It is well known among most of those concerned with the humanitarian situation in Gaza Strip (GS), just how bad things are there, and what this could entail in terms of deterioration, that might lead to a direct confrontation between the resistance and Israel. For this reason, there have been voices calling for a long-term truce. The outgoing United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Robert Serry, made a proposal that included an initiative for a five-year truce in return for lifting the GS siege and expediting reconstruction works. Despite the need for a long-term truce, the conditions, criteria, and understanding of each side remain an obstacle to its implementation.
It would appear that the potential pathway for a long-term truce boils down to having an approach that reconciles the demands of the resistance and the demands of the occupation. This is the first possibility. And indeed, there are positive indications for a slight development in the positions of some of the influential actors, albeit many of them remain hesitant.
The second possibility is escalation, which could possibly lead to a conflict that extends beyond a war in GS.
The third and most probable possibility would be the continuation of the stalemate, with limited relaxation of the GS blockade, in order to prevent an explosion. This may be coupled with a limited escalation between the two sides from time to time.
The GS blockade has created a terrible and dangerous humanitarian situation. International institutions have long warned of the difficult living conditions in GS with tens of thousands of persons left without shelter, with dramatically rising poverty, and more than two-thirds of the population relying on foreign aid.
Despite the harsh blockade conditions, the Palestinian resistance forces were able to build a powerful infrastructure. So far, the Israeli army has waged three wars on GS to dismantle or weaken this infrastructure.
The Israeli government, and despite the humanitarian suffering there, has not been able to weaken the resistance in GS. Amos Gilboa, former head of the research division of the Directorate of Military Intelligence (Aman), says that Gaza and Hamas remain the central strategic problem for Israel in security, political, and media matters. Strategic forecasts conducted by Israel’s security services in 2015 identified ten major issues, the top of which were threats of a new war in GS or a major attack by the resistance using tunnels dug underground.
At present, there is an internal debate in Israel on how to deal with this dilemma. Many ideas have been proposed, including targeted assassinations and attacks in accordance with the “Mowing the Grass” strategy with a view to stop the advancement and development of the resistance infrastructure, and the Dahiya Doctrine to achieve deterrence. Among the proposals as well is handing over GS to Palestinian Authority (PA) control with international and regional support. Recently, there have been voices calling for trading reconstruction and an end to the blockade in return for a permanent truce that would include disarmament of the resistance.
For its part, the resistance needs de-escalation to alleviate pressure on and from its popular base, through reconstruction and economic recovery.
1. Direct Impact of Resistance on Israel
● The resistance has deeply hurt the Israeli home front, which is considered Israel’s weak point. For the first time, Israel prepared a plan to evacuate settlements in the GS vicinity (7 km from the Strip). The plan entitled “Safe Distance,” would be activated in the event of new confrontations. In other words, the resistance unraveled the Israeli home front, and became a major threat in the army doctrine. This requires preventing any “foreign enemy” from threatening the home front.
● The resistance created a balance of terror with Israel, despite the huge difference in the balance of power between the two sides.
● The resistance challenged the halo and image surrounding the Israeli army and its “might is right” principle. The army is the crown jewel of the Zionist project, and anything that undermines it undermines the entire project.
● Direct effect on the basic pillars of the Israeli security doctrine: Quick victory, early warning, deterrence, and defense. Israel is no longer able to settle a battle with the resistance, and is even unable to deter it. It has semi-blindness in matters of intelligence on the resistance during war. In addition, Israel has failed to protect the home front from resistance rockets, or even resistance commandos that have carried out daring attacks behind enemy lines. Israel’s Iron Dome has also failed to maintain the fifth pillar, namely defense.
● The Israeli soldiers in the confrontation, because of their failure, target civilians to put pressure on the resistance leaders, This has invited international pressures, meaning the battle with the resistance now has a high moral cost, with broad segments of Western societies calling for a boycott of Israel. Israel sees this as attempts to de-legitimize it, and considers it a strategic challenge.
2. Problems Facing Israel When Dealing with the Resistance
● Tunnels have denied Israel putting to use its qualitative military edge. The biggest source of concern for the Israeli military are these attacks, which threaten its forces behind the front and the settlements near GS.
● The media pressure on Israel when it targets Palestinian civilians during war and international pressure as a result.
● Point-blank confrontations have exposed the low fighting spirit among Israeli soldiers relative to that of the resistance fighters, a major point of strategic superiority in favor of the resistance.
● GS and the resistance there are a major headache for Israel. It is now unable to settle a battle in its favor and eliminate the resistance at a bearable cost. This is not to mention that there is no acceptable alternative to Hamas in GS available at present.
3. Israel’s Strategy to Deal with the Resistance in GS
Israel has adopted a compound strategy to counter the resistance. Among the most important elements of this strategy are:
● Pursuing “Mowing the Grass” strategy, meaning concentrated attacks on the resistance in GS. This includes targeting specific resistance positions, intense campaigns such as the last three ones waged by Israel on GS. The campaigns included harsh military tactics, including the “Hannibal directive,” which involves massive artillery bombardments and air strikes on an area to thwart the capture of an Israeli soldier. This subjects civilians to heavy losses in lives and properties. The Dahiya Doctrine meanwhile, was implemented in the latest Israeli assault, with the massive destruction of the Shuja‘iyya neighborhood and the residential buildings.
● Tightening the blockade on GS from both the Israeli and Egyptian sides, with a view to besiege the resistance and dismantle its popular base by aggravating the conditions of the people.
● Instigating internal chaos in GS, in preparation for internal strife, with a view to push for foreign intervention to eliminate the resistance.
● Working with regional parties to pressure Hamas and weaken external support for the resistance.
Yet none of these methods succeeded in weakening the resistance. This prompted loud calls in the Israeli security establishment and even among army generals with the exception of its chief Ya‘alon, calling for a long-term truce with the resistance in GS. The aim is to ensure calm for the settlements in southern Palestine and allow Israel to take a breather to look for alternatives and solutions to the long-term threat from the resistance.
Second: The Local and Geopolitical Climates Surrounding the Resistance and Their Impact on GS
1- Internationally, the conditions of the Quartet on the Middle East, which are considered a political instrument of the blockade, remain in place. Most international parties along with the PA and regional parties, are in collusion to disrupt efforts for Palestinian reconciliation which would lift the blockade. There are indications that efforts are underway to lift the blockade outside the Quartet framework, but this remains in very preliminary stages.
2- Regionally, the Egyptian authorities are leading a methodical campaign to sustain the blockade on Gaza. At the same time, Egypt is mounting a propaganda campaign against GS and Hamas, albeit it has somewhat abated recently. More dangerously, the Egyptian authorities established a buffer zone along the Egyptian-Palestinian border, with a length of 14 km and width of 5 km. Two out of three phases have been completed of this project, which aims to destroy “strategic tunnels” that are more than 2 km long. The Egyptian army is using new advanced machines to destroy the tunnels and flood them with sewage water, in coordination with Israel and with support from the US government.
The Egyptian authorities continue to close down the Rafah crossing, the only outlet GS has to the outside world. Egypt only opens it for a few days from time to time, allowing very limited numbers of people to cross. But it seems there have been recent developments indicating a possible shift in the Egyptian position in the direction of initiating contact with Hamas. This could pave the way for a relative and cautious change in their relationship.
In the broader region, the situation remains unfavorable for Hamas, despite the relative breakthrough following the ascension of King Salman to the throne in Saudi Arabia. Hamas is suffering as a result of the chaotic situation in the region, which has preoccupied the Arab nations, and finds it difficult to engage them politically in light of the sharp polarization in the region.
3. Internally, the schism continues to overshadow internal Palestinian relations. The national consensus government has not fulfilled its commitments to GS so far under various pretexts. The practical result of this is the continued huge suffering of the people there, delayed reconstruction, and stalled function of government agencies as well as delays in paying the wages due to civil servants.
4. At the humanitarian level, GS is heavily encumbered by the blockade, which has produced a crippling humanitarian crisis. A recent report by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said that the systemic blockade that has gone on for nine years has led 80% of the GS population (1.8 million), to be dependent on international aid. Nearly 80 thousand workers who support half a million dependents have lost their jobs. As a result, dramatically more people live under the poverty line.
The report indicates that 35% of agricultural lands have been swallowed by Israel to address its security concerns. Meanwhile, unemployment reached 42.8% in 2014, while Israel’s restrictions forced 90% of enterprises to cease operations. The report also said that Egypt has closed the Rafah crossing for 70% of the time since 2007. Moreover, the Rafah crossing has been completely closed since the beginning of 2015, consequently severely exacerbating the effects of the blockade and the humanitarian crisis. Thus, the humanitarian crisis is considered the source of the most pressure on the resistance to accept a long-term truce.
Third: Long-Term Truce and Attempts by Various Parties to Secure One
Given the need all parties have for a truce, albeit under different conditions and criteria, many ideas and proposals seeking to establish one have emerged.
In March 2015, the outgoing United Nations Special Coordinator for the peace process in the Middle East Robert Serry, put forward a new initiative for a 5-year truce between the Palestinian factions and Israel, dubbed “Gaza First” strategy. He explained that the truce should be a long term, lasting three-to-five years, under the umbrella of the national consensus government, during which the GS would be rebuilt and all military activities over and underground would be halted, in return for the full lifting of the blockade and the full opening of all crossings.
Other sources say that the Swiss consul communicated proposals from senior EU officials with close bonds to Israel, including: Opening all crossings to GS; allowing in all goods needed; allowing full freedom for imports and exports; and opening an airport and a seaport. The duration of the truce would be determined in agreement with both parties, and its extension or shortening would be subject to accord between the two sides. The truce would last from 3 to 5 years, effective from the signing of the agreement.
Among the ideas proposed as well, according to press sources, are proposals from Turkey and Qatar that include a long-term truce in return for lifting the blockade and establishing a commercial port supervised by NATO.
Among the most prominent and ongoing attempts are the efforts led by Tony Blair to end the blockade, a proposal that includes a truce. It seems that the former Quartet envoy proposed his ideas to multiple parties in the region. Some Europeans, especially the UK, as well as the United States, are aware of and support his efforts. Netanyahu is also aware of this.
Fourth: The Positions of the Various Parties on a Long-Term Truce
For Hamas’s part, official Spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri had declared that international parties communicated proposals to Hamas regarding a long-term truce. He said the movement is studying them, but stressed that the answer requires national consensus.
No doubt, the resistance and GS are in need for this truce for the interim, given the disastrous humanitarian situation. However, some conditions related to the bid to disarm the resistance or to stop the development of resistance capabilities, or anything that affects Palestinian fundamentals, are a major obstacle to the resistance agreeing to a truce.
As for the PA leadership, President ‘Abbas is putting pressure through the media to foil the efforts for a long-term truce. He has been advancing claims that Hamas is negotiating with Israel, and that this move would lead to GS separating from the West Bank. Some parties believe that ‘Abbas is wagering on the continuation of pressure and the blockade on Hamas, to force it to accept his and Fatah’s political agendas.
With regard to the state of Israel, it faces two main challenges at present: a political one involving the PA and Fatah; and a military-security one involving GS and the resistance there. Israel is stalling with the PA and all sides to avoid negotiations. With the resistance in GS, Israel has two options: a) Economic pressure through the blockade, which could lead to a new explosion, which will not weaken Hamas; b) military confrontation, which the Israeli army has not prepared for yet, being unable to address the weaknesses exposed by the most recent war.
For this reason, Israeli sources are reporting that most security chiefs in Israel are in favor of de-escalation and truce, along with top army generals with the exception of Defense Minister Ya‘alon.
The main obstacle, however, still exists at the political level. The new far right government in Israel does not necessarily comply with the assessments of the military and security establishment, especially since the defense minister is opposed to a truce. Furthermore, the current situation perpetuates the division in Palestine, which benefits the Israeli side. Meanwhile, the blockade helps weaken the resistance and put pressure on its popular base, at a time when Israel does not want to give any legitimacy to Hamas. Netanyahu could be slightly in favor of a truce, but the challenge he faces is how to convince his partners in the coalition that a truce would improve security, the main agenda for the right.
Regionally, Egypt, the most prominent actor in the Palestinian equation, does not favor a long-term truce. For one thing, this would be a way out for the resistance in GS, and would undermine Egypt’s efforts to weaken Hamas. Therefore, it is possible Egypt is trying to foil efforts in the direction of a truce.
The European position in general is closer to the long-term truce option. European parties are engaged effectively to push the efforts working on a truce, led by the UK. However, in order to intensify these efforts and realize the truce, the European role must be upgraded by enlisting France, Germany, Spain, as well as the UK in the effort.
Concerning the United States, press reports have indicated that the Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf Region Robert Malley is in favor of the engagement of Hamas rather than isolating it. Malley has good relations with a number of Palestinian parties, including Hamas, which could have a positive impact on the current efforts for a truce, though nothing tangible has materialized in this regard yet. The US administration seems aware of the current efforts working towards a truce.
Fifth: Scenarios for a Long-Term Truce
The efforts towards a long-term or permanent truce have a moderate chance to succeed, though they face many obstacles and major challenges. In light of what we know so far, we can chart the following scenarios:
1. Possible Scenarios
a. Realization of a Truce
1. The parties reach a long-term truce in some way. Its shape and form will be determined by an equation that balances the demands of Israel and the resistance.
2. A compromise is reached to relieve the blockade noticeably in return for the captured Israeli soldiers held by Hamas, a demand that some on the Israeli side have raised.
1. A new confrontation similar to previous ones, because of the huge pressure imposed by the crippling blockade on GS.
2. A major escalation where the Israeli army re-invades and occupies GS, to subdue and dismantle the resistance.
The current situation remains unchanged, save for limited relief where Israel would increase the allowed number of trucks carrying goods and entering GS, and limited escalation from time to time. There would be no major escalation, given both sides’ need for calm at present.
2. Factors Influencing the Potential Courses and Their Progression
● How well the Israeli political level responds to voices calling for a long-term truce and recommendations made by the top brass in the military and security establishments supporting a truce. Also, whether or not Netanyahu can persuade his partners in the new coalition.
● How much the US position will progress towards encouraging Netanyahu to accept a long-term truce.
● Whether or not the Palestinian parties reach an internal accord over a long-term truce, particularly Hamas and Fatah.
● How much the Egyptian position will progress in a positive direction vis-a-vis GS, Hamas, and the Palestinian resistance in general.
Available information indicate that the stalemate combined with limited relief is the most likely scenario in the interim. It will be hard for the two sides to overcome the obstacles blocking a long-term truce and fulfill its requirements. Moreover, political parties such as the PA and Egypt want to weaken Hamas, therefore they are not interested in seeing a long-term truce succeed. Nevertheless, the Egyptians recently have shown some flexibility vis-a-vis GS and the resistance there, but they remain cautious and hesitant in going about it.
The US position remains vague in this regard. The European position will not be very influential except if France, Germany, and Spain join the UK in support of the truce.
The possible scenario involving escalation where a new confrontation erupts is also possible, in light of the crippling blockade and despite attempts by Israel to relieve some of this pressure. Small confrontations could escalate into a major one, although none of the two sides seem interested in one. The resistance is still reeling from the last war, while Israel’s army has yet to address the weaknesses it faced in its most recent assault on GS.
A long-term truce has a moderate chance to succeed. There are indications of a positive change in the attitudes of some parties, but the obstacles blocking its path remain huge and need concerted efforts by all sides concerned.
Its extreme opposite, the re-invasion and occupation of GS, is unlikely at present. It is difficult to achieve and has a prohibitive cost for Israel.
However, relieving the blockade and concluding a prisoner swap deal may have a chance during the dialogues currently taking place. This is preferable for Israel, especially its Defense Minister Ya‘alon. But the odds are not high in the near term.
In conclusion, the assessment is that in the coming months we will see either the continuation of the status quo with some limited relief, or a new confrontation similar to previous ones. If things get out of control, they could lead to a major conflict. Meanwhile, concluding a long-term truce in tandem with lifting the blockade has a moderate chance to succeed, but continues to face many local, regional, and international obstacles which need to be resolved before pressing ahead in this direction.
a. The long-term truce should be reached in the context of national Palestinian accord that rejects the separation of GS from the rest of Palestine, and leads to lifting the blockade and the reconstruction of GS.
b. The arms of the resistance and its bases are a national strategic gain that must not be touched, frozen, or dismantled as a condition of a truce.
c. The PLO leadership and the PA must play a more positive role in lifting the blockade, GS reconstruction, reconciliation, accepting the civil servants of GS, and in the work of ministries and institutions.
d. Demanding the Egyptian regime to reopen Rafah and allow the passage of goods and persons between GS and Egypt.
e. The timeframe for a truce must not last more than five years. Extending it further could lead the popular base to become complacent, which would damage the resistance.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr.‘Abdul Rahman Farahanah for authoring the original text on which this strategic assessment was based.