TEL AVIV — One of the bluntest conclusions from the most recent fighting in Gaza is that Israel's siege policy over the past seven years has been a complete failure.
From an Israeli perspective, the siege's main objectives have not been achieved. Instead, it has only helped maintain some sense of Israeli control over the Gaza Strip. In practice, the siege has been brutally felt in the daily lives of ordinary Gazans, but it has not affected members of the Hamas regime and their cronies.
Therefore, Israel should rethink this policy, whether or not it maintains the siege after the current conflict — now in its second day of ceasefire — ends.
In June 2007, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, renouncing all earlier agreements with Israel. Imposing the siege was one of Israel's immediate responses. Israel still supplies electricity as well as basic food and fuel to Gaza, but it heavily restricts the movement of both people and goods across the border.
The siege was born as an ad-hoc measure in response to the Hamas takeover, enabled by coordination with Egypt on one hand, but breaking understandings with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority on the other.
Over the years, it has been established as a principal policy, a strategic cornerstone for Israel's policy towards so-called Hamastan. It was based on two main rationales: first, the idea that it would prevent the rise of Hamas as a military organization; and second, that it would help fuel a popular unrest against Hamas as the formal ruler.
But Hamas military capabilities have only strengthened, and its regime has seen no significant internal threat over the past seven years. The siege has certainly created difficult conditions in the Gaza Strip, but these haven't brought about civil unrest. Instead, they've caused Israel deep trouble politically — with the 2010 Mavi Marmara flotilla raid being but one example — and have given rise to global criticism of Israel.
But even before the current confict, the siege had taken a devastating toll on Gaza's economy and population. According to official data from the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations, 70% of Gaza residents were living below the poverty line at the start of 2014, and approximately 80% needed basic food aid. Unemployment in January was a staggering 50%.
From Gaza's only industrial zone, to the construction sector, to traditional fisheries and agricultural exports, the Gaza Strip economy has been almost totally paralyzed in all aspects — employment, infrastructure, production and trade.
Israeli logic would have it that people in such a state, where their living conditions continuously deteriorate, would be inclined to pressure their regime. If not topple it, they would at least demand stopping rocket fire to prevent armed conflict with Israel. But as the years passed, it has become clearer to Israel that Gazans weren't going to overthrow their leaders.
The Israeli right would probably argue that the reason is simple: Gazans are Hamas, they would say. But polls conducted before the current war showed relatively little support for Hamas among Gaza residents.
Gazans are indeed desperate, but they are not naïve. The Hamas military grip on the Gaza Strip has been nearly absolute. In its seven-year rule, it has forcefully oppressed anything it considered a potential threat — the secular political organizations and the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist cells, whose members Hamas executed without hesitation.
Not ripe for uprising
The absence of a significant element that could support public dissent — in Egypt, for example, it was the army and then-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's charismatic character — also prevents mass protest. In other words, the siege has choked the civilian population, just not enough to provoke revolt.
But Hamas' military apparatus has hardly felt the siege. Over the course of the past seven years, Hamas has armed itself, not only with bombs and rockets, but also with a range of other weaponry and equipment. Everything was brought in via the tunnels linking the Gaza Strip to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The Israeli expectation that Egypt would seal Gaza from the south turned out to be just wishful thinking.
An Israeli Defense Forces soldier next to a tunnel entrance in Gaza — Photo: IDF
The first warning sign was in January 2008, six months after the siege began, when a Hamas squad blew up part of the border fence with Egypt near the Rafah border crossing, allowing thousands of people to freely leave and enter the Gaza Strip.
Two weeks later, the fence was repaired and the border was resealed, but Hamas' aspirations to cross it should have become clear to Israel by then.
More than 1,200 tunnels have since been dug under what is known as the Philadelphi Route, Gaza's southern border, allowing the entrance of virtually anything thinkable. The trailblazers were merchants that realized the incredible economic potential of a regular flow of smuggled goods through Rafah. And it didn't take long for Hamas to realize this, take over and establish a body to manage the tunnels and tax them.
Israel's less "hermetic" border
Israel's siege extends across Gaza's western sea border and also its short northern border and the longer one on the east. The Strip's southern border with Egypt is what makes the siege less hermetic than Israel would like, even beyond the 2008 incident and the tunnels.
After the 2010 flotilla raid, Egypt's then-President Hosni Mubarak decided to open the Rafah crossing. The Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which ruled the country after Mubarak was toppled in early 2011, has also allowed increased movement across the border.
The Rafah tunnels experienced a record year between summer 2012 and summer 2013, when Mohamed Morsi was ruling Egypt. Movement and trade through the tunnels went uninterrupted, as Egyptian forces were reportedly turning a blind eye.
Since then, Morsi has been overthrown, and Sisi has ordered the army to intensify its efforts against the tunnels to protect Egypt's security interests — namely, because Hamas has used them to send its operatives to attack military facilities in the Sinai. Though Egypt claims that 95% of the tunnels have been destroyed, some are still active and serving Hamas.
Israel depends completely on the Egyptian army, the soldiers on the ground and the leadership in Cairo, and recent years have proven that there are no guarantees if its tough policy continues.
If Israel plans to stick to its siege policy, it must look for any possible way to regain control over, and under, the Philadelphi Route, to make the siege truly hermetic. But it would be wiser to change course once the war ends, acknowledging the siege's failure and looking for another way to prevent Hamas from becoming stronger. Otherwise, Israel could find itself again at square one.
*Doron Peskin is research director at Info-Prod Research (Middle East).