Israelis fear the tinderbox in the Gaza Strip

Israeli soldiers and their tanks patrolling near the Israeli kibbutz of Nir Am, near the border with Gaza, on Feb 18, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

TEL AVIV - The newest escalation in Gaza demonstrates the constant threat of war between Israel and the Palestinian radical Islamic Hamas.

In what Israelis call the "most severe escalation" since the last war with Gaza in 2014, a booby trap Palestinians planted on the border fence injured four soldiers on Saturday (Feb 17). Following the incident, dull thuds of air strikes thundered through the rainy night as Israeli jets responded with severe bombardments. The air force claims to have struck 18 military targets in the Gaza Strip, wounding two people. Two Palestinians were killed as they attempted to approach the border.

The outbreak of violence has coincided with increasing concern in Israel about the situation in the territory. Ironically, Israel has been lobbying the world to lend indirect financial support to Hamas, its archenemy, fearing the ramifications of a total collapse in the territory.

Gaza's prisons have been growing ever more crowded lately. Yet it is not common criminals who fill the cells, but businesspeople. Their crime: They are unable to pay their debts. It is but one symptom of a looming humanitarian crisis. Markets still offer fresh produce in abundance, but hardly anyone buys. Civil servants who just a few months ago belonged to the middle class now haggle with vendors over spoiled apples and cucumbers, the only things they can afford. The situation has become so precarious that, Gadi Eizenkot, chief of staff of Israel's armed forces, has begun to sound like a spokesman of an international aid organisation. Two weeks ago, he urged Israel's cabinet to take "significant preventive measures" to avoid a collapse of Gaza's society. Otherwise, he warned, the rulers of the Hamas might see war as their only remaining option. Israeli media now too warn the dire situation in Gaza could lead to a conflict both sides do not want.

There is nothing new to Gaza being poor, but even Israel's army recognizes things have never been as bad as today. More than 40 per cent of basic medications have become unavailable. Authorities have closed 16 hospitals due to the lack of electricity. Last week, Egypt discontinued delivery of diesel fuel for Gaza's generators, exacerbating the chronic power outages in the Strip. People are left with an average of three hours of electricity daily, not enough to keep clinics or sewage treatment plants working. Therefore, 90 per cent of the groundwater has become unfit to drink. Anyone who cannot afford to purchase bottled water is bound to get sick.

Several developments have colluded to produce this "perfect storm". It began with a violent coup by Hamas in 2006, which toppled its archrival in the Palestinian movement, Fatah. Israel instituted a siege intended to strangle Hamas, a terror organization devoted to Israel's destruction. It was also supposed to prevent Hamas' efforts to divert civil imports to its weapons factories. Since 2015, Israel has imposed more restrictions. While it allows more goods into the Strip, it allows fewer merchants out. Once, 3,500 businessmen were able to leave the territory. Now only 600 get permits. The result has crippled Gaza's ailing economy.

Fatah, which controls the occupied West Bank and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has added to Israel's pressure. Its president, Mahmoud Abbas, wants to choke the Islamists into submission. Months ago, he reduced shipments of medicine to the Strip, and reduced the payments to Israel for the delivery of electricity. He also cut salaries of civil servants in Gaza by 60 per cent. For years, he had paid them for not going to work, aiming to keep their loyalty and sabotage Hamas' attempts to administer the Strip. Hamas built up its own ruling apparatus, with 40,000 people on its payroll. But the downturn in Gaza's economy has left it strapped for cash. It has not paid its employees for months. A much touted reconciliation agreement signed between the two factions last year was supposed to resolve these issues but, like all its predecessors, it failed after Hamas refused to put its militia under Mr Abbas' control. Seeing the impasse, an Egyptian representative tasked with overseeing the implementation of the agreement left Gaza a month ago.

The international community has added to Gaza's woes. Donors promised Palestinians US$3.5 billion (S$4.6 billion) for its reconstruction after the war of 2014. But about half of the pledges have not been fulfilled. States are unwilling to donate because they "consider the crisis to be politically manufactured, by both Palestinian infighting and by Israel," Gerald Rockenschaub, the head the World Health Organization office in the West Bank and Gaza, told the Christian Science Monitor. Therefore, Gaza continues on its path to oblivion. Purchasing power has plummeted, unemployment has skyrocketed to 50 per cent, and 70 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line.

Israel's army now fears this could be too much pressure. That realization has led to paradoxical developments. In early February, at the very time when the United States cut funding for the UN aid organisation for Palestinian refugees by US$65 million, Israel addressed a donor conference in Brussels requesting US$1 billion for infrastructure projects in Gaza like new power mains, gas pipelines, industrial zones as well as desalination and sewage treatment plants. Concomitantly, the cabinet reviewed plans for the construction of an artificial island off Gaza's coast to house a seaport and an airport. This was supposed to make Gaza independent of Israel, while an international monitoring force stationed on the island ensured that no weapons reached the Strip. It did not perturb Israel that these measures essentially would entrench the reign of its nemesis, Hamas.

Yet these are all long-term plans for problems that need immediate solutions. Political interests prevent any quick fixes to the problem, though. A meeting between representatives of Israel, the PA and the UN serves to illustrate this: The UN asked the PA to increase shipments of medications to Gaza, but the PA responded by demanding Israel increase the number of exit permits first. Yet Israel stated that this will only happen after Hamas releases the bodies of two soldiers kept in Gaza, as well as two Israeli civilians detained by the Islamists. Israel's minister of defence, Avigdor Lieberman, dictates this policy against the suggestions of his own generals. He refuses to decrease pressure, accusing Hamas of spending US$260 million in 2017 for rockets and digging tunnels - US$100 million from Iran and the rest from taxes levied on Gaza's population and other donations. At the same time, Hamas did not devote funds "to water, electricity, health or medical infrastructure in the Gaza Strip," Lieberman contended. Hamas, for its part, coolly calculates that their people's suffering will increase the motivation of international donors.

People in Gaza, in the meantime, remain hostage. Hopeless, many have begun to talk of another war, despite Israel's military advantage. Others want to escalate the weekly demonstrations next to the border fence, turning them into mass protests with tens of thousands of participants - knowing full well that this harbours potential for another escalation. Others are looking for a desperate way out. The army has reported that the number of Palestinians crossing the border fence in order to be arrested has increased lately. They trust that Israel's prisons at least serve clean drinking water and daily food rations.

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