News analysis

Israelis fearful of Gaza Strip tinderbox

Situation in territory dire as its people lack food, water and medicine

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 last Saturday. Following the incident, the dull thuds of air strikes thundered through the rainy night as the Israeli jets responded with severe bombardments.

The air force claims to have struck 18 military targets in the 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 Gaza Strip. Ironically, Israel has been lobbying the world to lend indirect financial support to Hamas, its arch-enemy, fearing the ramifications of a total collapse in the territory.

There is nothing new to Gaza being poor, but even Israel's army recognises things have never been as bad as today. More than 40 per cent of basic medications have become unavailable. The 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 for drinking. 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 arch-rival in the Palestinian movement, Fatah. Israel instituted a siege intended to strangle Hamas, a terror organisation 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, has added to Israel's pressure. Its president Mahmoud Abbas wants to choke the Islamists into submission. Months ago, he reduced medicine shipments 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," Mr Gerald Rockenschaub, head of the World Health Organisation office in the West Bank and Gaza, told the Christian Science Monitor. Therefore, Gaza continues on its path to oblivion. Purchasing power has plummeted and unemployment has skyrocketed to 50 per cent, with 70 per cent of the population living under the poverty line.

Hopeless, many people in Gaza 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 risen lately. They trust that Israel's prisons at least serve clean drinking water and daily food rations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2018, with the headline 'Israelis fearful of Gaza Strip tinderbox'. Print Edition | Subscribe