Events in Gaza have followed a predictable cycle dating back to last spring. Hamas ramps up the violence along the border fence and launches incendiary devices – whether rockets, balloons, or kites – toward Israel. In return, Israel promises to do a wide range of things to alleviate the situation in Gaza, from allowing in Qatari cash to allowing diesel fuel into the territory to expanding the fishing zone from ten miles to fifteen miles. Hamas becomes unsatisfied at the speed with which Israel is acting or wants to force further concessions, or Israel does not actually carry out what it has said it would do as part of the truce arrangement, and the balloons continue to burn southern Israel’s fields and shootings resume at the border fence, and the entire process repeats. It has become something of a morbid joke to read every couple of weeks about the latest truce arrangement, nearly always brokered by Egyptian intelligence or the indefatigable UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov, in which both sides predictably pledge to transform the stubborn equilibrium that reigns on the border, and just as predictably the truce breaks down in a matter of days, if not hours.
Yet in the past few weeks, something actually has changed in Gaza. The three biggest problems plaguing Gaza – insufficient electricity, insufficient waste treatment, and insufficient cash to sustain the economy – are being addressed in new ways, and the evidence so far suggests that things along the border have been quieter. It is far too early to say whether any of this represents a true paradigm shift or is just a temporary lull, not to mention that relying on Hamas’s good faith and fidelity is a fool’s errand. What makes these developments important is that they are based on a completely different – and in my view, more sensible – theory on how to deal with Gaza and ultimately weaken Hamas’s grip on the territory.
Since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007, Israel – with the U.S. following suit – has proceeded on the assumption that blockading Gaza will result in Hamas either capitulating or being dislodged from power. After over a decade, it is clear that this strategy has not worked. Not only is Hamas still there, it has benefited from the situation by taking control of the smuggling tunnels and taxing everything that comes in or goes out. The population of Gaza has suffered while Hamas’s grip on every aspect of Gaza’s political and economic life has expanded, and Israel has felt the consequences of the growing humanitarian crisis as well. Going in the opposite direction and lifting some of the restrictions on Gaza will certainly benefit Hamas in some ways but will also break its absolute monopoly on the entirety of Gaza’s commerce and perhaps even buy some goodwill from the Palestinians living there. It is a tactic that has been encouraged by Israel’s security establishment but largely opposed by the political class.
Whether because the situation in Gaza has gotten so bad or because Israel’s military and security chiefs have been able to move the ball, there appears to be a marked shift in policy taking place. In the spring, Israel quietly began construction on a new electricity line – known as Line 161 – into Gaza that would increase the amount of electricity provided to the strip by 100 megawatts, nearly doubling the 120 megawatts that Gaza currently receives. The line is expected to take a few years to build and so is certainly not a short-term answer to Gaza’s current problems, but Hamas and other jihadi groups in Gaza understand how important it is to get the line built and maintained. Not only would it go a long way toward solving the basic electricity problem, it would also improve sewage and wastewater treatment, as sewage pumps are frequently inactive due to a lack of power. Israel was previously reluctant to hand Hamas what would be perceived as a victory in the form of alleviating the electricity crisis, but with Qatar agreeing to finance the line’s construction, building is going ahead.
In addition, Israel approved a new sewage line that will bring waste from northern Gaza to the Israeli treatment facility that serves the Sha’ar HaNegev regional council. In this case too, events on the ground seemingly left Israel little choice, as wastewater from Gaza was flowing into Israel and contaminating the groundwater. Nevertheless, the fact that Israel is working on a permanent solution, rather than relying on a temporary system of pumps that can be more easily shut down, is a clear statement that the Israeli government has come to the realization that alleviating a public health crisis in Gaza outweighs the stratagem of not handing Hamas any potential wins.
Perhaps more pertinent than either of these moves has been Israel’s quiet lifting of restrictions on Gazan workers entering Israel. With the export blockade in place, few opportunities for employment inside Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority’s sanctions on Gaza in the form of slashed salaries for PA employees, the most pressing problem that Gaza faces is a shortage of cash needed for basic commerce to take place. Despite the IDF’s longstanding recommendation that 5,000 day laborers be allowed into Israel from Gaza daily as a way of injecting cash into the economy through their wages, the Shin Bet’s concerns over the potential for terrorists to infiltrate this group made Israel’s government reticent. This month, however, Israel increased the number of permits for businessmen from 3,000 to 5,000, and by all accounts has been turning a purposeful blind eye to the fact that these “businessmen” are actually manual laborers who are getting paid each day in cash and taking those wages back into Gaza. While this may seem trivial for a territory of approximately two million people, even this relatively small measure has the potential to make a big difference given the complete absence of any other sources of cash that are not directly controlled by Hamas and its smuggling operation.
These moves may all be reversed in short order, and the relative quiet that exists right now can easily end at the drop of a hat. But leaving aside the short term success of these policies and questions about their durability, this change represents Israel’s willingness to try something new, and not incidentally something that has been recommended by experts in Israel and the U.S. Perhaps it is a chimera, but if policy on Gaza does slowly start to change, it will provide a chance to evaluate the argument that the decade-old approach of crippling blockade has been an abject failure and that some new thinking is required.