From the time Operation Protective Edge ended (August 26, 2014), Hamas has been trying to rebuild its capabilities, with an emphasis on rockets, attack tunnels penetrating Israeli territory, the training of special forces for infiltration into Israel, and local weapons production: rockets, mortars, and UAVs. Hamas, which is under external pressure from both Israel and Egypt, is also subject to internal unrest and public criticism due to the destruction wrought by Operation Protective Edge, the ongoing blockade, and the poverty and rampant unemployment that characterize life in Gaza (the unemployment rate in Gaza of young adults 30 and under is 60 percent). A World Bank report (March 15, 2018) disclosed a steep decline in donations to Gaza – from $400 million in 2016 to $55 million in 2017.28 Gaza residents have electricity for only a few hours a day, the quality of their water supply is deteriorating and largely unpotable, sewage treatment facilities are nonoperational, and disease outbreaks are a real concern. In Israel there is a growing awareness of the dangers a worsening of the Gaza humanitarian crisis portends; even so, and despite international and regional awareness of the situation’s gravity and volatility, outside aid remains limited. Exasperation with the PA-Hamas rivalry is growing, as is the disinclination for investing in a “war zone” or helping to strengthen Hamas.
In an emergency session of the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee (the international donors group for the Palestinians) (January 31, 2018), Israel presented a plan for internationally-funded rehabilitation of Gaza, to include desalination, electricity and gas projects, and upgrading of the Erez Industrial Zone, at a total cost of one billion dollars. However, Abu Mazen himself is exerting economic pressure on Gaza, as part of his struggle against Hamas. Among other things, he is cutting the salaries of PA staff in Gaza and slashing healthcare payments.
Under these circumstances, the region is subject to the constant danger of military escalation, including confrontation with Hamas, with outbreaks of violence occurring from time to time. Hamas is frustrated by Israel’s progress in locating and destroying its attack tunnels, a strategic asset from its perspective. On March 30, 2018 Hamas initiated a series of demonstrations and violent incidents along the Gaza border, including attempts to breach the fence and push thousands of people into Israeli territory. On May 14, the day before “Nakba Day” and the occasion of the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem, 62 Palestinians were killed and 1,200 injured by Israeli sniper fire meant to keep the fence from being breached. The Palestinians did not confine themselves to firing rockets or mortars at Israel (on May 30, 2018 two hundred such firings were recorded); they successfully employed a new and effective weapon: “fire kites” and helium balloons that set fires across tens of thousands of dunams, causing major damage to Israel’s Gaza Envelope localities. The IDF has responded with caution, seeking to avoid all-out war in Gaza, but the sniper killing of an IDF soldier (July 20, 2018) escalated the Israeli response: 60 Hamas targets were hit by fighter jets and tank fire.
Alongside the possibility that these violent events will force Israel into a comprehensive military operation in Gaza, there is also the possibility of consensual, bilateral de-escalation. Hamas’ isolation, Gaza’s desperate economic situation, Israel’s determination to keep the border fence from being breached, and domestic public criticism of the heavy price in human life that has achieved nothing, are pushing the Hamas leadership toward a long-term ceasefire with Israel.
Consequently, following an ongoing escalation where in the course of one day (August 9, 2018) 180 rockets and mortar shells were fired from Gaza at southern Israel and 150 Hamas targets were struck by Israel in response, the parties are close to achieving a cease-fire arrangement. The agreement, brokered by Egypt, Qatar, and the U.N., is opposed by the PA who view it as a violation of its authority. Criticism has also been voiced in Israel, primarily, that the agreement will strengthen Hamas and violate Israel’s position of not negotiating with terrorists while under fire. The strength of the apparent fragile cease-fire will be tested in the coming days.