Miriam Mendelson
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Rethinking Gaza

We need to disrupt the narrative that entwines the locals with the Hamas leadership, and entrenches the base of support for extremism
Palestinian women chant slogans as protesters burn tires near the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip, Monday, May 14, 2018.   (AP Photo/Adel Hana - via Jewish News)
Palestinian women chant slogans as protesters burn tires near the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, in the Gaza Strip, Monday, May 14, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana - via Jewish News)

Recently, two rockets were fired from Gaza to Tel-Aviv. The leadership in Gaza swore it was a mistake. Shortly after, a rocket from Gaza hit a house again in the center of Israel, wounding seven people. Israel responded by hitting over 100 targets in Gaza in response. While it has been uneasily quiet since then, past history (over 20,000 rockets from Gaza since 2001, most after the Israeli withdrawal in 2005) seems to indicate that it will not be the end. The cycle of attack from Gaza and then counter-attack from Israel continues, despite Israel’s strong policy of deterrence and reprisal.

Maybe it is time for a rethink. Has our current strategy really helped us? Does reprisal or the threat of reprisal actually prevent people in Gaza from attacking us — especially over the long term? Gaza has absorbed many counter-attacks from Israel — in response to both missile strikes and terrorist attacks on Israeli territory, and Israel’s level of credibility when it comes to taking action is high. Despite this we do not see any level of long-term deterrence from the extremist leaders in Gaza. Why is this?

Our assumptions in Gaza have tended to be that the leadership wants to avoid pain and damage to themselves and wants to destroy us. But what if neither of those assumptions are true? What if the leaders in Gaza win both when they inflict pain and damage on us, and when they absorb pain and damage from us? And what if they win not when they destroy us, but even when they simply engage with us? If true, this would explain why they are not deterred by counter-strikes, and why they continue to attack us, even when there is no hope of destroying us. This is because every engagement, every strike or counterstrike strengthens their narrative and increases their power and level of support among the population.

The real vulnerability of the leadership in Gaza is not pain, damage or even the threat of destruction. Their real vulnerability is the destruction of their narrative and the loss of support of the local population — and, by extension, the international community. Without the support of the local population they have no power-base, no legitimacy, no source of recruits or operatives and no one to echo their narrative. They also lose the support of the international community, and with it freedom to operate, global legitimacy, funding and non-local recruits.

Conversely, the very things we think would discourage attacks from Gaza — i.e., the use of punitive counter-strikes and other harsh measures as a form of deterrence, actually play right into their hands by increasing local support, strengthening their narrative and maintaining their power-base and their legitimacy in the eyes of the international community — including governments, organizations and the media. What we have done to deter attacks from Gaza actually encourages them. What we have done to weaken the extremist leadership in Gaza has actually strengthened and empowered it.

If we want to damage our attackers, we need to damage their support. If we want to damage their support, we need to strike at their narrative. This targets their real vulnerabilities and in the long run is much more effective than striking at their buildings or their bodies. Conversely, what we currently do plays into their narrative and treats the people of Gaza and the extremist leaders as a single unit, which strengthens the leaders, and sustains their base of support.

Keeping all of the above in mind, what kinds of strategies in Gaza would actually make sense? How can we undermine the extremists’ narrative and weaken their base of support? How can we create daylight between the extremist leaders and the people of Gaza? (Note: The following suggestions are NOT a substitute for military action when it is absolutely needed to destroy weaponry, prevent imminent attacks, or save lives):

The recent internal protests that were shut down so violently in Gaza happened for a reason — the people are suffering, and they are awakening to the reality of who is responsible for their suffering. As a Palestinian activist said: “They (the leaders in Gaza) have a lot of food to eat, while their neighbors (the people of Gaza) are starving to death”. Or as one young Palestinian woman exclaimed, “To hell with the Hamas, and to hell with the Fatah, because they have put the people in the hell!” The people of Gaza are rising up in protest — not against Israel, but against their own corrupt and brutal leaders — risking their lives for the sake of their children and their families. This writer was personally shown a picture of a balloon from Gaza to Israel with the message “Please save our children” attached to it. What if we responded to their cries for help? What if we opened lines of communication with the people of Gaza, far from the eyes and ears of the extremist leadership? What if we found ways to secretly help them with their critical needs? There are ways we could covertly help that would make a profound impression. Sending a drone carrying medicine under cover of darkness for a sick child or even adult could be more powerful than a missile. Word would pass from mouth to mouth, even if the specifics are not revealed. Every action we took would strike at the narrative, show that we are not the enemy, and undermine support for the extremists.

We need to think strategically about how we respond in various situations — especially when lives are not immediately in danger. Someone who is brandishing a knife from a distance or throwing stones from a distance may not be the best person to kill. Killing them will have the ripple effect of creating other attackers from their family or community. It also strengthens the extremists’ narrative and plays into their hands. Neutralizing and arresting them (when possible) may be a better approach. Seeing killing as in any way a deterrence misses the true goals of the extremists — where every death makes them stronger. Respond lethally only when absolutely necessary to save lives, and in a way that minimizes casualties to the local population. Do it as a matter of primary strategy, not simply kindness or morality. Develop the technology to control/disperse crowds at sufficient range to minimize the need for live-fire (if we can send a craft to the moon, certainly we can do this, provided it is a high enough priority). Document and publicize measures taken to safeguard civilian lives. Take responsibility and apologize when truly innocent lives are taken.

Let us be pro-active in creating our own scenarios instead of letting the extremists determine the narrative arc. For example, when another would-be “teen-martyr” comes along, don’t play their game and play into their hands. Don’t send tantrum-throwing children to jail where they can then become global “heroes” for decades. Instead, sentence them to community service in settings where Arabs, Jews and Palestinians work together to save lives. Take pictures and create a new narrative that undermines the extremists instead of helping them.

Lastly, when a youth from Gaza is brainwashed, radicalized and carries out an attack (or attempts to), instead of destroying their family’s home (which will likely radicalize others and create new attackers), find the source of the radicalization. Find ways to shut down the radicalization, the same way we would find ways to shut down the flow of weapons being used for attacks or the digging of tunnels for infiltration. Yes, doing so would be a complex undertaking — but we have met and overcome major challenges before.

The above suggestions are just a sample. To those who disagree with the ideas — think of better ones. Think of even more creative ones. But make sure they are ideas that change the narrative and undermine support for extremists and extremism in Gaza, instead of strengthening it.

We do not know what the future of Gaza will be. The uneasy status-quo may be maintained, with occasional flare-ups. We may be drawn into a large-scale military confrontation. The current leadership might eventually be replaced or overthrown — perhaps by its own people. We may annex Gaza, or another country may take over the territory. We may even come to some sort of sovereign-confederacy agreement with them. No matter which of these eventually comes to pass, it behooves us to not simply react in the moment, but rather to act in ways that strategically create a foundation and connections for the long term. Let us distinguish between the people of Gaza and their leadership — the violent extremists that exploit them, oppress them and use them as human weapons. Let us find ways to reach out to, connect with and strengthen the people of Gaza, while at the same time weakening the narrative of the extremist leaders and lessening their support. In this way we will be best positioned to deal with whatever scenario the future of Gaza brings.

About the Author
Dr. Miriam Mendelson has a PhD in Public Administration with combined coursework in Political Science with a research focus on counter-terrorism and counter-radicalism. Her doctoral dissertation was on extremism vs. moderation in the Arab/Islamic world. She also holds degrees in psychology and counseling, specializing in power, stress, conflict and violence. Dr. Mendelson has done field research in countries throughout the Middle-East, including in the West Bank and Arab communities in Israel. She has worked for the US Army in Iraq as a researcher on counterinsurgency and done an independent film project on the Arab Spring in Egypt. She currently resides in Tel Aviv, Israel.
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