Five Thoughts on Jerusalem, Gaza, and What’s in Between
by Shira Efron
ozens of people have been killed and more than 2,000 injured in protests in the Gaza Strip along the border fence with Israel. This is the largest number of fatalities suffered in one day since the war between Israel and Hamas in 2014 known as Operation Protective Edge.
The violence took place as Israel celebrated the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, just 50 miles from Gaza. While it is tempting to attribute the violence solely to the Jerusalem move, here are five points that suggest that the reality is more nuanced.
- There was little sensitivity in opening the embassy hours before Ramadan and Nakba Day, the day Palestinians will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of their catastrophe accompanying the founding of the State of Israel.
The embassy move, which was bound to raise tensions no matter the timing, played into the hands of Hamas and others, who sought to use it as an excuse to ratchet up conflict.
Protests that really focused on the Jerusalem embassy issue in other places, including in Jerusalem itself and the West Bank, and Jordan, remained peaceful.
In Gaza, however, the primary motivation was not the status of Jerusalem, but rather the humanitarian situation and the lack of political horizon.
- It is hard to overstate the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Officially, unemployment is close to 50 percent, but in practice, a larger share of the working-age population is unemployed or underemployed.
It’s hard to overstate the severity of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
A decline in the number of imports entering Gaza reflects shrinking purchasing power, and there are reports of reduced cash flows, checks that bounce, and a higher than usual rate of defaults on loans. The infrastructure is crumbling, and power is only available for four to six hours per day.
There is not enough water for drinking, cooking, and bathing, and the quality of the water that is available is poor. Untreated sewage is dumped into the Mediterranean Sea, posing serious threats to public health.
Gaza’s residents had hoped that the reconciliation process between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) would bring some relief, however, the process failed, again. It was against this backdrop that Gazans took to the streets.
- While Israel blames Hamas for orchestrating the demonstrations, the first protests on March 30 were initiated by individual activists affiliated with Fatah and other organizations, not Hamas.
Soon enough, however, Hamas and other factions in Gaza took over, turning a nonviolent, grassroots initiative into an organized violent protest that sought confrontation with Israel. Rather than launching rockets at Israel, as it did in previous rounds of fighting, Hamas pushed demonstrators to break through the border fence with Israel.
Knowing Israel would respond forcefully, Hamas was hoping for a large number of civilian casualties for which Israel would be blamed internationally.
As in previous rounds of fighting, a large number of casualties could create international leverage on Israel and Egypt to ease restrictions on access and movement in and out of Gaza, and help Hamas prolong its rule.
- Israel is well aware of deteriorating living conditions in Gaza and the Gordian knot between the humanitarian situation in the strip and the risks to Israel’s security. Eleven years after Hamas took over Gaza, and after three wars in 2009–2014, one would hope that Israel has learned some lessons.
However, despite months-long warnings about Monday’s confrontation, the risk of a high fatality rate, and the anticipation that it would be held accountable by the international community, Israel has not done much to prevent this conflict.
Rather than offering serious economic and political measures that could bring relief to Gaza, the Israeli political echelon has argued about the existence of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and has conditioned any progress on the return of the bodies of captive Israel Defense Force soldiers held by Hamas.
- Unfortunately, this is likely not the end. The death toll could rise further on Tuesday, Nakba Day. Steps taken by all sides, including Israel, in the next 72 hours could determine if the situation would temporarily calm down or deteriorate into broader and more prolonged violence.
Even if a full-blown war does not erupt this time around, continued clashes in Gaza are expected until the fundamental problems of the strip are solved, including the governance vacuum, the PA-Hamas rift, and the conflict with Israel. In the meantime, all actors should work to ratchet down tensions.
Hamas should not drag all sides into a war that no party seems to want. Hamas reportedly signaled to Israel late Monday that it would consider changing the nature of protests. That is a positive sign. The organization could demonstrate that it is willing to make more substantial changes so that the PA resumes its presence in Gaza.
The PA, whose punitive measures against Hamas have led to further deterioration in living conditions in Gaza, could help (PDF) the reconstruction process and not stand in its way.
Israel, Egypt, and the international community could work to alleviate the humanitarian situation in Gaza by opening the border crossings to allow in more fuel and goods and relax its restrictions on movement of people in and out of the strip.
Allowing the 5,000 residents of Gaza that were vetted by the Shin Bet, Israel’s clandestine security service, to work in Israel could be a first step that would not only indicate goodwill but also improve the economy by providing livelihood for tens of thousands of people.
The United States could help by quickly resuming payments to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the U.N. fund that supports Palestinian refugees, whose funding cuts have taken an additional toll on Gaza’s population that completely depends on the organization for employment, health services and education.
Finally, Israel should also think strategically about its long-term relationship with Hamas and not dismiss the long-term ceasefire proposed by the organization only last week.
Shira Efron is an associate policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation, a special advisor on Israel with RAND’s Center for Middle East Public Policy and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
This commentary originally appeared on The Hill on May 15, 2018. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.