JERUSALEM (AP) — For 12 years, Israel has maintained a blockade over the Gaza Strip, seeking to weaken the territory’s militant Hamas rulers. And for 12 years, Hamas has remained firmly in power, developing a thriving homegrown weapons industry along the way.
This weekend’s violence, the worst in a string of flare-ups since a 2014 war, provided the latest illustration of the limitations of the blockade and fueled calls Monday in Israel for a rethinking of the longstanding policy, which many see as ineffective and even counterproductive.
“Israel, similar to the leaders in Gaza, must look forward. Only an economic solution to the Gaza Strip, and orderly work, will bring quiet and money and dignity,” Smadar Peri, a veteran Israeli defense commentator, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. “It would be a very good idea, in tandem with the umpteenth talks on a cease-fire, to decide to steer toward a businesslike dialogue.”
This will be no easy task. Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies that have fought three wars since the Islamic group seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007.
Israel considers Hamas, which seeks Israel’s destruction, a terrorist group, while Hamas sees Israel as an illegal occupier. They do not speak to one another, communicating through Egyptian, Qatari and U.N. mediators.
The Israeli blockade has been a driving factor in the three wars, numerous smaller battles and countless rounds of negotiations over the years as Hamas demands an easing of the closure in exchange for a halt in rocket fire.
Israel and Egypt, which borders Gaza to the south, imposed the blockade after the 2007 Hamas takeover, seeking to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into the territory. Since then, Israel has controlled Gaza’s airspace and coastline, and restricted the flow of goods and people in and out of the territory.
Eitan Dangot, the former commander of COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said Israel has no choice but to enforce the blockade.
“Because Hamas has refused to accept Israel as a state, refused to move toward disarmament, refused to declare a long-term cease-fire and stop launching rockets, we have all the right to maintain the blockade as long as we can avert a humanitarian crisis,” he said.
“If we open the borders, do you believe that Hamas will disarm itself and not produce new rockets in its factories?” he added. He gave no alternative, beyond allowing small-scale “goodwill gestures.”
But the effects of the blockade have been devastating for Gaza’s civilians. Unemployment has soared above 50%, according to U.N. estimates, and is even higher for younger workers in their 20s and 30s. Gaza suffers from chronic electricity outages. Its water is undrinkable, and the poverty rate is rising.
Yet Hamas seems stronger than ever. And despite the Israeli pressure, it possesses a seemingly never-ending supply of rockets, some of which are capable of striking deep inside Israel.
Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman, boasted that the group has been able to continue to fight, thanks to its ability “to shift to self-reliance and produce weapons locally.”
While the group’s arsenal is no match for the powerful Israeli military, it gives Hamas enough power to greatly disrupt life on the other side of the border whenever it sees the need.
In the latest fighting, Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group launched roughly 700 rockets into Israel over two days, while Israel responded with several hundred airstrikes on militant targets in Gaza.
Twenty-five Palestinians, including at least 10 militants, and four Israeli civilians were killed before a cease-fire was reached Monday. They were the first Israeli fatalities from rocket fire since the 50-day 2014 war.
For both sides, it has become a familiar scene. Accusing Israel of violating past understandings, militants fire rockets. Israel retaliates with airstrikes, fighting escalates and another vague cease-fire is reached in which Israel promises to ease the blockade if rocket fire stops.
These battles, however, have become increasingly violent and frequent. Israel and Hamas engaged in two rounds of fierce battles in March, following fighting in November and last summer. In addition, Hamas has been orchestrating weekly mass protests against the blockade for over a year along the Israeli border. Some 200 Palestinians and an Israeli soldier have been killed in protest-related violence.
Perhaps with this on people’s minds, the cease-fire announcement got a cool reception in Israel.
Gideon Saar, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said the truce was “bereft” of benefits for Israel. “The war hasn’t been averted, only postponed,” he wrote on Twitter.
Yair Lapid, a leader of the opposition Blue and White party, called on the government to use heavier force against militants, but also to show “political bravery” and help Gaza’s civilians.
“Major economic projects in Gaza will cause the civilian population to tell Hamas, ‘stop firing, we have too much to lose,'” he said.
Netanyahu is unlikely to make major policy changes anytime soon. Fresh off an election victory, he is engaged in coalition negotiations with smaller, hard-line parties that will oppose any concessions, even if he wanted to make them.
With Muslims marking the holy month of Ramadan and Israel marking its Memorial Day and Independence Day this week and hosting the Eurovision song contest next week, neither side appears eager to return to fighting.
That should give international mediators at least a few weeks to shore up the latest cease-fire and try to press ahead on some of Israel’s deeper pledges, such as expanding Gaza’s fishing zone, increasing the electricity supply to Gaza and implementing an internationally funded jobs program in Gaza.
Broader concessions, however, remain a long way off. Israel will demand disarmament as well as the release of two captive Israeli civilians, and the return of the remains of two Israeli soldiers, held by Hamas as a condition for a wider easing.
Still, there seems to be a growing awareness that something must change. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of time before the next round of violence.
“I think that Israel is ready to reconsider the whole blockade, or at least to ease it,” said Kobi Michael, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank.
“It’s clear that the only way forward is to cooperate with Hamas, Egyptians, Qataris, and find the right mechanisms for Hamas to rule the Gaza Strip effectively,” he said.
Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed.