Rockets and bombs traded by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which have caused numerous deaths and thousands of Gazan and Israeli citizens to live in fear of attack, mark the latest escalation of tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As tragic as it was inevitable, the current violence stems from several recurrent factors that have caused tensions to boil over. These sources of tension must be addressed if a sustainable ceasefire in the current conflict in Gaza is to be achieved.
Gaza has been unstable for the last eight years, ever since Hamas took control of the region in 2006. Since then, the frequency and intensity of violent exchanges between Israel and Gaza have been growing steadily. Israel’s response to repeated attacks from Gaza has essentially been based on deterrence: it has enforced a strict policy of isolation between the West Bank and Gaza aimed at preventing Hamas terrorist cells from infiltrating the West Bank. By doing so, Israel had managed to restore a temporary quiet to its southern border without addressing the main sources of instability that have continued to fuel tensions between both sides.
The context of the current violence is reminiscent of the one that led to the eight-day IDF Operation Pillar of Defense a year and half ago. Then, as now, Hamas found itself isolated, broke, and unable to deliver economically or politically to either its constituencies and to the people of Gaza. Since the fall of President Morsi, Egypt-Hamas relations have been characterized by overt and fierce hostility between Cairo and Hamas. This has led to the almost total sealing of the Rafah border crossing between the two—the main, if not the only, gateway for Gazan residents to leave Gaza. Economically, the Israeli closure is in its strictest phase, and the closing of the tunnels between Egypt and Gaza has deprived Hamas of a major source of income, estimated at about $500 million per year. Iran has also cut off relations because of Hamas’ support for the Syrian revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. Aid from Qatar help has been too marginal to be a game changer.
With its back to the wall, and after three months without paying the salaries of its 43,000 employees, Hamas surprised all those involved in intra-Palestinian reconciliation efforts by accepting most of Fatah’s demands for the signing of the “Shati” reconciliation agreement on April 23, 2014, and by deciding to free itself from the burden of managing Gaza affairs. On June 2, less than two months after signing the agreement, Hamas went further by accepting almost all of Fatah’s demands for the formation of a consensus government led by Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which is now officially the government in charge of administrating both Gaza and the West Bank.
But this tactical reconciliation with Fatah has not yielded any of the benefits for the people of Gaza that it was expected to bring about. Two factors in particular have blocked these anticipated boons. First, Egypt has imposed strict conditions for the reopening of the Rafah crossing, essentially requiring Palestinian Authority forces to control and manage the Rafah crossing and deploy along the Gaza-Egypt border. Second, the Palestinian Authority has declined responsibility for paying the salaries of Hamas government employees, and has been reluctant to encourage third-party Arab countries, like Qatar, to do so. This payment freeze springs from the fear that any suspicion that the Palestinian Authority is transferring money to individuals affiliated with Hamas—which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, Egypt, and the United States, among others—could trigger U.S. financial sanctions and a loss of donor funds. Given these circumstances, Hamas has been eager to reposition itself as a resistance movement to Israel, to galvanize domestic support and attract international attention. Along with Israel’s tough stance against Hamas after the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, the combination of these factors ultimately led to the latest round of violence in Gaza.A solution to the current violence must take into account these factors while simultaneously providing Gazans with enough positive incentives to both oppose a return to violence in the future and favor moderate leaders capable of generating positive changes in Gaza.
Accomplishing this will require outlining a set of measures to enable the Palestinian Authority to govern in Gaza and respond effectively to the needs of the Gaza population. In this sense, the current context differs from the one that prevailed during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Then, the Palestinian Authority had no legitimacy in Gaza, and any attempt to reinforce its position there after the IDF incursion would have been perceived as an Israeli-backed coup. The signing of the Shati agreement and the formation of the Palestinian consensus government that followed on June 2, however, have provided the necessary groundwork for the Palestinian Authority to return to Gaza as a legitimate source of authority. Despite the current violence, neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas is currently interested in breaking that deal. For the former, doing so would amount to abandoning fellow Palestinians in a time of war; for the latter, it would imply a reassertion of administrative responsibility in Gaza, in which Hamas has little interest.
Hence, a valid framework for a sustainable ceasefire should accentuate the centrality of the current formal position of President Abbas and the legitimacy of his consensus government, both while brokering an end to the current violence as well as during later stabilization efforts. In concrete terms, this means that a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza requires a two-pronged approach. It must first reconcile Israeli and Hamas preconditions for ceasefire through Egyptian mediation, since Egypt is Israel’s most trusted mediator on that matter and the regional actor with the most effective leverage on Hamas. Second, it requires that a stability-building package be presented by the Palestinian consensus government under the leadership of President Abbas, which should then be implemented with the assistance of and in coordination with the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and the Arab League. Both efforts should be structured in a manner that will help secure a political and administrative foothold for the Palestinian Authority—and particularly for President Abbas himself—in Gaza.
The challenges to this framework are many. First, Hamas leadership is divided. Consequently, the extent to which the organization’s political leadership will be able to induce its military wing to accept a ceasefire remains uncertain, unless an understanding is reached that will provide a solution for the payment of former Hamas employees’ salaries. Second, the Palestinian Authority has not shown a genuine interest in taking responsibility over affairs in Gaza. The international community—especially Egypt and donors to the Palestinian Authority—could play a key role in proactively encouraging and assisting of the Palestinian National Authority in Ramallah to change their tune. Third, Egypt’s ability and willingness to serve as an effective mediator between Israel and Hamas has been questioned in light of the hostility of the current Egyptian regime towards Hamas. Other regional actors do not present reliable alternatives, since neither Turkey nor Qatar is sufficiently trusted by the Israeli government or capable of exerting sufficient leverage on Hamas. Fourth, in light of recent events, the Israeli government has not shown itself inclined to shift its policy towards Gaza, and has flatly rejected recognizing the newly formed Palestinian consensus government as legitimate.
In advocating for a solution to the ongoing violence, the international community—and primarily the United States—must emphasize that supporting the successful return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza has broader ramifications that serve strategic Egyptian, Israeli, and U.S. interests. Hence, in addition to being key to brokering a ceasefire and creating sustainable stability in Gaza, restoring the Palestinian Authority as a united and single source of authority for both Gaza and the West Bank would significantly advance the viability of a two-state solution.