After agreeing to the terms of the November 2012 ceasefire, Hamas and Israel have been engaged in indirect talks, mediated by Egypt, the guarantor of the peace. These talks represent a step in the right direction. However, to save the fragile ceasefire, they must be accompanied by a real change in policy.
Since Hamas took power in the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has dealt with the group through a strategy of non-recognition, isolation of Gaza, and military deterrence aimed at making Hamas's job of running Gaza extremely difficult, hoping to weaken them. However, this policy has not resulted in the implosion of Hamas, though it has resulted in inflicting severe harm on Gaza and its population and a dramatic deterioration in living standards. Although the situation partially improved following a “relaxation” of the restrictions since the summer of 2010, progress has been limited with extremely grim forecasts of what the future holds for Gaza. The restrictions have also greatly accelerated the social and economic disparities between the West Bank and Gaza, whose real GDP per capita dropped from 89 to 43 percent of the West Bank's between 2006 and 2009.
Lacking a political approach with respect to Hamas, Israel has invested in defending its home-front while boosting deterrence. However, as the repeated cycles of violence demonstrate, an approach that relies solely on military deterrence has delivered neither stability nor permanent security. Therefore, the current approach needs to be dramatically revised before the next escalation.
The terms stipulated in the 2012 ceasefire provide the chance to do just that. While committing both parties to “halt all hostilities,” the ceasefire also asserts that “opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods” needs to be addressed.
In the past few months, Israel began to lift some of the restrictions in place. For example, Israel has extended Gaza’s fishing zone by three nautical miles, and, for the first time since 2007, it authorized the import of construction raw materials intended for the private sector. These have been important steps, but they hardly go far enough. What’s more, on March 22 and again on April 8, in response to rocket attacks committed by Salafist groups within Gaza, Israel restored pre-existing restrictions on Gaza.
This is a serious mistake. Instead, Israel should invest in the talks and move with greater urgency towards revoking the isolation policy in Gaza, recognizing the window of opportunity to reach a stable ceasefire with Hamas. Egypt, also interested in preserving this uneasy quiet, can play a role by normalizing its border with Gaza, while cracking down on smuggling and tunnels. Hamas, for its part, should commit to both enforcing the ceasefire and to cooperating with Egypt on curbing Salafist-jihadist activism, eventually disbanding its underground tunnels. Ideally, this agreement should pave the way for direct engagement with and recognition of Hamas.
The policy has its drawbacks, most notably strengthening the separation between Gaza and the West Bank. However, the growing economic disparities between the Strip and the West Bank—dramatically worsened by the isolation policy—are also strongly undermining the feasibility of a future Palestinian state and, as such, they should be urgently addressed.