JERUSALEM—While Israel’s attention is currently focused on the danger of tunnels being built by Hamas in the Gaza Strip that possibly extend under the border fence into Israel, security officials are warning about the possibility of thousands of Gazans coming over the top of the border fence in an attempt to find work in Israel.
Although Israel already hosts tens of thousands of refugees and job seekers from Africa who have infiltrated from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in recent years, Gazans would be considered a major security threat even if their initial motivation in coming to Israel was economic.
Stalled efforts to rehabilitate damage from the 2014 war with Israel and revive Gaza’s moribund economy has motivated a growing number of Gazans to risk their lives by scaling the border fence despite Israeli army patrols. 249 Gazans were caught last year on Israeli territory and it is assumed that others managed to get through. Almost all were described as job seekers. The year before, only 19 Gazans were caught after coming over the fence. “Defense officials believe that if there isn’t a substantive shift in the reconstruction of Gaza this year,” writes Yediot Achronot’s defense correspondent, Alex Fishman, “the number of infiltrators into Israel could reach into the thousands.”
The problem is exacerbated by the decision of the Egyptian government to keep its border control point with Gaza at Rafah closed except for a few days a year. It is the only passage to and from Gaza except the Israeli crossing point. There is a backlog of some 50,000 persons who have requested to leave via Rafah, including students and persons needing specialized medical treatment. In order to reduce the likelihood of an explosion, Israel has quietly permitted some to exit via its border although it has no obligation to do so.
Relations between Cairo and Gaza are tense because of antagonism between the Hamas regime in Gaza, which has close relations with ISIS rebels in Sinai, and the Egyptian government.
Hamas is also at odds with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, its rival for political leadership of the Palestinians. Analysts say the PA, which donor countries have given a central role in the rehabilitation of Gaza, is deliberately dragging its feet and delaying the process in order to weaken Hamas.
Since the two-month conflict with Israel in 2014, Hamas has been restrained in its actions towards Israel in order not to aggravate its situation. Although several rockets have been fired into Israel since the war, Israeli officials say it is not Hamas that has fired them but smaller and more extreme jihadi groups.
The socio-economic situation in Gaza is steadily sliding, although Hamas’ military wing does not appear to have stinted in manufacturing rockets or digging attack tunnels towards the Israeli border.
Only 78 percent of households in Gaza have running water, and then only for six to eight hours every two to four days. Power failures are frequent. (Electricity is supplied by Egypt.)
The GDP in Gaza fell to $1,000 per person last year compared to $4,000 in the West Bank, where close to 100,000 breadwinners hold work permits enabling employment in Israel and in Israeli industrial parks on the West Bank. Fifty three percent of young people in Gaza are unemployed. One of the few jobs open to them is digging tunnels for Hamas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israel will surround itself on all borders with modern fences. “We must defend ourselves against the wild beasts,” he said. The multi-year program will cost billions, he said.