On November 8 2021, Egypt’s Armed Forces announced that they would be increasing the number and capabilities of border guards at the Rafah border with the Gaza Strip. The decision was taken following deliberations of a joint committee established by Israel and Egypt. The matter of border guards is a sensitive issue, because Egypt’s military presence in the Sinai Peninsula is regulated by the 1978 Camp David Accords. Relations between Israel and Egypt have improved in recent years, it should be noted; Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s September 2021 meeting with Egyptian leader Abdul Fattah al-Sisi at Sharm el-Sheikh was the first public visit of this kind in a decade.
The Egyptian presence at the Rafah border is one part of the control of the border with Gaza, which has generally operated in the form of a blockade of the Strip since the Hamas take-over of power in 2007. Israel’s blockade of Hamas could not be complete without close coordination with Egypt. As such, Rafah is a useful place to start an assessment of the implications of a decade and a half of the Gaza blockade, and of Israel’s stated policy goals in relation to this.
In May 2021, tensions between Israel and Hamas boiled over into another round of conflict. There had been similar rounds of fighting before: Operation Summer Rains in 2006, Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 through January 2009, Operation Pillar of Cloud in November 2012, Operation Protective Edge in July and August 2014, and Operation Black Belt in November 2019. However, the volume of rocket fire from Gaza in 2021, mostly from Hamas rocket salvos, was incredibly high. Some barrages included upwards of 140-150 rockets at a time. This stood in stark contrast to the period after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. In the first year after its withdrawal, Israel says that 946 rockets were launched on Israel. In 2021, a total of 4,340 rockets were fired at Israel in 11 days. The Hamas arsenal (and that of smaller groups, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad), has grown in leaps and bounds, despite the blockade.
I’ve covered every war on the Gaza border since 2009. Prior to that, as a student and researcher, I was on the Gaza border during the 2005 Disengagement and Operation Cast Lead. Hamas first began to fire rockets into Israel in April 2001. These were short-distance Qassam rockets with an initial range of several kilometers. Most were directed at the city of Sderot, less than a kilometer from the Gaza border. Eventually the range of the Qassam extended to ten kilometers; Hamas then rolled out the Grad rocket, M-75 and M-302, the latter with a range of 160km and a warhead of 144kg. Based partly on Iranian support, with rockets from a variety of sources, including manufactured locally, Hamas has developed a vast arsenal of munitions.
Hamas first established control over the Gaza Strip in January 2006, following its victory in that month’s Palestinian legislative elections. Sustained international pressure led to the formation of a National Unity Government between Hamas and Mahmoud Abbass’s Fatah faction, in March 2007. By June 2007 fighting between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority-backed Fatah in Gaza grew into a civil conflict, during which Fatah members were thrown off buildings, and Hamas conquered the strip. The European Border Assistance Mission in Rafah, set up after Israel’s 2006 withdrawal, had to leave the border terminal—setting the stage for the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Israel says it is unfairly accused of laying siege to the Strip. In 2014, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) stated that “Gaza shares borders not only with Israel, but with Egypt as well. There is a 13 kilometer (8 mile) frontier between Gaza and Egypt. That country, and not Israel, controls the Rafah crossing into Gaza which has been used primarily by people travelling to and from Egypt, and from there to the rest of the world.” Israel observed that “for the past four years all goods are allowed to enter Gaza from Israel, except for weapons and a short list of dual-use items which can be exploited by terrorists. The ban on weapons and the restrictions on dual-use items stem from the fact that since 2007, Gaza has been ruled by a terrorist organization, namely Hamas, whose declared aim is the destruction of Israel. These very limited restrictions are in place solely to protect Israel’s citizens from Hamas’ ongoing terrorist attacks.” Israel asserted that its maritime blockade did not violate international law either, pointing to a 2011 finding by a UN panel. “This panel of experts emphasized that all assistance to Gaza should be transferred only through the designated land crossings.”
Israel’s stated policy is to prevent the smuggling of rockets and weapons to Gaza. The Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet or Shabak, as it is known in Israel) has documented how this smuggling takes place. “Hamas and PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] enjoy extensive material backing from Iran in their arming efforts, in light of Iran’s determination to amplify its influence in the Palestinian arena and among Palestinian terror groups. Iran substantiates its support of the resistance camp by providing high-quality standard weapons to both groups,” the organization notes in an undated report on its website. “The major smuggling route is from Iran to Sudan, on to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula, and from there to the Gaza Strip, with Iran’s direct involvement in providing the arms and transferring them into the Gaza Strip. As of 2010 hundreds of standard rockets had been smuggled into the Gaza Strip (most of long ranges of up to 20 and 40 km), as well as about a thousand mortar shells, several dozen Anti-Tank items, tons of standard explosives and raw materials for explosive production.”
The United Nations has claimed that the blockade of Gaza has destroyed the economy of the Strip. For Hamas, the message that the rocket fire has sent over the years is that it can still strike at Israel despite the blockade. “We are sending a short and simple message: There is no security for any Zionist on any single inch of Palestine and we plan more surprises,” Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Hamas militant wing, told The Associated Press in 2012.
This sets up the general view of Israel’s view of the blockade’s goals and effectiveness, and the view of Hamas in terms of what it thinks “victory” over the blockade might look like. In essence, the blockade began when Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2005, increasingly becoming a matter of policy after 2006. Even if Israel doesn’t describe it as a blockade, the overall perception is that the Strip is cut off, neither administered by the Palestinian Authority leadership in Ramallah or by Israel. Hamas-run Gaza is not recognized as a state, so the area acts as a kind of autonomous region.
Since Israel’s stated goal has been to isolate Hamas and prevent the smuggling of weapons into the Strip, it is worthwhile looking at how the situation has changed over the years. By 2011, Hamas possessed rockets with a range threatening one million Israeli civilians from Tel Aviv to Sderot. At the time, Israel’s MFA was still describing Hamas as a “Saudi Arabian-backed” organization. Rocket fire increased steadily from several hundred a year to thousands, such that by 2011 a total of 12,700 rockets had been fired at Israel. Grad rockets helped Hamas reach Ashkelon in 2006; by 2009, Hamas was targeting Beersheba and Ashdod. Tel Aviv was targeted for the first time in 2012. By this time Israel had deployed Iron Dome, an air defense system designed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. Developed in the wake of the 2006 war with Hezbollah, the system has become a mainstay around the Gaza Strip, intercepting thousands of rockets by 2021 with a success rate of some 90 percent.
The rocket war by Hamas against Israel is the clearest manifestation of Hamas’ view that it has gotten around Israel’s blockade. Other Hamas actions—tunnels constructed under the border, attempts to train frogmen commandos to operate at sea—also represent attempts to breach Israel’s defenses. But the rocket program was clearly Hamas’ principal investment. In 2018, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar said that Hamas had replenished its arsenal, depleted by the 2014 war. He also hinted at the fact that Hamas had found a way to launch larger barrages in a shorter period of time. In 2014, Israel’s then Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman—he resigned in 2018 over differences in the Gaza policy—said that only the reoccupation of Gaza could stop the rocket fire.
Israel’s ground offensive into Gaza in 2014 was aimed at destroying Hamas’ cross-border tunnel network. At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel’s operation would not stop until the tunnels were destroyed. Israel also claimed that cement imported to Gaza had been used to build the tunnels—a major contention point over the years, given that cement is crucial for the reconstruction of Gaza.
The blockade of the Gaza Strip is a key element of the conflict. Hamas has repeatedly demanded that Israel relax aspects of the blockade, while Israel seems to have hoped that the blockade would erode Hamas popularity. This has created a cycle whereby the blockade initially increased the use of tunnels to move goods into Gaza, while Egypt’s crackdown on the smuggling tunnels then led Hamas to build more tunnels as part of its terror infrastructure against Israel. A 2017 Rand Corporation study noted that “As Hamas felt the economic pinch from its loss of regional supporters and from the Egyptian-Gaza tunnel closures, it shifted its military strategy to rely increasingly on tunnels.”
This created a kind of Catch-22. The longer the blockade of Gaza, the more means Hamas tested to show Israel that it could evade the blockade. New strategies led to new bans on imported goods, and to more rounds of conflict. The Rand Corporation study, for instance, noted that “Hamas’s leaders increased its use of tunnels in Gaza as a way of protecting themselves against Israeli airpower and as means of ambushing IDF forces in a future conflict. After Operation Pillar of Defense, Iron Dome proved that it could mitigate the effect of Hamas’s rockets, further increasing the appeal of tunnel-borne attacks.” That created the necessity for, and then the invention of, the Iron Dome, pushing Hamas to employing new tactics. An Israeli strategy or tactic blunted a Hamas move; but another would have to be invented soon thereafter, to check the new Hamas tactic.
Tunneling was also expensive. It demanded the investment of millions of dollars, and also thousands of tons of cement, the latter sometimes diverted from civilian projects. Israel’s consequent crackdown on imports of construction materials led to job losses in Gaza and another cycle of tensions. Israel claimed in 2017 that “according to the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM)—which was established in September 2014 by agreement between the UN, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA)—reconstruction is supposed to be carried out by the PA, international bodies and the private sector.” However, Israel accused Hamas of hampering the reconstruction process by diverting resources to terrorism-related infrastructure. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in 2017 that “Hamas refuses to allow the PA to take security and civilian responsibility for the Palestinian side of Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt. Furthermore, Hamas continues to misappropriate construction materials for use in terrorist infrastructures. For its part, the Palestinian Authority wants to weaken the Hamas regime and this goal appears to be influencing the pace and extent of its reconstruction activities.”
Netanyahu was prime minister for more than a decade of Israel’s blockade . As such, the policy should be seen as intrinsically linked to his term as Prime Minister. Under Netanyahu, the Palestinians remained divided, a fact that often served Israel’s interests. It also appears to have become a strategy. According to a 2019 report in The Jerusalem Post, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel’s regular allowing of Qatari funds to be transferred into Gaza, saying it is part of a broader strategy to keep Hamas and the Palestinian Authority separate, a source in Monday’s Likud faction meeting said.” Netanyahu said that “whoever is against a Palestinian state should be for” this policy. Netanyahu’s twelve years in power cemented the divisions between Gaza and the West Bank. Most Gazans are under age 20, with the median age of the Strip eighteen. Most do not recall the era before the Second Intifada when Gazans would come to Israel, and Israelis could even go to Gaza relatively safely.
As such, the fifteen years of blockade are a key moment in Gaza’s history. It is worth stepping back and looking at the policy writ large. On a purely human level, it has left the Gaza Strip poor and devastated. Power outages are normal; the Strip subsists on donations from Qatar and other meager supplies. The siege has left one million Palestinians living under the poverty line, and Gaza has lost some $16 billion in possible earnings. The fishing sector has often been hampered by Israel changing the limits to fishing off the coast. In addition, the tourism sector, which thrived in the decades of Egyptian rule and after, has disappeared.
While the human toll of the blockade has meant total isolation for the Gaza Strip, it has likely been made worse by changes in Sinai. Increased terror attacks and the rise of an ISIS affiliate in Sinai called Wilayet Sinai led to vicious fighting between Egyptian forces and extremists. This has strengthened Egypt’s desire to blockade Gaza in coordination with Israel. Sisi especially views resolution of the conflict in Sinai as key to Egypt’s stability. Gas pipelines were attacked in Sinai; weapons smuggled from Libya or via Sudan were crossing Sinai, fueling conflict in Gaza and Egypt. This heightened tensions between Israel and Egypt after the Egyptian “Arab Spring” in 2011. There were even rocket attacks on Eilat from Sinai, and an Egyptian ship was struck in 2015 by a missile fired from Sinai. Concerns that conflict between Israel and Gaza could spill over into Sinai and create a larger regional threat loomed large in Egypt’s concerns. It was in this environment that coordination between Egypt and Israel grew. Egypt flooded the tunnels linking Gaza and Sinai, and increased its role at the border.
If Israel’s strategy of dividing Gaza from the PA in the West Bank was indeed the Netanyahu goal, then this aspect of the blockade has worked. The Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank were already divided, both demographically and in terms of the political parties they supported. But the widening of this division following the end of the Second Intifada has major future ramifications for whether the Palestinians can ever present a unified state concept— either in negotiations with Israel, or in its relations with the international community. For Netanyahu, this policy of division was important in his reading of the region. He also backed the Abraham Accords, believing that rapprochement with other Arab and Muslim states could be achieved without peace with the Palestinians. Whereas in years past the theory was that Israel would need to solve the Palestinian issue first—a vision enshrined in the Arab League’s 2002 Peace Initiative—by 2020 this was no longer the case. This meant there was no need for Palestinian unity talks, in Israel’s eyes. Other countries invested in the talks, such as Jordan and Egypt, appeared to also dial back support for them, taking into account the numerous attempts that had failed to bridge the gaps.
In some ways, Hamas’ attempts to heat up tensions with Israel appear to have been linked to its desire to influence public opinion in the West Bank. Trips to the West Bank refugee camps I took after the 2014 war, for instance, showed me just how much of Hamas’ propaganda about its rocket fire had become engrained in the consciousness. When I was a lecturer at Al Quds University in Abu Dis between 2011 and 2016, I saw first-hand how Hamas student activists used the stories of Hamas “victory” in Gaza during election campaigns. Hamas consistently declared victory over Israel after each round of fighting: the organization believed that by merely surviving it was winning, and by firing on Jerusalem or Tel Aviv it was achieving something. For instance, in the lead-up to the May 2021 round of hostilities, Hamas vowed to back the Sheikh Jarrah families fighting eviction from their homes by Israel. The rocket attack directed at Jerusalem on May 10 was part of this. When the sirens sounded in Jerusalem just before sunset, I saw the cheers of Palestinian youth at Damascus gate. Hamas also framed this attack as a symbolic victory, getting around Israel’s blockade.
For Israel, then, the strategy of dividing Gaza has not been entirely successful. The other strategy, of trying to manage the conflict without re-occupying Gaza, led directly to the political crisis that convulsed Israel from 2018 onwards. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s resignation that year—protesting the recently negotiated Gaza ceasefire, arguing for a tougher response instead—set in motion Netanyahu’s epic attempt to cling to power. His determination to prevent anyone else running Israel’s policies led to three inconclusive elections between March 2019 and March 2020, before a fourth election in March 2021 finally produced a new governing coalition.
Netanyahu’s policy for containing Gaza was often described as “mowing the grass.” This meant a war every few years: no re-occupation and no ground offensive, just air strikes. This strategy of attrition has also been employed in the campaign between the wars in Syria, against Iranian entrenchment. Israel prefers, at the current time, to concentrate on the “third circle” threat of Iran, reducing Gaza to a kind of low intensity conflict. Stopping Hamas rockets without being lured into Gaza and gifting Hamas propaganda victories. Israel’s military is also going through a technological revolution, the Momentum Plan. This envisions more “multi-dimensional” warfare, greater use of high-tech drone swarms and F-35s, and the introduction of robots to monitor the Gaza border. But can “mowing the grass” work forever in Gaza; can Israel’s blockade keep Hamas isolated, allowing it to concentrate on the Iranian threat? Looking to the most recent clash between the two, did Israel’s use of precision airstrikes in the May 2021 Gaza campaign, destroying a Hamas underground network in the process, actually deal the group a setback? The number of casualties in Israel’s wars with Hamas in Gaza has decreased between 2009 and the most recent conflict. But the blockade remains. If Israel’s goal is to defeat Hamas and to reduce the organization’s ability to construct and deploy long-range rockets, then the blockade hasn’t worked. But if Israel’s goal is to isolate Hamas, divide the Palestinians, and manage the conflict—all the while preparing for a larger conflict with Iran and her proxies, like Lebanon’s Hezbollah—then the blockade may have served Israel’s short and medium-term goals .