A reboot is needed in Gaza, as seen yet again after the mini-campaign of the past week. Israel should table a generous offer that reshuffles the deck, aligns with reality and projects some empathy toward the two million residents there who suffer one of the world’s most ridiculous forms of deprivation.
Gazans live in a tiny arid territory run by semi-theocratic criminals and thugs operating under the banner of Hamas, a group that due to past actions never disavowed cannot but be classified as terrorist (and widely is). Israel is right in saying that Hamas seeks its destruction and that the world would be a better place without the group ruling Gaza. Israel is also right to be outraged about Hamas and its mini-me Islamic Jihad firing makeshift (but increasingly untrivial) rockets at its communities near the border, and occasionally beyond.
What does Israel do about all this?
It blockades the land borders to the north and east of the strip and allows neither air nor sea access. It compels Egypt to blockade the remaining border to the south — which Egypt is easily compelled to do, wanting no business with masses of Palestinians some of whom may support the jihadi insurrection in northern Sinai. To top things off Israel, supplier of Gaza’s electricity, is also part of a system that leaves Gazans with only a few hours of power a day (the Palestinian Authority that still runs the Palestinian towns in the West Bank also engineers this travesty).
Why does Israel, with PA and Egyptian assistance, cut Gaza off from the world this way?
It does it to convince Gazans that Hamas rule is bad for them, presumably leading to some sort of revolt.
But it’s unclear how many Gazans actually need convincing, and it’s sadly irrelevant. Hamas won legislative elections in 2006, but that was long ago, it was partly in reaction to PA corruption, and in any case Palestine is not a real democracy. Most of all, though, what kills Israel’s lame strategy is the simple fact that no one (certainly no one in the Israeli establishment) thinks Gaza’s public has the ability to overthrow its oppressors. The territory is too small and the militias too well-armed, disciplined and ruthless. Indeed, they are terrorists.
Why use such a loaded term, so unpopular in purist journalistic circles with their selective codes of correctness?
The terrorist label is much misused and often abused, especially by past Israeli leaders who would refer to any armed person in Lebanon this way. That cheapened the terrorist brand. But it applies here, because for a long period in the recent past Hamas blew up buses and pubs and unashamedly celebrated the savage killing of civilians. With their cohort they almost invented a certain branch of terrorism that has since ravaged much of the Middle East and also found its way to Europe. That type of work makes you a terrorist in my book even if your cause is utopia. Own it; presumably you sleep well and are proud of your terrorist actions.
Hamas did these things because it correctly calculated that they would move the Israeli electorate to the right and thus kill the 1990s peace process which it opposed as a sellout. That’s right: these murderers want Likud in power, building settlements in the West Bank and making a partition impossible. Likud obliged, and continues to this day.
Hamasniks opposed the peace process because they disagree with the PLO’s stated (and often disbelieved) acquiescence to a partition that leaves the Palestinians with less than a third of what they define as Palestine (and what some Jews call the Land of Israel). Meaning: with only the West Bank and Gaza and half of Jerusalem.
I say that wouldn’t be so terrible for the Palestinians, with their middle-level claim, somewhat weaker than the Kurds’ and perhaps better than the Catalans’, to another separate state on the crowded world stage. The Negev is a big desert, and if you factor it out the Palestinians get more than half the area where most people would want to live. Nonetheless Hamas wants all of Israel/Palestine and despite some feints and parries that goal is probably here to stay.
One of the great ironies playing out on the world stage is that Palestinian fanatics and Israeli hawks in the short term seek the same thing: to avoid the partition that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated over, Ehud Barak gambled his career on, and Ehud Olmert missed achieving because of tragicomic petty corruption.
Hamas calculates, again correctly, that lack of a partition will make the country half Palestinian regardless of citizenship issues and therefore in no defensible way a Jewish state. Hamas reasons that in such a situation, pushed by a bit more violence, many Jews will leave and the Palestinians will take over. The descendants of refugees could then be invited to return, and the place will soon be overwhelmingly Arab. To achieve this in the short term they fight against freedom, not for it. This little paradox escapes many well-meaning meddlers from outside.
The Israeli right apparently thinks Israel can forever subjugate the Palestinians, and applies wishful thinking to the demographics. It is pitiable to observe, though it succeeds in bamboozling much of the public. Moral issues aside, the Israeli right is less intelligent than Hamas, and by a stretch.
Hamas’ suicide bombings in the second intifada were so heinous that their gift keeps on giving for Likud. The 2006 Hamas takeover of Gaza which followed the 2005 Israeli pullout was useful as well: today many Israelis see Gaza as a cautionary tale that suggests an occupation-free West Bank might too be seized by maniacs who will fire rockets at them, this time from highland surrounding Jerusalem and close to Tel Aviv. It’s not crazy to fear this, and that helps Likud and undermines peace.
Cynics will say the Israeli right, in power partly thanks to Hamas, returns the favor: Benjamin Netanyahu wants Hamas in power in Gaza to weaken the PA, reducing it to a sort of municipal authority in the West Bank, and dividing the Palestinians by allowing Gaza to be a separate entity. Occasional rocketing of the south may be viewed as an acceptable price to pay within the bounds of this gambit. What is clear is that the Israeli right is strangely intertwined with an enemy that wants to prod Israel into attacking Gaza.
Even the deaths of civilians, up to a point, serve Hamas’ strategic aims; they are not humanitarians. Israel is not happy to oblige, because it is not by definition evil, but it often gets there anyway when the mini-wars last long enough. With enough Gazan civilians killed and radicalized, and with what’s left of Israel’s good name rubbished, Hamas and Islamic Jihad will stop the rockets for a while to regroup among the rubble in which they thrive.
This week it was Islamic Jihad, not Hamas, but the script was similar and so were the results. Inter alia the military managed to kill eight members of a single family due to possibly misidentifying a building (after starting the round by assassinating a Jihad operative). Many Israelis will say war is war and you reap what you sow. That view is understandable to a point, but it is nothing to be proud of.
Israeli rightists hate this narrative because it makes them look like immoral fools who are aided expediently by an enemy both cleverer and eviler than they. But that’s how it is. People recoil from inconvenient truths, but that doesn’t make them false and you cannot get far in life by lying to yourself.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s GDP is at $2.5 billion compared to close to almost half a trillion for Israel, even though the populations is scarcely five times larger.
Certainly it is clear that new thinking from Netanyahu is unlikely. The rising seas will flood both Gaza and Tel Aviv before it might arrive. But if the right is somehow removed from power as a result of the current political machinations, the new government would do well to reconsider the country’s pointless and brutish engagement with the strip.
Blue and White officials are often asked about this and they mumble platitudes aiming to sound tough but also suggesting some diplomatic vision. But vagueness can project the opposite of humility, and I don’t observe it to be working. Netanyahu has cornered the market on malarkey. From his opponents, some clarity would be helpful.
I would start by holding a news conference and offering Hamas and Gaza an airport, a sea port, a massive aid and reconstruction package targeted to specific civilian projects, subsidized electricity all day and night, some safe passage arrangement to and from the West Bank, and a greatly relaxed border (especially with Egypt, if that can be arranged).
The condition would be that Hamas return Gaza to the PA, and that new elections for a legislative body for both the West Bank and Gaza be held rather soon.
I would not insist on total “demilitarization,” which would be wonderful but is a non-starter; terrorist groups do not readily disarm. I would enable selective integration into the PA security apparatus, massive incentives to hand in weapons, and a gradual process that takes realities into account. I’d throw in amnesty for past actions for terrorists. They will die one day anyway. Let them meanwhile live free to see the Palestinians less miserable. Let them see themselves discredited.
Will it immediately succeed? Of course not. But it would immediately make Israel appear wiser, put the onus on the other side, and offer a future less cruel to all sides. It is far more likely to succeed than the revolution theory, now limping along in Year 13. And it would amount be a plan that the entire world, more or less, can get behind, a little like defeating the New England Patriots of the American National Football League.
Narrative-changers can become game-changers too, in time.