No War in Gaza This Summer—A Sign of Progress?

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An Israeli policeman carries part of a rocket which the Israeli army and police said was launched from Gaza, landing next to a residential building in the Israeli southern town of Sderot, Israel, August 21. Peace and tranquility has however reigned in the region this summer. Amir Cohen/Reuters

The Gaza Strip, a 365 squared km sliver of Palestinian territory nestled, or more normally squeezed between Israel and Egypt has been out of the news this summer. And that should prompt a sigh of relief. It can also be considered something of a surprise.

The regularity of flare-ups between Israel and Hamas, leading to devastation for Gaza's civilian population of 1.9 million, most recently in 2012 and 2014 meant this summer was anticipated as a potential flashpoint. Concern was further heightened when a notorious hardliner, Avigdor Lieberman, was named as Israel's new Defense Minister in May. Lieberman had previously opposed any ceasefire arrangement with Gaza, calling for its full-scale military reoccupation, the thorough cleansing of Gaza and destruction of Hamas.

Indeed fleeting escalations across the Gaza border did occur in May and August, the latter involving Israel's harshest airstrikes against Hamas targets since the summer of 2014 Operation Protective Edge. On each occasion rockets were launched at Israel by groups not affiliated to Hamas, without causing any casualties. Israel responded with airstrikes largely against Hamas targets—noting that Hamas was responsible as the governing address in Gaza.

The absence of a major conflagration should not be confused with any notion of a dramatic improvement in Gaza's situation or of the issues between Israel and Gaza having been resolved.

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The basic dynamics for Gaza's long-suffering inhabitants remain unchanged. About 70 percent of the Gazan population requires humanitarian assistance, 47 percent of households are food insecure, unemployment runs at a rate of 43 percent going up to 60 percent amongst young people and 65,000 remain displaced two years after the last wave of devastating Israeli military strikes. Israel continues to prevent all access to Gaza by sea and air while limiting fishing zones around Gaza. Israel continues to place severe restrictions on goods and persons entering and exiting Gaza through the land crossings (thereby undermining efforts at reconstruction and economic rehabilitation from the last Israeli military operations) and maintains a buffer zone inside Gaza in the border area which is off-limits to Palestinians.

The large donor pledges made for Gaza after the 2014 crises and the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism established thereafter remain largely on paper and unfulfilled for as long as these stringent Israeli closure measures remain intact.

Internally, Gaza continues to be exclusively governed by Hamas as sputtering efforts at internal Palestinian reconciliation fall short, municipal elections are likely to be further postponed if not canceled (Hamas and the long dominant Palestinian Fatah party of President Mohammed Abbas also disagree on this) and Egypt offers a hostile hinterland on Gaza's other border given the Sisi administration's' ideological opposition to Hamas and apparent general lack of interest in Palestinian well-being.

And yet, the largely prevailing peace on both sides is not entirely coincidental, something is changing.

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There is a belated acknowledgement on the Israeli side, often unspoken and most prevalent in the senior echelons of the security establishment, that Israel has no more palatable option than a form of accommodation with Hamas. The narrative has shifted since 2014 with Israeli officials talking less about how collective punishment will deliver the capitulation of Gaza and Hamas and more about the connection between the daily realities of life in Gaza, stability and Israel's security. Policy undoubtedly lags behind rhetoric. Actual Israeli measures to alleviate the situation in Gaza are few and far between, most notably some limited trade has been allowed again between Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli NGO Gisha —The legal Centre for freedom of movement—has called this "a few steps forward and several steps back." But that changing perception offers at least an opening to work with.

Israeli spin may depict Hamas in apocalyptic times but practical realities are something quite different. Hamas is a political movement with political goals and when it resorts to violence it is as a means, not an end in itself. For Hamas, another round of conflict and destruction might prove hard to square with its continued desire and capacity to rule in Gaza. Regional dynamics, the weakening of the Muslim brotherhood (with which Hamas is affiliated) and in particular the enmity of Egypt under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi all limit the options available to Hamas. Ongoing rumors of mediation efforts to deepen informal understanding between Israel and Hamas are not all unfounded. The revival of Israeli-Turkish diplomatic ties should also facilitate a more effective channel for Israeli-Hamas messaging than has existed in recent years.

Important voices in both Israel and Hamas appear to recognize that in the spread of more radical Salafi-Jihadi groups like ISIS there can be more threatening alternatives to the status quo.

And yet, this lull will not be sustainable if it is not further encouraged. Gazans will not acquiesce to such a level of deprivation imposed by an external party (in this case Israel) ad infinitum, it is hard to imagine that any society would. So the tentative acceptance that the well-being of Gazans is not only a necessity in its own right but also an Israeli security interest will have to be translated into far-reaching and sustainable changes in Israeli policy allowing for a permanent opening of Gaza to the world and end of closure.

The most practical way to achieve that is through a dedicated Gaza port facility, which could have internationally guaranteed security provisions attached to it—as long as those are not seen as deeply undignified to the Palestinians. Allowing Gaza to tap into the gas reserves in its territorial waters would be another obvious economic way forward. Gaza does not have to be a basket case, that is a man-made scenario, not naturally imposed reality. However, Gaza can also not be treated in isolation - it is part of a broader Israeli-Palestinian story and of Palestinian disenfranchisement. Gaza is sometimes referred to by Israelis as 'exhibit A' in proving that no further Palestinian territories can be evacuated. But the idea was always fundamentally flawed that it would work out okay if Israel left Gaza, cut off from the world while also continuing to occupy and settle the vastly greater Palestinian territory of the West Bank and East Jerusalem while denying Palestinian basic freedoms. In fact, Gaza's troubled history proves the opposite — that only by addressing the bigger picture of realising the rights of Palestinians alongside those of Israelis can mutual security for both peoples take hold.

Daniel Levy is the President of the US / Middle East Project, based in New York and London and served until recently as Middle East and North Africa Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

No War in Gaza This Summer—A Sign of Progress? | Opinion