With the end of the May 2021 military operation on Gaza, known as operation ‘Guardian of the Walls’, the new Israeli government, led by Naftali Bennett, announced several steps that are intended to mend relations with Palestinians and improve the economy, security, and humanitarian conditions in the enclave. In September 2021, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid put forward a new plan for Gaza that entails increasing investments in return for security; a proposal aiming to solve the never-ending rounds of violence on the borders and to hinder Hamas’ growing military strength. The proposed two-stage plan included infrastructure and employment benefits.
Although the new government considers the stability of the country’s southern borders a top concern, many other issues seem to take precedence on the list of priorities, with the matter of Iran’s nuclear plans at the forefront. During his first meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, Bennett discussed the strategy for dealing with Iran’s continued nuclear ambitions and declared his approval of “the current U.S. approach of putting Iran’s nuclear program back in a box.”
To establish domestic security on the border with Gaza and shift its focus on foreign threats, the Bennett government seems to have decided on three main strategies toward the Palestinian territory:
The Carrot and Stick Policy
In dealing with Hamas, the Bennett government is resorting to the old ‘carrot and stick’ ploy. Under this policy, the Israeli military raises the ‘stick’ by responding forcefully to low-level violence from Gaza, particularly the rocket attacks on Israeli cities, either by deploying additional troops to suppress potential violence along the frontiers or by severely restricting the flow of aid and construction materials into the strip by limiting movement at Karam Abu Salem Crossing and closing Gaza’s fishing zone.
When an acceptable level of calm returns, the ‘carrot’ counterpart emerges in the form of the expansive opening of the Abu Karam commercial crossing; thus, allowing truckloads of goods and construction materials into the enclave and granting thousands of commercial permits to Gazan merchants who flock, unhindered, through the Ezer Crossing to work in Israel.
Mowing the Grass
Knowing all too well that attempting to eradicate Hamas will require an extensive military operation and that such an operation will likely result in a security vacuum that could turn the enclave into a hotbed for extremist groups, Bennett decided to use a less confrontational technique known as “mowing the grass.” This approach aims to frustrate Hamas’ efforts to develop its military infrastructure and remind them of Israel’s overwhelming power through destroying its military sites and weapons in Gaza while allowing the Israeli government to focus more on the ever-looming Iran nuclear situation.
Relying on Arab Mediation
When conflict at the borders flares up, Israel usually turns to international and regional partners like Egypt and Qatar, seeking mediation in hopes of reaching some understanding that could result in relative calm. In August 2021, the Qatari ambassador, Mohamad Al-Emadi, managed to reach an agreement with Israel where Qatar was able to resume aid payments to the needy in Gaza. Additionally, in May 2021, for example, Israel and Hamas negotiated a truce that ended the fierce combat between the two across the Gaza Strip following an Egyptian mediation. In its mediator role, Egypt now tries to convince Palestinian factions to be more patient and not antagonize Israel, even though Bennett continues to delay the prisoner exchange deal and the payment of salaries for the employees of the de facto government in Gaza.
Prospects for Success?
In pursuing this strategy of trying to pacify Gaza with sticks, carrots, and outside involvement, Bennett’s policy is similar to that of Netanyahu, who tried to buy the silence of Hamas to restore calm on Israeli borders. This strategy has had mixed results in the past. The borders might be quiet for a while, but Hamas could easily return to its revenge policy if there are any new clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian activists in East Jerusalem or any members in Gaza and West Bank.
One key difference between Netanyahu’s policy and Bennett’s is Bennett’s hesitation to pay the salaries of Hamas’ employees. Bennett continues to delay the process because he does not want to offer Hamas any prizes as to not appear that Hamas won. Dissimilarly, Netanyahu allowed Al-Emadi to deliver bags of dollars through Erez crossing to the de facto government in Gaza to prevent any further military escalation between Gaza and Israel.
Hamas, on the other hand, seems apprehensive of the trade negotiations offered by the Bennett government, especially because they preserve Israel’s tight movement restrictions in Gaza. To Hamas, succumbing to the pressure of exchanging food and medicine in return for security is unacceptable. According to Mahmoud al-Zahar, one of Hamas’ co-founders, Hamas can never put down its arms and accept the crumbs that Israel offers.
The policies of the new Israeli government are, unfortunately, not expected to create a long-lasting peace in the Gaza Strip mainly because Hamas is leery of trusting Israel’s proposals. Likewise, Bennett is suspicious of Hamas’ intentions and unlikely to bow to Hamas’ demands. Gaza may witness further military escalations, especially if a prisoner exchange deal is not reached soon, as Hamas considers this deal the main mechanism by which it can keep its promises concerning the Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, increasing its popularity among Palestinian people, promoting itself as the victor who forced Israel to surrender, recruiting more supporters from West Bank and abroad, and overtaking the West Bank in case the Palestinian Authority collapses.
Reham Owda is a Palestinian writer and political analyst living in Gaza. Follow her on Twitter @RehamOwda.