The Gaza Strip (GS) has for ten years been living under the heavy weight of a crippling blockade aimed at subduing Hamas into accepting the now well-known terms of the International Quartet. The suffering was exacerbated and the burden and danger of the crisis increased when the Egyptian authorities engaged in large-scale demolitions of tunnels that run through the border between Egypt and GS.
The blockade could progress along three possible scenarios. In the first, the siege would continue. In the second, it would be eased. And in the third scenario, it would be lifted.
However, current indications and the positions of the relevant parties suggest the first scenario is the most likely in the current period.
By reading the situation on the ground, it seems that Hamas and the national Palestinian forces have no option but to complete internal reconciliation, restoring ties with Egypt, capitalizing on Arab and regional relations including Qatari and Turkish efforts, and moving actively on the international arena to confront the blockade.
The GS blockade is a daily pain for nearly two million Palestinians that have been living the effects of collective punishment since mid-2006 without any humanitarian or ethical repercussions for the blockaders. The suffering resulting from the severity and cruelty of the blockade has affected most aspects of life in the Strip. Although the blockade is linked to Hamas’s victory in the general election of 2006, and its takeover of GS in 2007, the entire population of the coastal enclave without exception or discrimination has paid the price for it over the past years.
The GS blockade was linked to the Hamas capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006. However, the blockade was intensified and it peaked as the Hamas-led government took over the GS militarily in mid-2007. To end the blockade, the international quartet demanded that Hamas accept its conditions, which included recognizing Israel, abiding by agreements signed by the PLO with Israel and renouncing so-called “violence.”
However, Hamas, which refused these conditions, was able to cope with the cruel blockade by securing financial support from abroad and by relying on revenues from border tunnels between GS and Egypt. Hamas was able to pay the salaries of its employees and withstand two Israeli military assaults (2009–2008 and 2012) without collapsing as a result of the blockade and its political and economic implications.
But the Egyptian army’s demolition of border tunnels following the ouster of President Muhammad Morsi in mid-2013, cutting off the flow of goods and revenues for the Gaza government, in addition to the closure of the Rafah border crossing, which was opened only sporadically in intervals far apart, and the political and military tensions that marked the relationship between Hamas and the new Egyptian regime, brought unbearable political, economic, and financial pressure on Hamas. The Israeli war in the summer of 2014 and the accompanying indirect negotiations with the occupation that ended without result, increased the burden of the crisis and dampened hopes regarding the lifting or easing of the blockade.
The closure of the Rafah crossing caused an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in GS. Patients, students, and other people with special needs were prevented from travelling. The crossing was only opened for 21 days separately in 2015. In addition, there were strict restrictions on the movement of individuals through the Beit Hanoun (Erez) crossing. In addition to this, the deteriorating healthcare situation, the shortage of medicines and medical equipment, the tough restrictions on the movement of goods through the commercial crossing with Israel (Karm Abu Salem crossing), and the disruption of most economic facilities in GS placed the Strip in a situation of near total collapse. Furthermore, because of the blockade, the GS has suffered from a total lack of food security, contamination of drinking water, and stalled reconstruction efforts following the devastation of the 2014 war, all amid soaring poverty and unemployment (42% by some estimates).
Consequently, the GS authorities imposed various taxes that affected the trade and economic sectors in order to secure part of the employees’ salaries and the costs of governance, civil security and government departments in the Strip, which caused a state of discontent among sections of the GS people.
Some Palestinian forces and observers have accused Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmud ‘Abbas and leaders in Fatah in Ramallah of practically endorsing the GS blockade and its continuation to subdue rival Hamas. These voices believe ‘Abbas and his government have not undertaken real measures to get the blockade lifted, and that ‘Abbas has supported Egyptian action against the tunnels without putting pressure to get the crossings reopened permanently.
In an interview with Egypt’s Sada al-Balad TV (2014), ‘Abbas claimed that he spared no occasion to demand the closure of the tunnels, whether by having them flooded or by building a metallic border fence. On the other hand, Egyptian President Sisi said in late September 2015 and the measures implemented by Egypt against GS were fully coordinated with the PA in Ramallah.
In 2015, an attempt led by former Quartet Envoy Tony Blair for mediation between Hamas and Israel regarding lifting the blockade or easing it in return for a long-term truce, had failed. With the end of the year, and with the Jerusalem Intifadah entering its third month, five Palestinian factions led by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and the Palestine People’s Party (PPP), proposed an initiative to Hamas and Fatah and the government of Hamadallah, with the aim of resolving the Rafah Crossing crisis. The initiative required veteran and new civil servants led by a consensus figure to run the crossing under the umbrella of the government, while the crossing’s security is handled by presidential guard. The crossing’s revenues would also be used to develop GS.
The initiative came as the wager on Hamas’s collapse in light of the recent developments in Egypt and the Arab region failed, and amid Turkish-Israeli negotiations with the issue of Gaza’s marine crossing on the table, which would reduce the importance of the Rafah crossing and the Egyptian influence on it.
Hamas welcomed the initiative in principle, but proposed that a faction-wide committee should oversee the crossing until reconciliation agreements are implemented, or the consensus government agrees to shoulder all its responsibilities in Gaza. Hamas also questioned Egypt’s initial position on the initiative, in light of the lack of any tangible improvement in the ties between Cairo and GS, and with Cairo invoking security difficulties to claim the crossing would not be able to operate naturally and permanently.
Hamas’s concerns include the possibility of the initiative being meant to pave the way for Abbas’s administration, to extend its control to Gaza without this being part of the reconciliation agreements and the partnership with the PA and the PLO. Indeed, Hamas is not reassured by the position of Hamadallah’s government, which in Hamas’s view is no longer a consensus government after its repeated reshuffles. Hamas believes that the PA’s interest in controlling the crossings remains part of its quest to weaken Hamas and as part of its commitment to the Oslo Accords, the Israeli conditions, and the terms demanded by the International Quartet.
PA president and Fatah leader Mahmud ‘Abbas and the consensus government approved the factional initiative, but they refused Hamas’s counter-proposal for managing the Rafah crossing by a faction-wide committee. Furthermore, the latter refused the proposal of running the crossing jointly, insisting on its initiative without any amendments. The committee also ruled out for the consensus government to fully take responsibility in Gaza, arguing that the move, while praiseworthy in principle, faces many obstacles that have already hindered it in the preceding two years. The committee also refused to solicit an Egyptian position regarding the initiative before it is put forward.
Egypt did not express any official position on the initiative, but Israeli radio, quoting a source in the Israeli foreign ministry, said the Egyptians expressed concern to Israel that lifting the GS siege could legitimize Hamas there after Israeli-Turkish talks regarding the blockade.
This initiative coincided with the continued closure of the Rafah crossing, and the Egyptian army’s ongoing demolition and flooding of border tunnels, all as relations between Cairo and Tel Aviv have reached advanced levels of coordination. This setting would not allow Hamas to claim credit for opening the Rafah crossing or to be in a position of real partnership while the PA runs GS.
First Scenario: Continuation of the Blockade
This scenario revolves around a blockade status quo or even its intensification, thereby exacerbating the suffering of the GS population at all levels. In this context, the Rafah crossing would remain closed save for a limited number of days every few months, as has happened over the past year, with implications for the sick, students, and other segments. Tough restrictions on the movement of goods, basic supplies, infrastructure needs, and other vital supplies would also remain in place at the Karm Abu Salem crossing, keeping the economic situation in GS in the nadir, and exacerbating health and humanitarian and social impacts in Gazan society.
Second Scenario: Easing the Blockade
This scenario would see limited improvements introduced to the conditions of the blockade, partially reducing the suffering and impact it causes in the context of the occupation and the international community desire to prevent an explosion in GS. This scenario relates mainly to the commercial crossing with Israel, with the Israeli authorities subsequently allowing the introduction of some goods and basic materials that were banned in the past through the Karm Abu Salem crossing. It also affects the Rafah crossing, whose opening and closure is controlled by the Egyptian authorities, which would increase the number of days during which the crossing is opened.
Under this scenario, the initiative put forward by the Palestinian factions on the Rafah border crossing recently could succeed in resolving the crisis between Hamas and Egypt on the one hand, and Hamas and the PA on the other hand. This means solving the problem of the crossing and its re-opening restoring the status quo prior to the Hamas takeover of GS in mid-2007, or according to a new formula that would help alleviate the suffering of the people of the GS.
Third Scenario: Lifting the Blockade
Under this scenario, negotiations between Israel and Turkey regarding lifting the GS blockade would succeed, or dramatic developments would take place in the framework of efforts by some parties for a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel, or efforts for achieving inter-Palestinian reconciliation would succeed with control of the crossings handed over to a regionally and internationally accepted PA. This would lead to a political approach based on lifting the GS blockade ultimately.
So far, there have been no information regarding the form and mechanism of Israel’s approach to other crossings with GS in the event a marine port or conduit was established allowing the flow of goods. However, it is certain any such conduit or port would become the main terminal for commercial and human movement from and into GS, with the possibility of the other crossings continuing to be run under Israeli conditions and considerations.
By studying previous scenarios, it would seem the first is the most likely at present. The main issue is that the two parties controlling the GS borders on the Israeli and Egyptian sides see the blockade as a means to subdue, marginalize, and undermine Hamas. They do not see that there is enough justification or pressure to lift the siege without first achieving their goals in removing Hamas from the governance of GS or from active participation therein. Another point is that active parties in the PA and Fatah leadership of still see the blockade as a means of conducting factional rivalry with Hamas.
However, any real breakthrough in terms of the internal Palestinian reconciliation, or at the level of the relationship with Egypt, or Israel’s response to Turkish pressure, may shift events in the direction of the other two scenario. Indeed, political issues are always in flux, and we cannot determine in certain which of the three scenarios will pan out in light of the fluctuations in the Palestinian situation, and the absence of Palestinian visions and strategies that determine the trends of the Palestinian national track.
1. Implementing Palestinian reconciliation agreements and ending internal division. Resolving all outstanding issues including the crossings, to remove all pretexts preventing the re-opening of the Rafah crossing and to lift restrictions on commercial crossings with Israel.
2. Formation of a legal ad hoc committee from senior legal experts in Palestine and the Arab region, to prepare lawsuits against the occupation to be filed through the PA and Arab and Islamic parties at the ICC. The goal: to obtain international decisions criminalizing the blockade and holding Israeli leaders accountable for their crimes.
3. Quickly ending the crisis between Hamas and the Egyptian authorities to separate humanitarian and economic issues related to the crossing from the Egyptian regime’s attitude vis-à-vis Islamic movements.
4. Hamas must work to promote trust and openness with the people of GS by engaging with them on the street, to clarify its position and enhance solidarity and cooperation among all social and political components in the Gazan society.
5. Developing a practical plan to capitalize on Turkish and Qatari efforts and put pressure to lift the blockade, and benefit from the Turkish position that has clung to the demand of removing the blockade on Gaza in return for restoring previous ties with Israel.
6. Activating media efforts focusing on the suffering of the people of GSunder the blockade in the international and Western media to influence worldwide public opinion.
7. Calling for major protests in international capitals to put the GS blockade in the forefront of the international agenda.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. ‘Mu’men Bseeso for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.