October 7th was a black day for Israel, a catastrophe in every sense of the word. Now we are in a terrible war with a vicious, hateful foe. Yes, we have rallied to an extraordinary degree, and yes, we are witness to the most extraordinary acts of heroism.
Yet the coming days, weeks and months will require us not only to be strong and resourceful but to do something we are not always good at – we need to be careful in our public statements, we need to be strategic, and we need to plan. We need to manage the war and its aftermath in Gaza so as not to make things worse for ourselves.
First, we need to be careful in our public statements.
A cardinal principle of a nation at war — don’t give our enemies ammunition. Every bad idea, every mindless statement, every inflammatory remark about Gaza gives our enemies images and language to use against us. This is just as lethal as handing our enemies bombs and missiles.
For despite the foolish bravado of many Israeli politicians, Israel cannot exist alone in the world. If Israel becomes a pariah, Israel is doomed. We need friends, we need supporters, we need connections. The global arena is one of economic, scientific, cultural, and political interdependence. Most especially we need the backing of the world’s most important superpower, and our best friend, the United States. And we must not embarrass President Biden who has risked his political future for us.
Second, we need to be strategic:
- Act on a better humanitarian response in Gaza.
In the view of many of our international friends, Israel has not shown sufficient concern for the lives of ordinary Gazans who are not part of Hamas. In conversations with family and friends, normally caring people, I encounter a coldness and an indifference to human suffering on the other side. The mantra is, “we have to do what we have to do [to root out Hamas]”
It is true that an amoral enemy has deliberately embedded itself deep within civilian infrastructure in order to force Israel to destroy lives and property. And so, some loss of innocent lives is inevitable. But Israel could do more — allow the use of the Erez crossing for the delivery of inspected humanitarian aid; delivery of fuel directly to hospitals; increasing the amount of humanitarian aid and expanding the size and number of safe zones.
But there are voices in Israel that are preventing us from doing the right thing. “There are no innocents in Gaza.” “The 2 million residents of Gaza are all Nazis.” ”It doesn’t matter what happens to them, they chose Hamas to govern.” “Nuking Gaza is a viable option.” “Level Gaza to the ground.”
Common decency and common sense suggest that these voices are spouting dangerous nonsense and must be ignored. It is neither just nor smart to subject Gazans to famine, disease, and more deaths.
- Work hard to differentiate ordinary Gazans from Hamas
The reality is that Gaza’s 2.5 million people include those who support Hamas, those who tolerate Hamas, and those who detest Hamas. No one knows how many are in each group. Gazans include engineers, lawyers, doctors, factory owners, cab drivers, grocery store owners, and farmers. They are not all terrorists.
When the United Staes occupied Iraq after defeating Saddam Hussein, everyone who worked in his regime was declared an enemy. The entire army, police force and civil administration were fired. As a result, enormous numbers of people with little or no loyalty to Saddam Hussein lost their livelihood, fostering great resentment and anger. The result was disastrous for the United States and for Iraq.
Israel should not make the same mistake. We should mobilize the appropriate expertise to carry out a careful person by person screening program of everyone associated with the government, police and public services to try to isolate hardcore Hamas adherents from the rest of the population. Israel must do everything in its power to locate people who do not embrace Hamas’ toxic radical Islamist ideology and give them a chance to stay in their jobs. They need to be reassured that they are not the target of Israel’s fury, and that they will not be persecuted nor prosecuted.
- Maintain the territorial integrity of Gaza for the Gazans
One of the worst ideas gaining support in Israel is the re-establishment of a Jewish presence in Gaza. Has everyone forgotten what a security nightmare Gush Katif was? How many soldiers did it take to protect the Jewish settlers in Gaza? And how many lives were lost in the process? In one of the poorest, most dense areas on the planet, why should Jews take away living space from the people who are there? And do we need another reason to infuriate our few friends in the world?
Another terrible idea is the idea of a buffer zone inside Gaza. Buffer zones do not work. One need look no further than southern Lebanon. In an age of rockets, drones, not to speak of hang gliders, what good is a few kilometers of separation? And again, why alienate the United States? Blinken said it clearly, “No diminution of the territory of Gaza.”
And third, and most important, we need to plan.
We must prepare a credible plan for after the war. Israel faces a daunting military challenge – to defeat a vicious, deeply entrenched foe, fighting on its own turf. We pray that we will be successful. If we are, we will face an equally daunting challenge. What does post-Hamas Gaza look like and how do we get there? Imagine the hard-fought, costly war is over, the Hamas leadership killed or captured. What now?
There are many daunting problems on this poor planet – starting with global warming and the destruction of our environment. The future of Gaza after the war may be among the most intractable of local problems, and in fact, there may not be a good solution.
Gaza after the war is the subject of dozens of articles and op ed pieces. But solutions to intractable problems do not emerge from thought pieces, no matter how well crafted.
A lifetime of experience in policy analysis and planning makes it crystal clear to me: Israel needs to mount a systematic, data-driven analytic effort to come up with the least bad option for Gaza after the war. At the end of the day, no solution can be imposed, and Israel will need to negotiate with partners and others. But it needs to negotiate from strength – in this instance, strength means a well-reasoned, well founded, comprehensive plan of action. A high-level, skilled team must develop the plan for Gaza post-Hamas, starting immediately. This team cannot include the current leadership of the IDF or the security forces as they are preoccupied with the conduct of an extremely challenging war. The political leadership has neither the time nor the competence to play a role. The best strategic planners in Israel need to be recruited to this effort.
Much of the public discourse about the future of Gaza has revolved around the issue of future governance. But who governs is just one of many issues that the plan must address. The plan must include answers to the following issues:
- How to meet basic needs — food, water, fuel, shelter?
- How to restore basic services – sanitation, health, welfare, police, fire?
- How to rebuild destroyed neighborhoods?
- How to create a viable economy?
- Who governs?
- How to stage Israel’s disengagement?
- How to ensure security for Israel, especially bordering communities?
While it will be extremely difficult to actualize, planning for Gaza’s future needs to involve Gazans. I am thinking of people like Kamal Almashharawi, a Gazan lawyer who works for a solar power company based in Gaza, and an alumnus of the Seeds of Peace camp. He wrote a wonderful essay in the NY Times on November 26, 2023, “I Can Help Rebuild Gaza. First, I Need to Survive Today.”
If there was ever a time in Jewish history to mobilize our intelligence to create a better future, that time is now.