The tunnel at the end of the tunnel

Palestinian militants in Gaza resumed their rocket and mortar fire on Israel on Friday morning, following the failure of the indirect negotiations in Cairo to achieve a ceasefire. Israel duly responded with air and artillery attacks on Gaza.

At this point, midday Saturday, it’s difficult to predict whether the current round is just a flare-up or a return to the serious hostilities of the past month. My take is that it may be a macho, Middle Eastern pissing contest – a means of putting pressure on the negotiators – and that neither side wants to return to the dark days of July. We’ll  know soon enough.

What seems clear to me is that Hamas and its allies are determined not to return to the status quo ante and are willing to risk further death and destruction to ensure that they get more than simply quiet – the lack of Israeli military action – for their efforts over the past month.

Israel, for its part, would like to see a Gaza devoid of rockets and tunnels, but is unwilling to pay the diplomatic price, namely the lifting of the blockade, acceptance of land, sea and air links for Gaza and recognition (if only tacit) of Hamas as a legitimate player in the region – including the legitimacy of Palestinian reconciliation.

So, right now it’s a question of each side agreeing to the lowest possible price for the greatest possible gain. Netanyahu is not going to get a fully-demilitarized Gaza under proxy rule and Hamas is not going to get an airport and unhindered trade while maintaining its implacable enmity towards Israel. The compromise, if and when it comes, will be partial and very messy.

Unlike many of my friends and colleagues, I don’t hate Hamas. I certainly don’t like them – any socially- conservative, fundamentalist religious group with a deplorable human rights record is way out of my orbit – but I fully understand where they’re coming from.

For almost 70 years, the Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced, brutalized, impoverished and, for the past seven years, subjected to regular bouts of decimation from the air, sea and land. While Israel has prospered, Gaza has become a seething cesspool of human misery. Oslo and then Arik Sharon’s withdrawal allowed Israel to control Gaza without taking any responsibility for it.

In Hamas, Israel found the perfect enemy: one it was under no pressure to negotiate with, which allowed Israel to brand the entire Palestinian liberation struggle as “terrorist” and, best of all, which fired primitive rockets into Israel, thus enabling Israel to lay claim to an existential threat against it. One of the Hamas by-products, the Iron Dome system, is going to make a fortune for Israel’s military industries.

For years, Israel’s policy has been divide and rule. Pretend to be trying to make peace with Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah – without ever getting anywhere near to peace, of course – while vilifying Hamas and doing everything possible to prevent Palestinian reconciliation. Israel has lamented the futility of trying to make peace with a divided Palestinian nation while doing everything in its power to perpetuate the division.

Events played into Israel’s hands. When Abdel Fattah Al Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt a little over a year ago, Israel had a new partner in keeping Hamas on its knees without, getting rid of it entirely. Then, when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped – and subsequently found dead – in the West Bank in June, Israel had the opportunity to decimate the organization’s structure and arrest its activists in the West Bank.

As is often the case, Israel overplayed its hand. It needed a weak and toothless Hamas in Gaza – hemmed in on one side by Israel and the other by Egypt – in order to maintain the façade of a terrorist threat, existential danger and no-one to talk to. But Hamas was pushed too far. Virtually bankrupted by the closure of the tunnels under the Egyptian border, unable to pay its bloated civil service, crippled in the West Bank by the Israeli raids and devoid of hope, Hamas and its jihadist allies exploded.

That was in early July. The rest is recent history. Going on for 2,000 Gazans, most of them civilians, have been killed in the past month, about 10,000 have been wounded and much of the strip has been flattened. It has virtually no industry left and no public services. Raw sewage flows through the streets and there is a serious threat of epidemic.

Unlike Netanyahu – who is convinced that Hamas is hated by each and every Palestinian civilian in Gaza, all of whom would gladly live under Israeli bondage were it not for the tyranny of Hamas – I have no idea how much support Hamas has in the strip. It stands to reason that many civilians – petrified, bereft and despairing – would simply like the hostilities to end.

But it also stands to reason that there are many – more? less? who knows? – who are willing to absorb even more punishment in the hope of relieving the misery of their existence and achieving some sort of freedom and national recognition. After all, Israelis don’t have a monopoly on the willingness to die for their country.

For the Palestinians in Gaza, the fight is truly existential. Almost 70 years after being banished from their homes in what is now Israel, almost 50 years after being occupied and after seven years of punishing blockade, they have had enough.

My reading of the situation is that both sides are exhausted after the past month and will give diplomacy a chance, probably to the background of low-scale hostilities. But it is very difficult to see a diplomatic breakthrough, given the constellation of forces and Israel’s inability to see Palestinians as anything but violent interlopers on land promised to the Jews.

One thing is clear: Israel’s dream of having a quiet and compliant Gaza on its south-western flank is just that – a dream. The Palestinians have no dreams left. For them, it’s either slow strangulation or Israeli bombs. They have nothing else to look forward to.