Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Gaza: What is Happening and What Needs to Happen

It has become clear that Hamas knows that Israel, focused on the north (Iran in Syria, and Lebanon), does not want a war in Gaza. That gives them license to do whatever they wish to Israel’s south, and they are: facilitating, when they are not themselves organizing, incendiary kites, balloons, and condoms, flown over to incinerate Israeli fields, forests, and nature preserves. Pouring massive rocket fire into Israel when Israel attacks Hamas targets in Gaza in response.

Since implementation of Hamas’ fundamental aim, wiping Israel off the map, is not imminent, what they are doing is absolutely directed more at the PA than to Israel. Hamas expects Israel to pressure the PA to turn the electricity, the water in Gaza back on; to pay salaries. Which the PA cut off months ago after the failure of unity talks, immeasurably increasing misery in the Strip; civilians in Gaza, fellow Palestinians, so we would think, be damned. Especially when Israel will be blamed for everything. It’s a very clever strategy.

It has been clear to some of us from the beginning of the violent, mass actions on the Gaza lines months ago, that this was about infighting between Hamas and the PA, which historically, has been ruthless and murderous, and of which this is but the latest iteration. Which awareness made experiencing the reporting and statements distorting what was going on in the “march of return” the more difficult. The IDF was not the most direct target of the smoke emanating from hundreds of burning tires in Gaza, though the Israeli army, at least, knew what it was seeing. As opposed to the gullible, sloppy, or just lockstep-biased media, statesmen, and other observers issuing blood-libel distortions about the events.

Hamas released a statement this morning listing a number of demands. Most interesting to me was one directed at Egypt, about its Rafah crossing, which Egypt generously kept open during Ramadan but which it normally keeps closed. While trucks from Israel roll into Gaza but Israel gets blamed for the siege. Hamas wants Rafah open, period. So, they rocket and incinerate Israel.

Where does all this leave Israel?

I think Israel must be wise and have its eyes in its head, to quote that verse (“ve’he-hakham, eynav be’rosho”), and get on with what has to happen here. Hamas is a player. That is not what we’d wish but it is reality. As warnings from the IDF come about how close we are to another Gaza war, how easily things could escalate, do we really need to watch a re-run of this movie?

I heard Netanyahu’s Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz, this morning say, deduct the costs from the taxes that Israel collects for the PA and turn the electricity and water in Gaza back on.

Steinitz’s proposal (he also has been in favor of a monitored port for Gaza; so have others in Likud, like the Minister of Transportation, Yisrael Katz), would mean, effectively, Israel hitting the PA, which would have consequences on the west bank, and ceding to Hamas’ demands. But these are the options. And it’s not like Israel has been saying the PA is a partner; on the contrary. Not to mention how Abbas has been behaving lately.

Israel has vital security cooperation with the PA on the west bank, which benefits Abbas, a tyrant who keeps a close lid on things there, as much as it benefits Israel, which is why he does it. Favoring Hamas seems clearly counter-intuitive for Israel and will have consequences in other directions. But this is the hand we have.

Netanyahu is many things. Stupid is not one of them. For whatever reasons, he has behaved only tactically and not strategically with regard to Gaza. In part, perhaps in large part, this is because he has Naftali Bennet and Ayellet Shaked of the strident Bayit Yehudi party in his coalition. I much hope he gets past that. Early elections may be path to that end: if he picks up six seats, as polls predict he would, he axe Bayit Yehudi in his next breath.

There was a most interesting report from the Gaza lines on TV last night: several reporters spoke with Israelis and saw and heard what they experience: running to the shelters multiple times a night; returning to see shrapnel shot through their windows, in their furniture, their kitchens, their children’s toys. One family had shrapnel go straight through their house; they missed it by a second, having just run to the shelter before the boom. Another had an explosive-laden balloon– they’re not all fire bombs, some have IEDs attached– land at their house. Thank God, Israeli civil defense has done a thorough job of warning people never to go near anything that lands, even if it looks like a toy– they are kites, balloons, after all. No child can be left unsupervised because you never know where these things will land. One IED balloon landed on a highway, which was shut down till IDF sappers dismantled it.

But the reporters also went to the Israeli crossing with Gaza which looks, as they said, like an airport but without the planes, and truly, it does: those same airport benches, windows at which to present documents; everything clean and orderly looking. Also, largely empty.

The reporters spoke to several Gazans who had come through to the Israeli side. Entirely reasonable men. Business people. Educated. Middle class in every way, dressed well. They sat with these Israelis, one of them, speaking fluent Hebrew, picked up from the days before Hamas, when the borders were open and bi-lateral business boomed.

People with, believe it or not, a sense of humor. The Israelis prodded with some silly stuff, they took it and laughed. The body language, on both sides, was remarkably relaxed.

They want the PA back in Gaza. If elections were held now, they were asked, what would happen? Hamas, out, they said. No love for Hamas in Gaza. They just want to live; a regular life. They are PA people. Are they afraid to say that there? Yes, they said.

Reality: Hamas are ruthless thugs and they are in charge in Gaza.

Hamas holds two living Israelis, mentally ill, who have not been heard from, no contact whatever with family, humanitarian agencies, in years; and they hold the remains of two IDF soldiers, killed in the last war, to the unending grief of their families here. There are real limits to what Israel will do to get back the living or the dead. There will be no mass release of prisoners with blood on their hands, as in the Shalit deal. Still, for something to change here, there has to be some deal.

Let us get on with it. Which life will be curtailed or ended if we don’t turn off the current, terribly familiar screen, and open a different one?

The good news: no rockets last night. Small gifts, as the popular song goes.

Time to stop hoping for “gifts.”

I hope Netanyahu—and other politicians, and would-be leaders—are listening.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history and an award-winning author of books on Jewish modernity and on Jewish women's history.