How Israel’s Gaza Blockade Backfires

Israel’s crushing blockade and periodic assaults against the 1.8 million people jammed into Gaza have led to the emergence of an Islamic State affiliate that is now challenging Hamas, an example of how extreme repression breeds ever greater extremism, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The histories of many lands have repeatedly demonstrated two patterns in the relationship of extremism to political and economic conditions. One is that the combination of miserable economic circumstances and a lack of peaceful political channels for pursuing grievances tends to gravitate people toward extremist groups and ideologies.

The second is that the resulting extremism is on a sliding scale. What may have been seen at one time as an extreme response to circumstances may, as misery continues and possibly worsens, come to be seen as part of an inadequate status quo and is eclipsed by something even more extreme.

An Israeli strike caused a huge explosion in a residential area in Gaza during the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-2009. (Photo credit: Al Jazeera)

An Israeli strike caused a huge explosion in a residential area in Gaza during the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2008-2009. (Photo credit: Al Jazeera)

Such a process is taking place today in the Gaza Strip, the open air prison in which 1.8 million people endure what for some time have been genuinely miserable circumstances. Blockade by Israel, aided to varying degrees by Egypt and punctuated by repeated Israeli military assaults, has destroyed much of the Gazan economy and kept residents in squalor.

The estimated unemployment rate is around 44 percent, and the Strip is still strewn with rubble from the most recent Israeli assault last year, with lack of materials and other impediments permitting only minimal reconstruction so far.

An unsurprising result is growth in the number and activity of Gaza-based extremists, specifically and most recently ones claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. Their numbers have increased, according to an estimate by Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group, from several hundred a few years ago to a few thousand today. They act in opposition not only to Israel but also to Hamas, the group that tries to function as a governing authority in Gaza and is to the extremists a part of a despised status quo.

“We will stay like a thorn in the throat of Hamas, and a thorn in the throat of Israel,” says a spokesman for groups that identify with ISIS.

The ill consequences of this rise of extremists in the Gaza Strip go beyond the undesirability of any expansion of the ISIS brand and ISIS influence. The extremists from time to time fire rockets into Israel despite the efforts of Hamas to stop such firings. The rockets endanger innocent citizens of Israel and also, given the Israeli government’s pattern of blaming Hamas for anything that goes on in the Strip and striking back with force, carries the risk of precipitating the next Gaza war.

The Gaza extremists, especially if they link up in any way with their ideological soulmates in the Sinai, also may stop a modest thawing in relations between Hamas and Egypt, which recently has slightly relaxed closure of its part of Gaza’s borders. (Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Egypt, by the way, is another prime exhibit of how repression and denial of political rights foster the growth of extremism and terrorist violence.)

Israel’s suffocating blockade is very hard to explain, much less justify, even if one gets beyond the huge moral issue raised by inflicting such deprivation on 1.8 million people and uses as a frame of reference the narrow objectives of the right-wing Israeli government.

The situation does help make possible the propaganda point, often invoked by that government and its supporters as an excuse for continuing to occupy the West Bank, that when Israel “withdrew” from the Gaza Strip the response supposedly was rocket fire and the Palestinians making a hash of things. No mention is made, of course, of how Israel has done everything it can to make the Gaza Strip ungovernable.

And by branding Hamas as an irredeemable extremist group, there is a further propaganda point that the Palestinian Authority is getting in bed with “terrorists” any time it tries to achieve reconciliation with Hamas in the interests of Palestinian unity. No mention is made of how Hamas, which won the last free all-Palestinian election, has made it clear that if a Palestinian state is created it is prepared to observe an indefinite long-term cease-fire with Israel.

Destruction of Hamas seems to be a purpose of the blockade and military assaults, with the idea being that if ordinary Gazans suffer enough they will blame Hamas and withdraw support from it. But if that is the purpose, the policy has been a failure.

The longer the policy goes on the more it starts to look like the failed half-century effort by the United States to use an embargo of Cuba to try to get rid of the Castro regime, with the difference that Israel has a much greater stranglehold on the Gaza Strip, and the suffering it has exacted on the targeted population has been much more severe.

Even if Israel could somehow kill off Hamas with this strategy, the increase of the ISIS-types in Gaza points to the last flaw in the strategy. If Hamas were to go, the replacement probably would be something that everyone ought to consider much worse.

It is a further question whether the Israeli government recognizes this, and whether even if it does, it would nevertheless continue its self-destructive policies in its single-minded determination to destroy a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

8 comments for “How Israel’s Gaza Blockade Backfires

  1. Peter Loeb
    July 6, 2015 at 11:16


    Most Palestinians have been powerless in defeating Zionist
    takeover and oppression. This has happened over and
    over and over again.

    For those who want to win there is an attraction to groups who
    “succeed” at least when viewed in the short run. The
    brutality of ISIS and the sources of its power (Saudi Arabia, Israel
    etc) and the results of its successes seem to to disappear
    in some eyes. Only ISIS seems to some to be “winning”.

    Like the Mongols, perhaps.

    One could liken it to those who joined the Nazis in the
    early years of World War Two because it seemed like
    they were winning and would win the War in the end.
    For them, there was no calculation about The Final
    Solution or the possibility that the Nazi’s might lose.

    This comparison is not precise. But it does point to
    reasons why some act as they do. The ultimate
    results are distant for them. So too does the long-
    range strategy of Israel which is already provoking
    Palestinians to attack Israelis. Although this has been
    documented (See the brief for on behalf of Palestinians
    already given to the ICC).

    —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  2. alexander
    July 6, 2015 at 07:31

    Dear Mr Pillar,

    I find it quite fascinating that the assorted “terrorist” attacks occurring on the Sinai border between Israel and Egypt , since 2011, have occurred , almost without exception,during the openings of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza.

    It seems to indicate to any who monitor it, that if you open the crossing…terror will follow !
    The terrorist incidents, whether initiated by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, ISIS, or some other “terror brigade” inevitably lead to the closing of the crossing, as the incidents always seem to evaporate when the Gaza opening is shut !

    Given that the “Rafah crossing” is the singular corridor of free access to desperately needed food,water, medicine,and building materials in the beleaguered Gaza strip….launching terror attacks in the Sinai,when it is open, seems so PROFOUNDLY counterproductive to the needs of the suffering Palestinians in Gaza has to question not only the IQ level of the Hamas leadership(and its assorted “brigades”) but perhaps its very sanity !
    Certainly any modestly intelligent leadership in Gaza would seek to keep the corridor open, at all costs, not launch terror attacks to close it !

    Given that, at every opportunity when asked, Hamas has denied all involvement in the incidents, one doesn’t have to be a genius, or even a conspiracy theorist, to believe them !

    The “Terror” in the Sinai, whether on purpose or NOT , serves mostly and most explicitly as” a tool of justification” to perpetuate the Israeli governments ” siege” on Gaza, and the continued closure of the tattered strip to the outside world !

    I don’t see any REAL benefit to anyone else., least of all the leadership in Gaza..
    .Do you ?

  3. sulphurdunn
    July 5, 2015 at 12:34

    Some very good research suggests that no correlation exists between intelligence and rationality, which is a real blow to the notion that the better angels of our nature will eventually prevail.

  4. Abe
    July 5, 2015 at 12:22

    Pillar’s analyses consistently neglect to mention the fact that Israel is in bed with “terrorists” in Syria.

    He also neglects to mention that Israel’s extreme repression is specifically designed to breed ever greater extremism.

    Allegations of ISIS affiliates in the Strip allow the Israeli government to establish a new pattern of blaming Hamas for anything ISIS does and striking back with force, in order to precipitate the next Gaza war.

    • Abe
      July 5, 2015 at 12:34

      Ex-CIA officials have an intense fetish for “blowback” mythology.

      The truth is that Israel’s stranglehold strategy has not “backfired”.

      Israel’s strategy to destroy a two-state solution has evolved.

    • Masud Awan
      July 5, 2015 at 13:58

      “Pillar’s analyses consistently neglect to mention the fact that Israel is in bed with “terrorists” in Syria.”

      It is not analysis. It is a deliberate attempt to throw dust in reader’s eyes. Apparently this essay seems anti-Israel but actually it is to provide a rationale for the next Israeli onslaught of the Palaztinians imprisoned in Gaza. The world at large would not condemn too harshly because the ‘effort’ would be shown to be exercised against ‘the biggest monster of all’ , the ISIS. ‘By deception thou shalt wage the war’.

    • momus
      July 5, 2015 at 18:44

      I agree with Abe.

      But I don’t think Pillar (who I admire) could get away with saying what Abe is saying. It wouldn’t compute with the average news-consumer.

  5. dahoit
    July 5, 2015 at 11:16

    Sounds like ISUS to me,and the Zionists must chortle at the naivety of America,as their divide and conquer plague continues.

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