Easing the Gaza Blockade
Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel and Egypt have enforced a blockade on the territory. The intention was to weaken Hamas by cutting it off from weapons and other supplies and to weaken support for it by making life difficult for Gaza’s residents. Hamas has still succeeded in arming itself and, though support for the group has fallen, it is not clear that this is due to the blockade nor is Hamas’s imminent downfall apparent (though this is a region where attempting to predict the future often proves to be a foolhardy endeavor). The blockade thus does not seem to be working. Israel has instead entered a tenuous deterrence relationship with Hamas, whereby retaliations for Hamas violence against Israel have mostly kept that violence to a minimum. The prospects for continued deterrence, albeit with occasional outbreaks of hostilities, are reasonably good, but the blockade does not necessarily help them. Given the massive cost of the blockade in terms of lost opportunities and economic hardship for the residents of Gaza and the damage this does to Israel’s reputation, one wonders if the policy can safely be eased—to everyone’s benefit.
Deterrence relies on threats of punishment if an opponent alters the status quo. It also relies on a promise of no punishment if the status quo is maintained. This doesn’t mean a deterrer must reward an opponent for good behavior, but it doesn’t rule that out, either. What’s more, there are reasons that easing the blockade could even help bolster deterrence. This could work in three ways. Perhaps the most obvious is that, by making the status quo more tolerable, the threat of punishment becomes that much worse. An additional factor, however, and one that is often overlooked by overly hawkish deterrence practitioners and theorists alike, is that deterrence often breaks down due to “push” factors rather than due to opponents taking advantage of a perceived weakness. A Gaza resident I recently spoke to told me how Gazans felt in 2008 in the run-up to the 2008-09 Gaza war: People were so fed up and angry, and had grown so accustomed to the idea that a war with Israel was coming, that many felt that any change, even a war, was better than the status quo. If your opponent prefers a war with you to leaving things as they are, deterrence will be difficult to say the least, and an eventual reconciliation or peace deal even more so.
The final reason that easing the blockade can help deterrence is that it may grant Israel greater leeway in the case of future escalation. A gracious Israel that, despite having previously been attacked by its neighbor, eases restrictions on it, ought to have an easier time gaining support for future reprisals if it suffers violence. This also provides the opportunity to wrong-foot anti-Israel campaigners: If they continued to claim Israel was acting unjustly in Gaza, it would be clearer that their problem is more about what Israel is than what it does—a sign of prejudice behind a veil of humanitarianism.
Easing the blockade needn’t mean dealing with Hamas or easing sanctions on it. It needn’t happen all at once, either, and could be reversed in steps as easily as it is eased in steps, provided more possibilities for deterrence-related reprisals. This means there is little risk in easing the flow of goods and people across the border and much to gain in terms both of security and quality of life. One caveat though: Easing must only be done during periods of quiet and it should be done then. Easing after a period of escalation rewards that escalation. Given recent rocket barrages from Gaza, now wouldn’t be the best time, but if things settle down again soon, soon would be a good time.