Alan Silverstein

Israel’s treatment of the Arabs in Gaza (and the West Bank)

Many in the media have ignored the context of Israel’s administration of the “territories” since the June 1967 Six Day War.

Before that war, when the West Bank and Gaza were under Jordanian and Egyptian rule, respectively, only 18 percent of the homes in these areas had electricity, 44% had indoor toilets, and only 3% had a refrigerator or a stove.

Within 20 years of Israel’s administration of these same areas, such amenities became nearly universal.

Prior to l967, over half of the population had never attended school and not a single university existed.

By the late 1980s, compulsory and free public education was provided. Israel also established Arab colleges — which ultimately became hotbeds of Palestinian nationalism — serving tens of thousands of students.

During the Egyptian occupation of Gaza (1948-67), the rate of unemployment among the Arabs in Gaza exceeded 40 percent; under Israeli rule the number rapidly dropped. Gaza’s previously unemployables were often redirected to manual labor in Israel, filling agricultural and construction jobs. Their salaries far exceed comparable jobs inside Gaza and the West Bank, and the earners support entire family networks.

Following Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Hamas’s policies have harmed the Gazan economy. For example, parts of Gaza’s coastline could have become a vacation paradise, where Israelis once flocked to shop. Tragically, Hamas all too often diverted both fuel and cement intended for upgrading civilian life to buy weapons and build a network of terror tunnels.

Gaza’s high population density can be attributed in part to post-1967 Israeli medical science, which has served as “a life saver and life creator.” Before l967, rampant malaria, polio, typhus, and infant mortality held life expectancy levels to age 42. Thanks to Israel’s conquest of these diseases, life expectancy rates for Gaza Arabs now exceed age 75.

Critics accuse Israel’s blockade of military materials and terrorists into the Gaza Strip — similar to what Egypt does — of turning it into “an open-air prison.” Yet in 2021 alone, the UN recorded 179,390 exits and 158,764 entries via the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt and 90,421 exits and 87,0015 entries via the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel.

Thousands of Gazans entered Israel for employment, for medical treatment, and for retraining of physicians.

Israel has tried to move Gaza’s refugees out of the squalid camps built for them by the Arab League and relocate them into standardized housing. However, Hamas threatens any residents of the camps if they should move to accept Israel’s assistance in upgrading their residential situation.

The Camp David Israel-Egypt-USA Accords (1979) called for “Palestinian” autonomy, with self-governance over education, health, welfare, and religious and local civic affairs.

But initiatives proposed by Israel were dismissed by the pro-Arab majority in the UN General Assembly. UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) threatened to eliminate welfare assistance to any refugees who complied with any Israeli plans for improvement.

Next, in the Oslo I Accord in 1993, Israel tried to give Gazans a chance at self-rule.

But over the next 10 years, Hamas — based primarily in Gaza — mounted 70-plus suicide bombings, murdering 483 Israelis. Israeli leaders continued to hold out hope, trying (naively) to maintain the distinction between Hamas’s military and political wings.

In 2005, Israel, under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. President Bush and other well-intended world leaders suggested that giving Hamas sovereign territory would force terrorists to become statesmen.

No sooner had the IDF removed the Israeli residents of Gush Katif — the bloc of 17 Israeli settlements in the southern Gaza Strip — than the Palestinians “dismantled the agricultural infrastructure left behind to aid their economy…. Over the next six months, terrorist groups fired some 1000 rockets and mortar shells into Israel” (Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States).

In 2006, at the urging of Condoleezza Rice and the United States, Israel permitted elections in the territories. Israel insisted that Hamas be disarmed prior to “running for office,” but this demand was pushed aside. In Gaza, led symbolically by Maryam Farhat (“Umm Nidal”), the proud mother of three shahids (suicide bomber “martyrs”), a heavily armed Hamas won a landslide victory. Within a year, a Hamas coup overpowered Palestinian Authority forces to take full control over Gaza.

Hamas’s subsequent shelling of Israeli civilian areas in the bordering “Gaza envelop” led to a series of wars with the Jewish State. Each time, under international pressure, Israel agreed to a ceasefire. But these ceasefires turned into opportunities for Hamas to rearm and originate new forms of terror — notably terror tunnels and, most recently, hang gliders.

Time and again, Israel resorted to a strategy of “containment.” It gave the benefit of the doubt to Hamas, hoping it would act rationally and resolve to commit itself to improving the lives of the Gaza civilians.

The Israeli newspaper “Haaretz” listed some of these strategies: “The Netanyahu government has permitted a general arrangement that included labor and trade permits, gas supply and [massive amounts of] Qatari funding [$400 million annually]…. Some 18,500 Gazan laborers enter Israel on a daily basis.”

Tragically, efforts “to build a life together” ended in disaster. “An expert on gathering tactical intelligence from Hamas says it’s safe to assume that such laborers from Gaza were a rich source of information on Israeli towns and the daily routine there, data that was used by Hamas in planning the October 7 operation.” (“Haaretz,” October 20).

Israelis on the Left and the Right now realize that Hamas’s control of Gaza is unsustainable for Israel.

Israel has tried to be a good neighbor: providing medical care, universal education, giving opportunities for self-governance, offering ceasefires and a comprehensive strategy for the “containment” of Hamas’s ways of warfare. All attempts have failed.

The urgency of regime change for Gaza is clear — for the well-being of both Israelis and Gazan civilians.

Now what is required is the patience and support of the international community and of Diaspora Jewry.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”
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