Tensions ‘beginning to boil’ in Gaza as fears of new conflict mount
The Washington Post September 21, 2023
GAZA CITY — As Palestinians in the nearby West Bank have endured their deadliest year in decades, it has been a rare summer of quiet in the Gaza Strip. Raed Asad hoped he could finally secure a permit to work on an Israeli farm or construction site.
But in late August, Israel put a halt to new work permits — accusing Hamas, the Islamist militant group that governs this blockaded territory, of being behind terrorist attacks in the West Bank. Hamas and Israel traded familiar threats. In Gaza’s latest lurch between calm and chaos, Asad saw his long-shot chance vanish.
“Getting [a work permit] was my only light of hope,” Asad, 30, said on a recent day as he cleared fallen leaves from a fruit orchard for a few shekels. The unemployed father of three has a degree in medical administration but has only ever found work in the fields.
Fears of another military escalation have continued to build this month. On Sept. 4, after Israeli border agents found what they said was a cache of explosive materials being smuggled into the country in a shipment of blue jeans, officials shut down all exports from Gaza.
Neither side wants to return to a full military confrontation, security experts said, but both need to demonstrate resolve to appease hard-liners. In Gaza, the next war never feels far off.
Hamas put its forces on high alert recently, stopping cars near the border to check for Israeli infiltrators. The group held field exercises last week with Islamic Jihad and other armed factions, conducting drills on rocket launches, kidnapping soldiers and “storming settlements,” according to local Gazan media.
In the deadliest shift, Hamas has also permitted — some analysts say orchestrated — the return of Friday protests at Gaza’s eastern border, where young demonstrators have faced off with Israeli soldiers. On Sept. 13, five Palestinians were killed when they attempted to detonate an explosive at the barrier wall.
In the aftermath, Israel indefinitely barred workers with permits from entering the country.
“It has been quiet, but it is beginning to boil,” Basem Naim, head of Hamas’ Political and International Relations Department, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “There is a lot of pressure under the water.”
For months, the West Bank has been the center of the conflict. More than 175 Palestinians there have been killed since January, most in Israeli military raids targeting a new generation of militants; at least 29 Israelis have been killed in shootings, stabbings, car rammings and other attacks by Palestinians in the West Bank and Israel.
In June, Israeli soldiers mounted a two-day incursion into Jenin, the largest military operation in the occupied West Bank in decades. At least five Palestinians were killed Tuesday in raids in Jenin and Jericho that included a drone airstrike.
Gaza’s 2 million people, meanwhile, have been enjoying relative calm, allowing Hamas and Israel to quietly nurse an unofficial economic peace of work permits and trade, designed to keep tensions in check.
But in August, Israel directly blamed Hamas for a string of attacks against Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including the fatal shootings of a father and son in Huwara, and a woman driving near Hebron.
In a rare move, Hamas went beyond expressing general support for the attacks and claimed the Huwara and Hebron shooters as members of its armed wing, the Qassam Brigades.
“It is an honor for us to support resistance in the West Bank, Jerusalem, anywhere,” Naim told The Post, but he would not elaborate on the group’s role in the West Bank’s surging militancy.
Israel’s security cabinet voted in August to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authority “to attack terrorists and those who dispatch them,” a measure widely interpreted as an assassination threat against Hamas leaders.
Later that month, young Gazans were allowed to gather at the eastern border in an echo of the violent “March of Return” demonstrations in 2018 and 2019, when Israeli forces killed more than 190 Palestinians and wounded thousands.
Dozens have been injured in the protests in recent weeks. At a gathering Friday, a group of about 100 men were prevented from getting close to the fence by Hamas security agents. On other occasions, hundreds have been allowed to approach, sometimes throwing explosive devices.
Experts said a full-scale return of the demonstrations is unlikely. The last round created hundreds of amputees, often seen begging at Gazan intersections.
“There is no support for the protests in the public,” said Mkhaimer Abu Sada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. “But this is another way of Hamas pulling Israel’s strings and saying, ‘Don’t go too far.’”
In Gaza, Hamas is criticized by some militants for cooperating with Israel and “exchanging quiet for jobs,” Abu Sada said.
Hamas was faulted in May for not coming to the aid of its rival faction, Islamic Jihad, as Israeli airstrikes decimated its military leadership — part of a short-lived exchange of fire that killed 33 people in Gaza and two people in Israel.
“People don’t always understand your choice not to respond,” Naim said. “Hamas is trying to avoid an escalation. A lot of our sons and daughters would be killed.”
Islamic Jihad has kept a low profile in Gaza since the strikes.
“It’s not just that they lost their commanders, it’s that now they know they can’t count on Hamas to help,” Abu Sada said. “It may change their calculation about when and how to act.”
Naim blamed Israel for ratcheting up tensions and for strangling Gaza’s economy with restrictions that amounted to “a catastrophe.” Gaza exports more than $130 million worth of clothing, fish, produce and other goods a year, officials said.
“You cannot have an ‘economic peace’ and ban all exports,” he said.
Awni Abu Hasira had already bought more than 2,000 pounds of shrimp, crabs and fish caught by Gazan fishermen when he got word that Israel had shut down exports. His shop near the waterfront, normally crowded with men loading iced coolers into trucks bound for the West Bank, was empty.
“If it goes for more than a week, I could be out of business,” Abu Hasira said.
Israel allowed some trucks to cross after six days, including one laden with Abu Hasira’s fish.
Other Gazans have felt the squeeze when applying for work permits in Israel, where they can make double what they earn here. Last year, the Israeli government said it would increase the number of permits for Gazans, currently at 18,500.
But in August, Israel’s public broadcaster reported that officials had changed their minds, citing Hamas’ support for the West Bank attacks. The Israeli military’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the unit responsible for administering permits, confirmed that a planned increase to 20,000 was on hold.
“The quota increase is contingent upon the security stability both within and emanating from the Gaza Strip,” COGAT said in a written response to The Post.
Asad’s social media chats lit up at the news. “The permits are all we talk about,” he said.
Workers are scrambling now to find other options. A riot broke out at the office for Turkish work visas last week as security guards struggled to keep applicants from overwhelming the building.
Waiting there on a recent morning was a 24-year-old who works at construction sites for $5 to $8 a day. Salem, who only gave his first name out of fear of reprisals from Gazan authorities, spent hours in line with his passport, bank statements and the $180 application fee, only to learn he was ineligible.
“You have to be married,” he said. “I can’t afford to get married.”