The shaky ceasefire between Hamas and Israel has grown increasingly more unstable over the past month, leading to a rise in cross-border shootings, rockets, and mortars from Gaza; as well as Israel Defense Forces (IDF) infiltrations, airstrikes, and assassinations in the strip. The Egyptian-brokered ceasefire—that ended the weeklong Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, the last round of major military confrontation between Israel and Hamas—has been put under severe strain due to a lack of strategic political foundation.
In addition to prompting an immediate halt to the hostilities, the written agreement aimed to initiate a process to normalize movements of goods and people to and from Gaza. In the year following the ceasefire, the number of rocket and mortar attacks originating from Gaza against Israel dropped to 67 from 641 in the year prior; and there were only nine Palestinians killed in Gaza as a result of Israeli operations between December 2012 and the end of 2013, as opposed to 246 in the first eleven months of 2012 (the majority of whom were killed during Pillar of Defense). Yet, in the past month alone, more than twenty rockets have been launched from Gaza, and five people have been killed (four Palestinians and one Israeli).
What is clear today is that the decline in military activities in 2013 did not translate into a more stable and long-term period of quiet, likely because the cessation of hostilities in December 2012 was not grounded in a more normalized relationship between Israel and Gaza. In the aftermath of the ceasefire, Israel and Hamas held indirect talks in Cairo, but these efforts did not lead to substantial changes in Israel’s policy toward the Gaza Strip. Despite some initial alleviations of the economic restrictions in place—including the extension of Gaza’s fishing zone—the total number of truckloads of consumer goods and construction materials entering and (even more importantly) leaving Gaza between 2012 and 2013 remains well below the totals prior to 2007, when Hamas took over the strip and Israel’s policy of isolating the territory went into full force.
To date, the precarious ceasefire still holds, even though it has risked implosion on more than one occasion. The fact that avoiding another all-out military engagement continues to be in the mutual interest of Israel and Hamas has prevented a military escalation, yet the current arrangement is far from stable.
From Israel’s point of view, the status quo based on mutual restraint and political stagnation serves its short-term interest in stability. Indeed, Israel is interested in keeping the border quiet with Gaza and, lacking a broader political strategy to deal with the strip or Hamas, it would rather manage the border without spending military or political capital on yet another military operation. What is more, a full-fledged military operation in Gaza would cripple the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process and further drive a wedge between Israel and the international community.
Hamas’s interest in preserving the status quo can be understood in the context of the group’s increasingly isolated position. Hamas’s regional status has significantly deteriorated since it lost its main regional ally, the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt. The highly antagonistic relationship between the interim Egyptian government and Hamas is especially damaging, as the group has already fallen out with both Iran and Syria. Turkey and Qatar currently represent Hamas’s only significant regional supporters, but even their combined financial and political backing falls short of compensating for the loss of support in Cairo and Tehran.
In addition to its international isolation, Hamas’s predicament is further complicated by the worsening economic situation in Gaza, which is tied to Egypt’s restrictions on inflows of goods from the Rafah crossing and its military action against the underground tunnels operating between Gaza and Sinai. The impact of this hardened Egyptian policy with respect to both Hamas and Gaza has been deeply felt within the strip. Finally, Hamas’s administration in Gaza is increasingly more contested at the local level, with Gaza-based armed factions growing more defiant and the rise of political opposition to Hamas, for example from the civil society-based Tamarod movement.
Yet the current equilibrium between Hamas and Israel, based on mutual deterrence and short-term interests in preserving the status quo, continues to be incredibly ephemeral. Each side’s strategy to preserve deterrence threatens the uneasy equilibrium, creating a permanent security dilemma. For Israel’s part, maintaining deterrence means retaliating for every violation. Israeli leaders know the sporadic rockets and mortars fired from Gaza have mostly been launched by renegade militants from Salafi-jihadi groups and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but they place blame squarely on Hamas: both as Gaza’s governing authority and as party to the ceasefire. These actors, therefore, can easily play the role of spoilers, goading Israel and Hamas into confrontation.
Meanwhile, Hamas is pursuing domestic projectile production to make up for the drop in weapons importation by Egypt’s Sinai tunnel crackdown. It also seems to be investing in offensive tunnels dug under the Gaza-Israel border—since the effectiveness of Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system has diminished Hamas’s projectile threat—three of which Israeli forces uncovered in 2013. These tunnels are likely seen as backup plans for Hamas. When the quiet with Israel breaks, Hamas fighters can blow up tunnels underneath IDF patrols or send hit squads to attack nearby communities or kidnap soldiers. But preparing for such contingencies risks initiating a break in the quiet in the first place.
For instance, on October 31, five Israeli soldiers were injured by an explosive that was set off as they cleared a 1.7 kilometer-long (approximately 1 mile) tunnel between Israel and the Gaza Strip. In response, the Israeli Air Force attacked a different Hamas tunnel operation, killing and burying three Hamas commanders inside. An IDF spokesman tweeted that Hamas’s action “breached the ‘Pillar of Defense’ understandings.” Hamas has avenged its soldiers with retaliation in the past, but in this instance both sides walked back from the brink.
Since then, latest events—including an increase in rocket attacks and Israeli military operations—display the inherent fragility of the current arrangement. It is focused on fulfilling the first clause in the ceasefire (a halt to military operations) while falling short of achieving significant progress on the political front. The movement of goods and people to and from Gaza is still far from normalized, and Israel still relies on easing or tightening restrictions on Gaza as a bargaining chip against Hamas. For example, following the discovery of the underground tunnel between Gaza and Israel in October 2013, the Israeli government decided to forbid importation of construction material intended for civilian purposes in the strip. Explaining the importance of tightening restrictions on construction materials, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon stated, “That’s the price that, unfortunately, the population will have to pay,” a telling sign of the strong reluctance to pursue a more stable policy than just deterrence when dealing with Hamas and the Gazan population.
Major General Sami Turgeman of the IDF’s Southern Command admitted this past September that Israel has “no alternative” to Hamas for maintaining quiet from Gaza. Yet at the same time, Israel and Hamas continue to prepare for the next war. In doing so, they contribute to the weakening of the ceasefire they both have an interest in preserving. Without fulfilling the ceasefire pledge of normalcy between Israel and Gaza, it is only a matter of time before such preparations spark a resumption of hostilities.
Benedetta Berti is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and the author of Armed Political Organizations. Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst and author of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center analysis paper “Sinai Security: Opportunities for Unlikely Cooperation Among Egypt, Israel, and Hamas.”