The Gaza Strip last week witnessed the most violent escalation between Israel and Palestinian resistance factions since 2014, throwing months of Egyptian-brokered ceasefire negotiations into jeopardy.
On November 12, a botched Israeli raid near the southern city of Khan Yunis left eight people dead, including a Hamas commander, heightening fears of a new conflict.
The raid came only days after Qatar, a key ally of the Islamist Hamas government, was allowed to deliver a US$15 million cash infusion to pay the salaries of civil servants. The attacks lasted 48 hours and caused considerable damage to residential buildings and agricultural land in the strip, while Palestinian forces shot hundreds of rockets into settlements within Gaza.
“The occupation has repeatedly broken agreements,” said Hamas spokesperson Hazem Kassem, calling the latest raid “foolishness that drags the region into further escalation.”
Kassem told Asia Times: “We delivered a message to the Egyptian side that we can only guarantee that what happened last week isn’t repeated by holding onto our arms and our ability to retaliate.”
Marches and mediation
Gazans have been holding weekly protest marches since March along the eastern border with Israel, demanding an end to the siege, enforced since 2006 when Hamas won legislative elections, and for refugees to be allowed to return to homes occupied by Israel since 1948.
The United Nations classifies the Gaza Strip as occupied territory. Israel controls its airspace, coastline and the movement of people and goods. The sole Egyptian border crossing with Gaza is also tightly controlled, with rare, restricted openings for some two million inhabitants.
Palestinians have employed a number of tactics in their weekly protest marches, like sending over burning kites that have sparked fires on agricultural land in Israel, causing millions of shekels in damage.
The protests have put the dire situation in Gaza back in the limelight and prompted quiet negotiations. Neighboring Egypt for months has mediated indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian factions.
Spokesman Kassem says Hamas is committed to reaching an agreement that will lead to a lifting of the siege, and he voiced his appreciation of Egypt’s efforts. In the wake of last week’s deadly events, he said that role would be more crucial than ever.
Efforts by Hamas to tone down the demonstrations were evident last Friday, with the weekly march devoid of burning kites and tires that protesters used before.
Trading calm for calm
While Hamas is seeking to lift the siege and prop up the post-2014 ceasefire, Kassem says there is no talk of a comprehensive agreement with political implications.
The current situation is not ripe for a major deal between Hamas and Israel, says political analyst Iyad al-Qora.
On the one hand, the Israeli authorities do not want to pay the cost of calm on the borders with Gaza, while Hamas does not want to reach an agreement that Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, would reject – thus triggering more punitive measures against the strip.
“That is why both sides are looking for calm and not a long-term truce,” the Gaza-based analyst told Asia Times.
An Egyptian delegation visits Gaza on a regular basis to monitor the calm, according to Qora. But the Palestinians, he says, do not trust the intentions of the Israeli negotiators due to incidents like last week’s botched raid, which sabotaged reconciliation efforts.
He described Israel’s approach during this phase as “calm in return for calm.”
Such an approach could succeed, he said, so long as Israel continues to allow the flow of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip, including Qatari gas used to power the electricity grid and salaries of Hamas government employees.
But hurdles remain.
Should Israel continue to allow money into the strip and other facilitations, Netanyahu’s government could face a strong backlash from his political opponents at home, which will consider these steps as encouragement for Hamas. One week ago, Netanyahu’s defense minister quit, citing an inadequate response to developments in Gaza.
If Netanyahu caves in under the pressure from his domestic opponents, Qora says the Palestinian factions will likely escalate through more vigorous marches, which could lead to another explosion in the situation.