The coronavirus continues to represent a significant danger to an already fragile Gaza Strip. So far, infection rates remain low – thanks in large part to concerted efforts by local authorities and international organisations. But the biggest challenge may still be to come as the virus threatens to exasperate a manmade socio-economic and humanitarian crisis. For Hamas, this will require it to balance its competing roles as both resistance movement and de facto government of the Strip.
Despite deep animosity between the two sides, a common desire to contain the spread of COVID-19 has spurred relatively effective cooperation between Hamas and Israeli authorities. This has been made possible thanks to UN mediation, building on contacts over the past two years to hammer out a ceasefire arrangement between the two. This comes even as Israel accuses the group of preparing attacks against Israeli targets in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, relations with the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) remain in deep freeze. Despite some positive gestures, Ramallah has remained largely uninvolved in efforts to fight the virus in Gaza. This reflects both the scale of the challenge it faces in the West Bank, its own limited resources, as well as the legacy of the internal Palestinian divisions that have existed since Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007.
Beyond the immediate threat of high mortality rates, the virus presents longer-term socio-economic challenges. Decades of Israeli restrictions have led to the Strip’s economic de-development, widespread poverty, and a sky-high unemployment rate. All of this has piled additional pressure on many families.
For now, Hamas’ hold on Gaza appears solid. It maintains a monopoly on the use of force over other armed groups. This has helped it reach a ceasefire understanding with Israel resulting in a limited loosening of Israeli restrictions on the Strip and small socio-economic improvements. However, such gains are easily reversed by outbreaks of violence, and Hamas is constantly having to rein in more hard-line elements pushing for greater confrontation with Israel. Its ability to keep these groups in check depends in part on the perception that continued calm with Israel can deliver meaningful improvements.
Another potential (and more difficult to control) challenge to the movement comes from the popular level. For now, there is little sign of overt public opposition, despite Gazans grumbling in private about the movement’s growing corruption. This is not only due to the violence that the group can wield against internal dissent, but also the lack of a viable alternative. Nevertheless, as the short-lived anti-Hamas protests in March 2019 by the grassroots ‘Bidna Naish’ (‘We want to live’) movement demonstrated, rising prices and worsening living conditions can mobilise popular anger and discontent with the movement.
A deterioration caused by the COVID-19 crisis would put the group in a difficult position with rival factions and the public – at a time in which it is heading into new politburo elections. As it has done in the past, the group’s first reaction to external crisis is usually to deflect anger onto Israel and the PA. But beyond this, it has few long-term options.
Hamas would like to rid itself of responsibility for governing Gaza. However, the principal means of achieving this – national reconciliation and Palestinian elections – remains blocked. The group has occasionally floated the idea of going underground but this does not seem like a credible option, not least as the PA will not want to return unless Hamas fully disarms. For the time being, Hamas and Gaza’s residents are therefore stuck with each other.
Hamas continues to have little appetite for another full-scale war with Israel. However, faced with a challenge to its authority caused by a deterioration in the domestic situation, its Gaza-based leadership could calculate that another controlled escalation with Israel offers it the best means of relieving pressure. In the past, Hamas has used such tactics to vaunt its resistance credentials and assert its control over rival groups, while forcing limited concessions from Israel in terms of loosening some of its restrictions against Gaza. However, such an approach always carries major risks as the two sides are pushed to the brink of war.
The Islamist group is therefore left with an uneasy ceasefire arrangement with Israel predicated on an incremental loosening of Israeli restrictions in exchange for stopping violent ‘provocations’ – such as rocket fire, airborne IEDs, and large-scale popular mobilisations along the border. This formula is supported by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who sees a Hamas-run Gaza Strip under tight Israeli control, separated from the West Bank, as the least bad option.
Maintaining and expanding the current Israel-Hamas ceasefire is critical to Gaza’s post-COVID-19 recovery and to averting any imminent return to conflict. Technical cooperation to combat the coronavirus, and a potential prisoner exchange deal, may act as a confidence builder in this regard. However, the real test will be the extent to which the two can work together to revive what is left of Gaza’s economy. An effective response will require Israel to relax its disproportionately severe restrictions on Gazan trade and increase the number of permits it grants to Palestinians working in Israel – in return for continued quiet.
The downside is that such an approach may push Gaza further away from the West Bank and the internationally recognised Palestinian government. This may be the price to pay over the short term to save lives and avert further humanitarian suffering. But it does not guarantee a sustainable future for Gaza in the absence of strong and unimpeded connections to Israel and the West Bank.
Even in the absence of a viable track leading to Palestinian re-unification, international donors can do much to ensure that their own policies and funding in support of Gaza’s recovery help mitigate the West Bank-Gaza split, and challenge Israel’s own policy of closure and separation. With the stakes made even higher by the coronavirus, now is the time for concerted international engagement with Israel, the PA, and Hamas, to address the deeply entrenched political obstacles that have kept Gaza perpetually on the edge of collapse.