Middle East

All Signals Point Once Again to War in Gaza

Conditions that preceded past conflicts are all there. It just takes a spark.

What lies ahead for her?

Photographer: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

The next war in Gaza is coming.

In over five years as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, I found no issue more impervious to solutions than Gaza. We were constantly preventing, managing or responding to crises -- trying to head off terror attacks by Hamas and others, supporting Israel’s right to defend itself, negotiating ceasefires and working to alleviate human suffering. 

I also learned that Gaza wars follow a kind of routine. Hamas upgrades its attack capabilities, and tensions build. Both sides prefer to avoid an escalation, but some incident, perhaps unintended, leads Hamas to increase the rate of rockets fired into Israel. Eventually, Israel deems the provocations intolerable, and launches a heavier response, such as when it conducted a targeted strike on Hamas military wing chief Ahmed Jabari at the start of Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. A full-on conflict ensues, with ceasefire negotiations competing with Hamas rocket and tunnel attacks, Israeli airstrikes, and calls from the Israeli public for a ground invasion to “finish the job.”

Unhappily, there are growing signs that this cycle is about to start anew. Rockets are fired by Salafist groups (hardliners such as those affiliated with Islamic State) into Israel, actions that Hamas either permits or fails to prevent, and Israel responds with carefully placed airstrikes. Few casualties have resulted on either side so far, but the exchanges are now coming every few days. Hamas itself sends test launches of upgraded rockets out to sea. In plain sight from the Israeli side of the border, Hamas brazenly digs new tunnels. At least 15 of them, according to Israeli estimates, now extend under Israeli territory. Israeli patrols periodically encounter explosives placed along the border fence.

The new leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahyah Sanwar, is considered to be harder-line and closer to the Izzeddine Al-Qassem military wing of the movement than his predecessor, Ismail Haniyeh. If the moment comes to demonstrate that Hamas can stand up to pressure from Israel, the leadership will likely be influenced by the movement’s extreme factions.

Despite a significant broadening of the goods permitted by Israel to cross into Gaza -- some 700 to 800 trucks per day -- economic conditions remain difficult. Unemployment, according to the World Bank, continues to exceed 40 percent, as programs to increase exports have failed to get off the ground. Unsteady revenue streams for the Hamas authorities mean salaries go unpaid. Israel has also significantly reduced the number of entry permits it provides to Gazans, citing intelligence that Hamas has tried to take advantage of such permit-holders to plan or facilitate terrorist attacks in the West Bank or Israel. The Trump administration’s surprising enthusiasm for promoting regional peace talks could easily create an incentive for Hamas, fearful of being left behind if Israelis and Arabs start to negotiate, to demonstrate its relevance and its ability to impose a veto on regional peace processes. 

There is no indication that Israel seeks another round of conflict, but neither would it shy away from one provoked by Hamas. The State Comptroller Report on the 2014 conflict, which criticized ministers in the security cabinet for insufficient attention to the threat of tunnels, hangs heavily in the air. A new tunnel-detection technology program, jointly funded by the United States, is promising but incomplete. A planned underground barrier will take many months to complete. Should a Hamas attack seem imminent, or should one occur, the cabinet will be under enormous pressure -- much of it self-generated -- to demonstrate that it will not allow Israeli civilians to be threatened. The now-palpable scent of early elections will only heighten these sensitivities.

This might seem a bad time for Hamas to escalate. The organization is trying to distinguish itself from the Muslim Brotherhood (hated by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) in order to improve its own standing with Cairo. Egypt controls the Rafah crossing at Gaza’s southern end, often the only passage through which citizens and Hamas leaders can leave. So Hamas is debating changes to its infamous charter calling for Israel’s destruction that, if passed, could justify recognition of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders (although without recognizing Israel or relinquishing claims to its territory). Smuggling weapons into Gaza through tunnels from Sinai is far more difficult than it was during previous conflicts, thanks to more sustained Egyptian enforcement. 

But nothing about Hamas’s ideology of armed struggle to destroy Israel has fundamentally changed. Nor has its need to compete with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party for the loyalty of Palestinians. And Hamas has stepped up its domestic weapons production capabilities, manufacturing rockets and investing in attack tunnels, to be ready for the next round.

A war could be sparked by a range of incidents -- a border fence event with casualties; a “lucky” rocket strike by a Salafist group on a civilian target, slipping past Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and drawing an Israeli response and Hamas counter-response; or a terrorist attack in the West Bank, followed by an Israeli operation there (as with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens in 2014), that spurs Hamas leaders in Gaza to feel the need to get involved.

During the Obama years, we faced a Gaza crisis roughly every two years. It doesn’t take a genius to predict another round -- one can feel it coming, like the change of seasons. Each conflict saw Israeli civilians under fire and left Gaza civilians in agony, and the next one will as well.

Unlike the seasons though, there are ways to respond to and mitigate the inevitable conflict, which I will spell out in my next column.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.