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Gaza’s agency, Israel’s choice

Yossi Alpher
29 January 2008

The past week's events in and around the Gaza strip may, in retrospect, be understood as a strategic turning-point in the complex relationship linking Israel, Egypt and the Hamas regime in Gaza. Israel, by launching an economic and infrastructure siege on 19 January 2008 in response to Qassam rocket-attacks, was the protagonist; but it did not control the way subsequent events unfolded.

Yossi Alpher is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and was a special adviser to former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak

Also by Yossi Alpher in openDemocracy:

"An international solution?" (9 May 2002) - with Ghassan Khatib

"Two separate roadmaps: an Israeli view" (29 May 2003)

"Riyadh's Arab summit: a precious opportunity" (28 March 2007)

"Israel: you can't reverse time" (7 June 2007)

"Israel-West Bank-Gaza: the future" (18 June 2007°T

This article was published in the independent website BitterLemons.org

The timing of the Israeli decision to cut petrol, gas and other supplies and close all passages to the Gaza strip had far more to do with Israeli domestic politics than with any specific Palestinian rocket-attack. After seven years of those attacks, particularly on the western Negev town of Sderot, public pressure had finally built up to a point where prime minister Ehud Olmert and defence minister Ehud Barak feel compelled to escalate demonstrably in an effort to prove to the Israeli public that they are prepared to take risks to stop the rockets. Neither is yet prepared to order a full-scale military invasion of the strip - an extremely risky venture, however justified it may be by Hamas's terrorist behaviour. Still, the economic pressure can also be seen as a way of demonstrating to the international public and the Arab world, once Israel does invade Gaza, that it had first tried every other means of pressuring the Palestinians.

The two Ehuds' hapless economic sanctions were launched in the vain hope that they would cause the Palestinian population in Gaza to pressure the Hamas leadership to cease all Qassam fire and other attacks. The Israeli leadership appears to have calculated that Arab and international anger and pressure would be easier to countenance than the scorn of the Israeli public over the embarrassment of Sderot.

The new strategy appears to have backfired badly, in stages. Hamas exploited the very declaration of a cessation of fuel deliveries, turned off the electricity throughout most of the strip, organised candle-light demonstrations and successfully focused international opprobrium on Israel to the extent that the siege was partially lifted within barely a day. Then, after an initial demonstration at the Rafah crossing into Sinai drew Egyptian gunfire, Palestinians broke through the "Philadelphia Road" fortifications and, while Egyptian forces look on, surged into Sinai by the tens of thousands, mainly to purchase supplies but undoubtedly with terrorist objectives in mind too. Meanwhile, the moderate Palestinian leadership in Ramallah with which Israel is negotiating peace had no alternative but to side with the Gazan population and threaten to freeze the peace process.

Hamas in Gaza seemingly emerged holding the upper hand: it registered an inter-Arab and international propaganda victory and at least temporarily opened up a joint border with Egypt. The latter, in stepping aside while Gazans streamed into Sinai, demonstrated the outer limits of its willingness to cooperate with Israel in forcing Hamas to stop attacking Israeli civilians.

After siege

There are four strategic lessons here for Israel. First, after forty years of trying and failing to substantially influence Palestinian behaviour with economic carrots and sticks, it's time to recognise that this method doesn't work. Punishing the Palestinian population of Gaza by denying it vital goods and resources just makes it angrier at Israel. By the same token - Tony Blair, middle-east peace envoy, take note - priming the West Bank economy with development projects, while a good thing in and of itself, will not make a real difference in the peace process.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Gaza, Hamas, and the Israel-Palestine conflict:

Eóin Murray, "After Hamas: a time for politics" (30 January 2006)

David Mepham, "Hamas and political reform in the middle east" (1 February 2006)

Jim Lederman, "Why Hamas won" (8 February 2006)

Guy Grossman, "Israel's Gaza assault: the real motives" (2 July 2006)

Khaled Hroub, "Hamas's path to reinvention" (9 October 2006)

Eóin Murray, "Alan Johnston: a reporter in Gaza" (22 April 2007)

Second, the problem with Hamas in Gaza is fast becoming a major source of friction between Egypt and Israel. True, if Egypt now agrees to leave the Rafah crossing open, in effect formalising the unexpected twist taken by the recent drama, Israel can conceivably begin to end Gazan economic dependence on it, thereby conclusively "ending the occupation". But Egypt has good reasons to want the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas) out of Sinai and ensure that it remains Israel's problem. It is certainly not about to enter Gaza and pacify the place as a favour to Israel. It will not "take Gaza off our hands". Besides, the current terrorist alert throughout the western Negev reflects a serious downside to an open Gaza-Egypt border.

Third, Hamas leaders have now threatened an attempt by masses of Palestinian civilians to breach the Erez crossing gates into Israel the same way they stormed through the Rafah crossing into Egyptian Sinai. The last time that threat was made was in 1949: the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) announced it would have no alternative but to open fire and the Palestinian threat was withdrawn. Today, Israel needs to find a different response. One way or another, Israeli deterrence has failed in Gaza.

Fourth, the failure of Israel's short-lived economic siege of Gaza hastens the day when Israel launches a major military incursion, the outcome of which is difficult to predict. One reason is that the IDF is running out of alternatives, though it still has not reverted to the one tactic that many Israelis feel has proven itself in the past: targeting the Hamas leadership. Another is the fear that, if the Rafah crossing remains open, Hamas will spirit captured IDF corporal Gilad Shalit out of Gaza and all the way to Iran.

The main factor delaying such an incursion today appears to be the Winograd report on Olmert's failures of leadership and administration during the Lebanon war of July-August 2006. That delay will last well beyond the report's publication date, 30 January 2008 - until the political smoke has cleared and Israel's national leadership is solid and able to count on public support.

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