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Quick Thoughts: Nathan Thrall on the Gaza Strip One Year After Israel’s Operation Protective Edge

[On 7 July 2014 Israel launched Operation Protective Edge (OPE), its most devastating assault on the Gaza Strip since the 1967 June War. Nathan Thrall, Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group (http://www.crisisgroup.org) who regularly conducts research in the Gaza Strip, reflects on the ramifications of this conflict one year later. This instalment of Quick Thoughts is the first of a series Jadaliyya is conducting with Crisis Group Middle East analysts.] 

Jadaliyya (J): One year after Israel's Operation Protective Edge, how would you describe the popular mood in the Gaza Strip? Is OPE still relevant for people, and if so, how? Do people reflect back on achievements, losses, or both? 

Nathan Thrall (NT): There is widespread consensus among Gaza's residents today that conditions there have never been worse. There is also widespread fatalism about the unlikelihood of breaking from the pattern of recurrent war with Israel. Walking in neighborhoods that were completely destroyed during the war, such as Shuja’iyya in Gaza City and parts of Beit Hanoun, I heard residents state pridefully that Israel had achieved nothing during the war and that they were ready to face Israel again. In the same breath, however, many of these same people then asked warily whether I thought a new war was coming. It's clear that Gazans desperately want a normal life, free of war and free of the blockade. It's also clear that they are quite likely to continue living with both.

The war looms behind the most quiet and normal scenes of daily life in Gaza. During the war, a close friend in Gaza City made each member of his family pack a small bag containing his or her most valuable documents, photographs, and belongings before placing the bag beside the front door. That way he and his wife, sons, and daughters would be able to evacuate the building quickly, without having to waste time arguing about which belongings were worth risking their lives to retrieve. Nearly one year later, those bags still sit beside the front door. 

Since the war concluded there have been a number of bombings in Gaza. Some of these were Israeli airstrikes following a rocket launching that Hamas was unable to prevent. More often they were bombs detonated by Gazans, either salafi-jihadis or unidentified attackers targeting the homes and offices of Hamas and Fatah officials. In one instance in May, several died and dozens were injured when Israeli ordinance from the war exploded in Beit Lahiya. When I have been present in Gaza for some of these incidents, the first worry of Gaza residents I spoke with -- in some cases, the first rumor spread among them -- has been that the explosion marked the beginning of a new war with Israel.

The problems that helped precipitate the war not only remain unresolved but in many cases have become more acute. The Palestinian government of national consensus has not taken over the border crossings, integrated ministries, or committed to pay tens of thousands of employees who administer the Gaza Strip but are not on the Palestinian Authority (PA) payroll. All the while the PA continues to tax every parcel that enters Gaza's sole crossing for goods. In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have in recent weeks each launched massive arrest campaigns against Hamas, just as they did immediately prior to last summer's war. With the tunnel trade almost non-existent and the PA taxing all goods before they enter Gaza, the former (Hamas-run) government in Gaza has been unable to collect much income from taxes. The employees on its payroll have been surviving for nearly two years on roughly half-pay or less than half-pay. The police sometimes didn't have money for gas. Members of the security forces who are patrolling the border and stopping non-Hamas militants from launching rockets at Israel have asked their superiors how long they can be expected to continue to provide Israel with security while Gaza remains constricted, with minimal exports permitted and with most of the population unable to travel. 

Gazans feel more trapped than ever. Before Egypt opened the Rafah crossing, the sole border passage between it and the Gaza Strip, for several days in late May and in June 2015, the crossing had been shut for all but a dozen days during the previous seven months. Entire months passed without it being open at all. Electricity shortages, which in turn exacerbate problems with water and sewage, have grown more severe. Contaminated, undrinkable water is the cause of a large portion of childhood death and disease. A wealthier Gazan told me that since the war ended the circle of people who have approached him asking for money has widened each month. Recently he was approached by an acquaintance whom he hadn't heard from in over 15 years. He gave him 200 shekels, part of which was used to buy fresh milk for a young daughter, rather than the powdered milk brought in by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). The man called him every week afterward to thank him. 

It's impossible for people in Gaza not to reflect on the losses from the war. First and foremost the loss of life and limb, but also the loss of property and business and infrastructure. The heaviest damage from the war was in the eastern regions abutting Israel, and this was where much of Gaza's industry was located. 

At the same time, there is a sense of pride in how Hamas fought during the war. This pride was not limited to supporters of Hamas or to residents of Gaza. It was so pervasive among Palestinians that the then-Secretary General of the PLO, a man not known for his love of arms or of Hamas, took to the airwaves to praise the resistance. Kids from non-Hamas families in Gaza have excitedly shown me YouTube videos of Hamas military operations during the war. Some of the videos contain Mission Impossible-like music and display intrepid attacks by Hamas fighters, including infiltrations into Israeli army posts and the naval commando attack on the Israeli base at Zikim. In a number of these clips, the Hamas fighters are in camouflage fatigues, carrying not a Hamas flag but a Palestinian one. The message is clear: Palestinians now have a national army, and it does not report to the PA or the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). 

Another element of Gazan attitudes toward the war that is sometimes neglected is the manner in which the historical experience and culture of Gaza differ from the historical experience and culture of the West Bank. Gazans perceive themselves to be made of tougher stuff, just as within the West Bank there are areas like Hebron that are considered to be more resilient in the face of Israel's occupation and areas like Jericho that are reputed to be more complaisant. Gazans believe that through this resilience they managed to force Israel to decide that holding onto Gaza was too costly. Many Gazans can't comprehend how the West Bank could be so quiescent. It strikes many of them as a bit rich to hear from West Bankers that by seeking normalcy in the form of a possible ceasefire with Israel, Gazans are somehow abandoning the national movement; for many years it has been Gaza that has been at the forefront of the fight.  

J:  What are the primary concerns of ordinary residents in the Gaza Strip today? Are they primarily concerned with getting by and basic socio-economic issues, the larger political questions that determine these issues, or perhaps a combination of the two?

NT: Palestinians in Gaza are concerned first and foremost with having normal lives. They are exposed to so many contradictory explanations of why the salaries of civil servants remain sporadically unpaid and underpaid, why billions in donor pledges have not been delivered, why Egypt has closed the Rafah crossing, and why the levels of imports and exports, entrances and exits, allowed into and out of Gaza are such a small fraction of what they were ten years ago. Fatah and the PA tell them it is because Hamas won't relinquish control of Gaza. Hamas, and to some extent Israel too, tell them it is because the PA refuses to assume control. Others say it is because Hamas refuses to recognize Israel and renounce violence, and still others profess that it is because Europe, the US, and Israel refuse to admit the failure of their policy of isolating Hamas. Most Gazans are fed up with all of these explanations. They understand that the larger political questions are at the root of their suffering, but they feel little power to change the underlying politics. 

J: How does the Hamas leadership look back on OPE with the benefit of hindsight? What are its main priorities today? Has its position in your view been strengthened or weakened?

NT: Hamas is at one of the most vulnerable points in its history. It is destitute and regionally isolated. Its smuggling routes to Gaza have been largely cut off. It can't abandon responsibility for Gaza yet is being deprived of the means of governing it, especially the ability to collect the taxes necessary to pay public employees. 

At the same time, Hamas has typically taken a longer strategic view than have its rivals. The region is far from unchanging, and so too, potentially, is Hamas's isolation. There have been signs of a possible thaw with Egypt and a modest change in Saudi perceptions of Hamas. Many in Israel, including on the far right, have started to state publicly that Hamas-rule may be the preferred or at any rate the only realistic option for Gaza. European politicians have been privately stating for many years that they regret having agreed to the Quartet conditions, which have boxed them into a failed policy of isolating Hamas and inadvertently facilitating Israel's policy of separating the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. 

Above all, Hamas's strategic hopes rest on the West Bank. Just as Fatah is waiting for Hamas to collapse in Gaza, Hamas is waiting patiently for the PA to fall, and for Fatah to continue disintegrating in the West Bank. If and when that happens, Hamas hopes to be the West Bank's most organized political force. President Abbas is not young and there appears to be a dearth of successors who can continue unobstructed his policies of non-violence and pursuit of a negotiated settlement with Israel. Hamas's priorities, then, are to survive until the post-Abbas era, and to normalize economic life in Gaza, which may mean seeking a ceasefire that can open Gaza economically and give the population a period of calm. Absent such a ceasefire, it will have to prepare for the next war and, when it comes, hope that Israel doesn't reconsider its aversion to reoccupying Gaza. 

J: How do you assess the prospect of a renewed conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and what would be its main triggers? 

NT: At present, renewed conflict between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza is by far the most likely of future possibilities. The chance of achieving some sort of formal ceasefire in Gaza is small. Such an arrangement would be enormously difficult to sell to the constituencies of Hamas and virtually all Israeli political parties, despite the fact that both Israel and Hamas (via the unified Palestinian delegation that held indirect talks with Israel during the war) committed in the 26 August 2014 ceasefire to meet in Egypt in one month to hold talks on the demands of each side for a full and formal ceasefire agreement. A deal would be fiercely opposed by Egypt, the views of which are extremely important to Israel, and opposed no less fiercely by the PA. Israel would have reason to fear that even an indirect deal with Hamas could spell the end of Hamas's isolation and the collapse of the Quartet conditions. It would fear, too, that it is strengthening Hamas, not just in Gaza but also, politically, in the West Bank, where the fragile Palestinian Authority would likely suffer yet another blow to its standing. As much as there is tension in relations between Israel and the PA, there is also a great deal of collaboration, and the Israeli security establishment regards the continuation of the PA and of Abbas's rule as vital. Even the relatively simple question of finding a mediator suitable to both Israel and Hamas, as well as a country that could serve as a guarantor of the agreement, presents significant challenges.  

There are, of course, strong interests on each side in reaching a ceasefire. Both Gazans and Israelis would like to avoid or at the very least postpone another war. But the probability of heading to a war that neither side wants is much greater. 

 

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