Gaza is, once again, on one’s mind. Between the renewal of rocket attacks, another thwarted flotilla, the UN Human Rights Council’s report on last summer’s Gaza war, the first anniversary of that operation this week, the commemoration of ten years since Israel’s Gaza’s disengagement and intense IS activity in the Sinai with multiple ramifications for Hamas hegemony in the area, it could hardly be otherwise.
But unless the current preoccupation with Gaza is utilized to take a hard look at Israel’s approach to the Gaza conundrum, the situation will only yield more of the same — or worse. After years of replicating and then multiplying the same mistakes, Israel must now revise its policies or prepare itself to senselessly repeat past patterns at an even greater cost to all concerned.
The unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was designed to externalize the task of maintaining control over one of the most impoverished and densely populated areas of the world by shifting this burden to the Palestinians. The disengagement, however, was not complete. Israel continued to control all points of access in the Strip. No arrangements were made for a transfer of power, thus creating a political vacuum which was quickly filled by the Hamas — whose hegemony was confirmed barely six months later following its overwhelming victory in the January 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly. The subsequent blockade on Gaza imposed by Israeli authorities was intended to create a popular groundswell against the fundamentalist regime. It simultaneously sustained the divide between Gaza and the West Bank and perpetuated the myth that the Palestinian Authority, unable to oversee events in its bifurcated territory, could not be considered a viable negotiating partner.
In what rapidly became a self-fulfilling prophecy, Hamas curtailed all domestic dissent as economic conditions deteriorated rapidly. Its militants showered invectives on Israel and on the Mahmoud Abbas government in equal measure, while building up their military capacities with the aid of their Syrian and Iranian patrons. When rocket attacks on Israel intensified, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert launched Operation “Cast Lead” in late 2008. This offensive temporarily reduced Hamas military capacities, but — by not offering any alternative — did nothing to undercut its popular support. The tightening of the siege merely triggered local ingenuity (most notably tunnel construction), along with growing international distress over an ever-growing humanitarian crisis.
Two further rounds, in 2012 (“Desert Cloud”) and 2014 (“Preventive Edge”), yielded little but successively shorter periods of calm between increasingly destructive and indeterminate armed confrontations. Sections of Gaza are still totally pulverized, the security of Israeli civilians on the Gaza border has not improved, and both populations remain traumatized. Something in Israel’s handling of Gaza affairs is unquestionably amiss.
A thorough reassessment of the working premises that have guided all Israeli government approaches to Gaza during the past decade is long overdue. In the first instance, the assumption that isolating the Gaza strip would lead to a popular uprising against its Hamas rulers has been disproven time and again. In fact, the solidarity wrought by Israel-induced victimhood has enhanced identification with the extremist organization against a common Israeli foe. Second, the related notion that the employment of superior force would create a breach with Hamas militants has backfired. The ongoing suffering of large segments of the population has forged a common denominator that, far from mitigating the use of force, has reinforced the link between extreme vulnerability and the widespread resorting to violence.
Third, the idea that Hamas could be marginalized without strengthening the secular elements of the Palestinian national movement (especially Fatah) has indirectly fortified Hamas rule in Gaza (and possibly in the West Bank as well), thus exacerbating the discord between the various factions. Indeed, as time has progressed, it has become apparent that Israel’s unidimensional depiction of Hamas prevented it from anticipating the even more extremist threats posed by Jihadists, Salafists and, most recently, the local representatives of IS.
Finally, as a result, Israeli options have narrowed. Bravado aside, it makes absolutely no sense to recapture the Gaza strip: the human, moral and international — let alone defensive — costs of subduing Hamas militarily are incalculable. A further Israeli-Egyptian stranglehold of Gaza has merely aggravated what is undeniably a monumental human tragedy. Clearly the time has come to explore other, less forcible and perhaps far more constructive, options.
There is already quite a bit of movement in this direction. Much has already been written about a German-mediated initiative, backed by Qatar and Turkey, regarding a potential long-term ceasefire. Reports of discussions in Jerusalem and Cairo in recent months persist. Senior officers in the IDF have publically expressed support for a more pragmatic approach to Gaza (General Sammy Turjeman, the Chief of the Southern Command, along with the Head of Military Intelligence, General Herzi Halevy). Minister of Education Naftali Bennett, in a sharp deviation from past statements, has come out in favor of active Israeli support for the reconstruction of Gaza. And, even though the Prime Minister, with the urging of the General Security Services, has resisted such a move, there are indications that the door for reconsideration has been opened.
A new Israeli policy towards Gaza, in stark contrast to past approaches, should be predicated on civilian rehabilitation. Its centerpiece must be the removal of the siege on Gaza, in all probability best effected through the creation of an internationally — supervised floating seaport which will enable the direct movement of people and goods into and out of the Strip (some reports discuss a first-ever NATO oversight of such a construct).
Other possible steps involve the reconstruction of neighborhoods destroyed during the latest Israeli operations (and especially during “Preventive Edge”) through direct Israeli inputs and the encouragement of external investments. The implementation of new housing plans promises to provide some work for income-impoverished residents of Gaza. Another approach to dealing with overwhelming unemployment (and the desperation that goes with it) is to explore the possibility of the renewal of job opportunities within Israel (in itself a barrier to violent resistance).
A shift to such an approach nurtures development prospects and expanding horizons that are neither dependent on Hamas handouts on the one hand nor on the promotion of violence on the other hand. It offers an alternative to the ongoing cycle of armed outbursts and offers substantial incentives to the maintenance of a modicum of law and order. Although it may not eradicate Hamas rule, it has the added advantage of marginalizing its power and perhaps laying the groundwork for the political rehabilitation of the Palestinian institutional infrastructure so critical to the solidification of governance today and state capacities in the future. Above all else, a revised strategy may do far more for Israeli (and Palestinian) security than the obstinate insistence on the ongoing use of force that to date has only yielded more and more immiseration.
Now is precisely the time to break with the spiral of violence, destruction and radicalization that has marked Israel-Gaza relations. By changing the parameters of Israel’s Gaza strategy and introducing new variables, it might be possible to embark on a new direction which, by lifting Palestinian residents of Gaza out of their hopeless stranglehold, might yet provide the way to extricate all involved from the clutches of what has become a deepening Gaza quagmire.