Israel’s Bind

Relax the blockade, and Gazans might credit Hamas. Keep the blockade, and Gazans might erupt.

Palestinians salvage items from the rubble of destroyed buildings in part of Gaza City’s al-Tufah neighbourhood as the fragile cease-fire in Gaza entered a second day on Aug. 6, 2014.

Photo by Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

Since the onset of this week’s cease-fire in Gaza, thousands of displaced Palestinians have returned to their homes to assess the damage. Many have been interviewed about their reflections on the war. The interviews, combined with previous surveys, suggest a dilemma for Israel. From the standpoint of deterrence, Israel has every reason to maintain its blockade of Gaza. But if it does, Palestinians’ anger at militants over the war might be erased by their anger at Israel over the blockade. In the long run, that helps Hamas.

Before I get to the interviews, it’s useful to look at two scientific assessments of public opinion in Gaza prior to the war. The most recent is a mid-June poll commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It found that 70 percent of Gazans thought Hamas “should maintain a cease-fire with Israel.” Eighty-eight percent said the Palestinian Authority, which had already welcomed Hamas into a nascent unity government, should “send officials and security officers to Gaza to take over the administration there.” Fifty-seven percent said Hamas should accept a Palestinian government that recognizes Israel and renounces violence.

The second assessment, based on data from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found that support for Hamas, which had declined from 45 percent to 24 percent after its takeover of Gaza in 2006, increased to 40 percent after Israel blockaded the territory in 2007. “If anything, Hamas appears to be stronger and have a broader base of support in Gaza than before the blockade,” two analysts concluded from the data. That’s because Hamas’ popularity “derives from Palestinian anger at Israeli policies.”

With those assessments in mind, let’s look at the patterns in the interviews conducted in the past few days.

1. Israel’s assault has driven some people into the arms of Hamas. When your relatives are killed or your home is destroyed, the simplest conclusion is that whoever did it is a bastard, and you’re for whoever’s fighting that bastard. Several interviews underscore that reaction. One man points to his leveled house and asks, “Does Hamas have fighter jets? Can its rockets do this to a home?” A mother who lost her 11-year-old son laments, “I never supported Hamas a day in my life. My family had problems with them. They killed my nephew. But after what happened, I support them.”

2. Israel’s assault has hardened some young people to violence. A woman in Rafah tells the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “You have raised here a generation full of anger and hate. Do you think this generation will be afraid after this war? After a missile chased them in the street? This is a generation that doesn’t know what fear is.” A 4-year-old boy in the Jabaliya refugee camp exclaims, “May God take vengeance upon Israel!

3. Gazans see the war as a loss. Hamas calls it a victory, but many Gaza civilians who’ve been interviewed say the opposite. “The Israelis have hit us really hard this time. They destroyed us,” says one man. “The only thing we gained is destruction,” says another. “What did anyone gain by this?” asks a third. Many residents, surveying the death and damage, call this the most devastating of Gaza’s recent wars. Some ridicule the rhetoric of militants. “We have defeated the occupation, thanks be to God,” jokes a young man in Rafah.

4. Some people blame Hamas. One man whose house was leveled fumes, “This is what we got, from Hamas and the Israelis alike. Your house will be destroyed against your will, against your will you will die.” He’s angry that Hamas didn’t agree to Egypt’s initial cease-fire proposal: “If they’d signed it, there would be 1,600 or 1,700 fewer people dead and none of this destruction.” A man in Beit Lahia, dismayed by the wreckage, warns, “If Hamas doesn’t accept the PLO’s proposals now, support and solidarity with them will disappear.”

5. Also, anger at Hamas might be broader than is apparent. Reporters have found few Gazans who openly criticize the militants. But there’s a curious undertone in some of the interviews. “I don’t want to mention names of countries or movements, but each one of them is responsible,” says one man. Another man says leaders of the resistance are good, but his wife quietly adds, “maybe.” The Los Angeles Times says the few civilians who criticized Hamas “did so gingerly.” A man in a border town cautions, “One mustn’t express an opinion about the war. They’ll make you trouble if you say anything. I speak my mind, but others, if they say what they think, they’ll say they’re collaborators, or they’ll beat them or even kill them.”

6. Gazans will judge the war based on postwar concessions. As things stand, they see the war as a loss. But that calculation assumes the continuation of the blockade. “All the industries are dying, and there are no jobs for the young,” laments a Gaza City man. “It’s a kind of suffocation. So if we can’t change that, this has all been for nothing.” Another resident makes the same point: “Maybe if we had gotten some concessions, it would be worth it. But we got nothing.” If Hamas does manage to extract relief, its supporters will feel vindicated. “After a month of war and the achievements of the resistance and what they did for us, God willing, they’ll open up the fishing … and they’ll lift the blockade,” predicts a fisherman.

Taken together, these themes create an unfortunate set of incentives. If Israel relaxes its grip on Gaza’s borders and gives the people of Gaza a sense that the war paid off, they’ll be more likely to credit and support Hamas. From the standpoint of deterrence—the principle that has always driven Israel’s thinking—that’s a disaster. So Israel has every reason to concede nothing. Let Gazans absorb the pain. Maybe they’ll turn on Hamas.

The best argument against this response, with respect to Israel’s strategic interests, is that the cost of granting concessions is less than the cost of not granting them. Yes, if Gaza’s borders are opened, its people will celebrate. Yes, they might applaud Hamas, and they might conclude that belligerence works. But if the borders aren’t opened, the people might radicalize and explode. That’s the warning in those prewar surveys about the political effects of the blockade. Hamas and its violent inclinations might gain more support from the blockade than from its relaxation.

If I were an Israeli policymaker, I’d look hard at the words of Abu Mohammed, a middle-aged Gaza City merchant. He’s the guy who tells the Los Angeles Times that if the war doesn’t lead to an easing of the blockade, “this has all been for nothing.” If Israel maintains the blockade, he and many others might decide that the war was for nothing and should never be repeated. Or they might despair and decide to go down fighting. “In bombings you die instantly,” he points out. “Maybe that is better than dying slowly in this blockade.”