This week marks the IDF conquest of Central Gaza City. Shifa hospital is being raided, allowed under International Humanitarian Law as Hamas has turned it into a base of operations. The Gazan parliament, government offices, and police headquarters have similarly been conquered by Israeli units. Many parts of the city are in ruin. It is estimated that over half the population has been displaced from the conflict. The territory is low on fresh water, food, medicine and relies solely now on international aid. Such are the consequences of Hamas launching its war against Israel.
It wasn’t meant to be so. As the president of the one time pro Israel student group Israeli Canadian Students Association (ICSA) at the University of Calgary in 2005, I was involved in a CBC radio debate with a fellow Jewish student at the time of the Disengagement Plan (ex PM Ariel Sharon’s governments removal of all IDF and civilians from Gaza). While my prediction at the time was that the territory would turn into a vacuum filled with Hamas and extremism, the second student was full of optimism. “We left all our technology there in Gush Katif for them. They can take what we left them and bloom. Now free Gaza can become paradise”, she was quoted as saying. In fact, she was not alone. Left, without the excuse of occupation, many thought that Gaza would in fact bloom. Additional to the greenhouses that were left behind (which were ransacked and razed to the ground soon after the settlers left), international aid would surely give the territory a good start.
However, in 2007 in a brief but violent coup with scenes of PA officials being thrown off high rise rooftops, Hamas took over the Gaza Strip. The place was put under blockade by both Egypt and Israel. The illusions of Gaza becoming the Palestinian paradise soon evaporated as rockets, always a problem since the days of the Second Intifadah, became more widespread. One war led to another, from 2009, to 2012, 2014, 2021, and several air operations against Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Gaza became synonymous with terror. As written in my masters dissertation, which discussed the viability of a Gaza State, Gaza under Hamas had all the hallmarks of an independent country. Israel lacked effective control there seen in the debacle of the Gilad Shalit deal, where it had to trade over a thousand terrorists, including the current leader of Hamas, Yehya Sinwar, for a single Israeli soldier being held there. However, instead of Gaza prospering, most of it remained a backward corner of the Middle East. While a few districts near Gaza City bloomed, most became one of the poorest corners in the Middle East.
Now with Israel conquering Gaza City and changing the status quo, a new opportunity for a prosperous Gaza can be seized. The mistake in 2005 was that Israel unilaterally departed with no framework in mind at all for the future of Gaza. The Disengagement Plan left Gaza to its own devices, whose fate was sealed after the Hamas takeover of 2007. The territory became a terrorist stronghold, an Iranian proxy ally under blockade and not open for widespread trade. The education system emphasizes “resistance” and hatred of Jews and Israel, content that could have been found in the textbooks of the Third Reich. Little talk of investment, except for humanitarian aid to poor refugees, shaped the focus of its leadership. The territory focus was on hating Israel rather than building a future for its people.
A focus for a post war Gaza can be the Dubai model in the United Arab Emirates, or Neom, the new tech city of Saudi Arabia. Both are examples of Arab focuses on the future, turning a blind eye to past tribalism and focusing on high tech. Gaza, as a densely populated enclave next to the Mediterranean and next to Israel, another high tech hub, with the right focus, can turn into a third example of renewal and Arab technological successes. This will involve working with Israel rather than fighting it.
Such a solution, unlike in 2005, would not come out of a vacuum. It would require international, but most importantly regional cooperation between Israel and its Arab partners: the UAE, the USA, and also a future Saudi Arabia that will be at peace with it. A local Gazan Authority would take over, heavily influenced by a regional council including all regional players plus the United States and Europe. The local authority would work on rebuilding the Gazan education removing hatred from its textbooks and focusing on technology and economics. Israeli start ups along with regional partners would actively work with Gazan entrepreneurs and their networking potential, which would give a window to the broader Arab world at Israel’s doorstep. The solution can become a win win.
Imagine Gaza becoming an economic success story of the early 21st century? It does not appear likely now but in every crisis there can be a new beginning. A focus away from hatred, taking the focus found in UAE and Saudi Arabia can be a future model for a reconstructed Gaza Strip.
However, for the time being the war continues. Economic hubs are not dominated by terrorist groups. Hamas needs to be vanquished for the vision presented here to be given a chance to prevail.