Analysis: Light at the end of the tunnel for Gaza?

Ten years ago this month, Hamas executed a brutal takeover of Gaza, one that saw the terrorist group murder its political opponents and impose an Islamist regime on the poverty-stricken enclave.

On three occasions since, most recently in 2014, the group has provoked bloody conflicts with Israel after sustained attacks on Israeli civilians. In each, it has shown as little regard for the lives of Palestinians as it has for Israelis. Earlier this month, we learned from the Red Crescent that, during the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas deliberately fired rockets from a position in front of a field hospital. The subsequent Israeli response prevented the Red Crescent from distributing vital humanitarian aid. As the Muslim charity’s secretary-general, Mohamed Ateeq Al-Falahi, put it: “What hurts is that the betrayal came from our own people … This shows [Hamas’] wicked intentions and how they sacrificied us. They always claim the enemy targets humanitarian envoys, but the betrayal came from them.”

In many regards, the situation surrounding Gaza looks as bleak as it did a decade ago. Earlier this week, the Israeli Air Force launched strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza following rocket fire from the Strip into the southern Sha’ar Hanegev region of Israel. Hamas rule over Gaza has shown little regard for the human rights or civil liberties of the Palestinian people, with its record on the rights of women and LGBT Palestinians particularly poor. The Islamist group has also recently stepped up the use of the death penalty, having previously used conflicts with Israel as a cover for committing what Amnesty International has described as  “horrific abuses” as it settled scores with opponents.

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza also continues to worsen as Hamas has prioritised rebuilding its military capabilities, much depleted by the 2014 war with Israel, over reconstruction. Materials allowed into the Strip by Israel under an internationally agreed reconstruction mechanism have frequently been divertedfrom the latter to the former. As Shlomi Eldar, a columnist for Al-Monitor, has suggested: “The rampant tunnel reconstruction is not only indicative of the military wing’s conduct, but also of the warped priorities of a movement that started out as a welfare organisation.”

At the same time, Gaza residents are caught in the ongoing bitter feud between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. In order to heap pressure on Hamas, the PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, has attempted to reduce the amount of electricity supplied by Israel to the Strip. In April, Gaza’s sole power plant was shut as Hamas was unable to buy heavily taxed fuel from Abbas’s West Bank government. Earlier this month, Abbas asked Israel to cut its supplies to Gaza, which the PA pay the bill for. Israeli ministers have expressed concern about Abbas’ tactics. Over the weekend, energy minister Yuval Steinitz accused the PA president of trying to “manipulate” Israel. “We do not want a humanitarian disaster in Gaza,” he suggested. Meanwhile, Gazans attempting to travel to Israel, the West Bank and Egypt for medical treatment are reporting unusually long delays in receiving the necessary documents from the PA. In April, a senior adviser to Abbas said Ramallah was slashing the healthcare budget for Gaza as part of a series of measures aimed at forcing Hamas into relinquishing control of the Strip.

However, a small measure of hope might be on the horizon for both Gazans and Israelis. Last month, Israel’s Defence Ministry closed the tender process for the construction of a huge underground barrier which will be built along the Gaza border. Described as “the biggest and most complex engineering project Israel has undertaken”, it aims to prevent Hamas efforts to tunnel under the border, thus facilitating terrorist attacks. During the 2014 war, the IDF located and destroyed more than 31 tunnels Hamas had built to infiltrate Israel. Israel believes Hamas has since reconstructed around 15 attack tunnels. Yossi Melman, an Israeli security expert, believes that, once the underground barrier is finished in late 2018, Israel will have countered Hamas’ two primary strategic tools to attack it: tunnels and rockets (the latter are increasingly ineffective against the Iron Dome missile defence system). Hamas’ awareness of this dilemma is seen in its efforts to build a naval commando unit and aerial drones.

Israeli ministers are also considering plans, supported by transport minister Yisrael Katz, but originallypushed by Labor MK Omer Barlev, for the building of a Gaza seaport. Built on an artificial island placed under international control, it would serve as a port for Gaza, as well as containing infrastructure facilities that would provide the enclave with power and water supplies. Katz’ plans, backed by the IDF and defence establishment, received support from members of the security cabinet when it was debated earlier this month. However, opposition from defence minister Avigdor Liberman – who is concerned that checks to prevent the island being used to smuggle arms to Hamas are not robust enough – prevented a decision being made. Katz, however, remains undeterred, telling  the Haaretz Peace Conference two weeks ago: “Give me the approval, and I’ll get this thing done. I’ll take people from the Israel Defense Forces, the legal system, the Shin Bet security service and the Transportation Ministry. And Foreign Ministry personnel will be able to go around the world showing a positive Israeli initiative for the hardest spot in the region.”

After 10 years of war, terrorism and hardship, Israel now appears keen to explore ways to protect its people and provide respite to Gaza – ways which work around Hamas’ violent intransigence.