With the exception of the extremely slow reconstruction process of what was destroyed during the last Israel-Gaza war in the summer of 2014, the conditions that preceded that war remain in place. The Palestinian reconciliation process remains cosmetic, negotiations for a truce between Israel and Hamas that were supposed to resume under Egyptian auspices have stalled, and humanitarian conditions in Gaza are becoming increasingly dire. Without improvement on any of these issues, the risks for a new round of fighting remain high. Mobilization and preparation by Hamas and Israel for a new round of war are indeed gathering pace.
Over the past months, the Israeli government continued to claim Hamas was upgrading its military capabilities, most notably by building attack tunnels under the border with Israel. In early May 2016, Israel said it uncovered a tunnel running from Gaza into its territory, considering this a declaration of war by Hamas.
On the other hand, Hamas continued to threaten escalation if the blockade on Gaza was not lifted. Among dozens of statements in this context, one made by al-Qassem Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said the situation in Gaza would not remain calm for long, and would “explode” if the blockade was not ended.
In a related significant development, a Palestinian blew himself up on an Israeli bus on April 18, 2016 in Jerusalem, marking a new development in the context of the wave of Palestinian-Israeli violence in Jerusalem and areas of the West Bank since October 2015. Hamas said the bomber 'Abu Srour' was one of its members, raising serious concerns regarding a repetition of the scenario that paved the way for the 2014 war in Gaza. At the time, three Israeli settlers had been found dead, on June 30, 2014 in the Hebron area of the West Bank, 18 days after they had disappeared. The incident was a direct cause of the war of summer 2014.
An immediate breakthrough in the Gaza Strip, and averting a future war, is therefore linked to one or more of the following two options:
1. Full Palestinian Reconciliation Restoring Palestinian Authority Control of the Gaza Strip
Despite several reconciliation agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the first of which in May 2011 in Cairo and the most recent in April 2014, little progress to reflect such agreements has been made on the ground. A government of national accord was formed after the 2014 agreement, but its authority in the Gaza Strip remained nominal as a number of problems were unresolved, led by its non-recognition of the Hamas-appointed civil servants who numbered nearly 41,000.
The Hamas-appointed civil servants continued to run Gaza’s affairs without being recognized by the national accord government. But Hamas has been unable to pay their salaries regularly due to the severe financial crisis resulting from the collapse of trade with Sinai via the tunnels—the most important source of revenue for Hamas. Gaza, thus, effectively remains outside the control of the Palestinian political system and the national accord government based in Ramallah, as Hamas continues to rule the Strip in both civilian and military terms.
A full reconciliation will return Gaza to the control of the PA, and thus all agreements between the PA and Israel will come into effect in Gaza, namely the peace agreement.
2. Truce Agreement between Hamas and Israel
On August 26, 2014, a cease-fire agreement was reached after 51 days of Israeli military action, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, against Gaza, which also saw Hamas and other militant groups fire hundreds of rockets into Israel. Under the Egyptian cease-fire initiative, Cairo was supposed to continue its efforts to strengthen the cease-fire agreements by working on concluding a truce between Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Israel. However, there was no follow-through due to continued tense relations between the Sisi government and Hamas. In other words, the existing calm between Hamas and Israel is not official, but is rather managed through indirect verbal agreements. From time-to-time, Israel and Hamas stress their desire to maintain the calm, despite sporadic skirmishes along the border that last a few hours at a time. A long-term truce between Hamas and Israel will be needed if reconciliation between the Palestinian factions does not come to pass. A truce can be brokered and guaranteed by regional actors, mainly Egypt.
The Need to De-Escalate
Some see that a new round of fighting is inevitable given the impasse in the negotiations amid continued preparations for the next battle, which could be more brutal than the last one. Others, myself included, would argue that the constant feature of both Hamas and Israel’s policies in the near-term is a desire to avoid a new confrontation. The current media war between the two sides is perhaps designed to avoid rather than bring about war, by raising alarm bells that would also incite regional powers into action.
Skirmishes erupted between Hamas and Israel along the border of Gaza on May 4-5, but, as per this assessment, both sides quickly sought to de-escalate the situation. Indeed, statements made by both sides, for example from al-Qassem Brigades and the Coordinator of Israeli Government Activities in the Palestinian Territories, Yoav Mordechai, affirmed commitment to avoiding escalation. Regional powers Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar, despite their opposing views on Hamas, also rushed to intervene to prevent further deterioration.
However, these efforts remain insufficient in the long-term. Three wars in five years have failed failed to resolve the situation in Gaza. Israel has not lifted the blockade and continues to prevent the construction of a port in Gaza, while Hamas is still ruling the besieged territory, and is now stronger than it was prior to the three wars, particularly on the military level.
The two sides of the conflict may want to avoid an escalation, even if only in the interim, but they do not have the ability to prevent a new round of fighting in light of the fragility of the informal truce in place; the preoccupation of regional powers with other problems; and the deterioration of humanitarian conditions in Gaza.
War is a costly option for all involved, and focus must be placed to build upon the current desire of both Israel and Hamas to avoid full-scale war, and stabilize the situation. The Palestinian Authority and Hamas must complete their reconciliation, Egypt must call the parties concerned to resume truce negotiations, and the international community must intervene promptly to prevent a disaster, before it happens.