the West Bank.

Over the course of the past decade, in every cease-fire that has prevailed, Israel’s own intelligence establishment has affirmed Hamas’s increased ability and willingness to stabilize the Gaza Strip and police the military operations emanating from within. Israeli officials and members of civil society have repeatedly noted the urgent need for Israel to ease access into Gaza and to lift the blockade as prerequisites for maintaining calm. An Israeli state comptroller report in 2015 excoriated the Israeli government for failing to alleviate the humanitarian suffering in the Gaza Strip, noting this was a key factor that led to the 2014 war.

These lessons still persist. The only way to pull back from the brink of war is to loosen the choke hold on the Gaza Strip.

Yet achieving lasting calm must entail engaging with Hamas as a political actor, mediating between the Palestinian factions for unity, and working to address the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

Israel has avoided such measures because division within the Palestinian territories has served its purpose. Instead of pursuing diplomatic initiatives, Israel continues to use military and economic means to manage the conflict and avoid addressing the core political drivers that animate the Palestinian struggle. The blockade serves this purpose.

The Trump administration has bought into the narrative of Israel’s current government and placed the onus on ending violence solely on Hamas, without pressuring Israel to lift the blockade or to end the much greater violence it routinely inflicts on the people of Gaza. This approach will do little beyond sustaining a horrific equilibrium of belligerence — in which those who suffer disproportionately are the civilians in Gaza.

But the Palestinian demand for freedom and dignity will persist until fundamental rights are achieved. Rather than buying into the false narrative underpinning Israeli policy and legitimating the suffering of two million Palestinians in Gaza, the international community must end the closure. Both parties are currently on the brink of another war. Recent history is littered with examples of the likely outcome if no decisive action is taken.

Tareq Baconi is the author of “Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance.” He is a visiting policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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