In 2005, Israel’s Disengagement (Hitnatkut) plan ended its military occupation of the Gaza Strip and turned over governance to the Palestinian Authority. Though Israel still controlled the border on one side, and Egypt on the other, no soldiers had boots on the ground, and elections were up to the local Palestinian population. For most of this time, the area has been run by Hamas.
The need for the Disengagement was demographic: as long as Israel remains a majority Jewish state, it cannot give Palestinians in occupied territories the right to vote for Knesset members. By relinquishing control of Gaza and its two million Palestinian inhabitants, Israel was essentially buying time. The Disengagement also protected our boys from having to patrol hostile streets, the most dangerous military assignment Israeli post-high school students faced outside of elite units.
The problem is that, for reasons that have to do with Palestinian aspirations, Israeli aspirations, and regional politics, Gaza has been a failed autonomous entity (it is not a state), and has been unwilling and unable to pull out of this.
For the past 15 years, Hamas has attacked Israel with rockets and attempted invasions from tunnels as a kind of distraction from their unwillingness (through investment and cooperation) and inability (militarily) to make the situation any better. The wars have been frightening for Israelis, but much more disruptive to the Gazans themselves, given the fact that Israel’s retaliation will always be more effective than Hamas’ opening attack.
Things just changed.
Hamas led a massive invasion of Israeli border towns, taking more than 50 civilians — children, women, elderly — hostage and killing hundreds in shooting sprees, filmed in jubilant snuff videos.
Not that Israel’s retaliation won’t be stronger than the initial attack. It will, that’s inevitable, which is why statements by Prime Minister Netanyahu that our response will be “merciless” and by Defense Minister Gallant that we will be “victorious” fall so flat — we know that already. But how did this happen?
We need to know where the failure took place. Was it on the professional level, i.e., the military analysis of the situation? Or was it on the political level, i.e., what the people in charge of decision making did in reaction to information from the IDF? That will have to be analyzed, though I strongly suspect the latter.
To people outside Israel, used to hearing about conflict and terrorism, it is hard to clarify how unusual and shocking this situation is. To many of us here, it feels like reading material from history books, almost like an American southerner would feel if they read that there was a mass of lynchings in their neighborhood.
Sure, Palestinian terrorists broke into Israeli neighborhoods and killed civilians in the past: it was a precipitant cause of the Sinai Campaign in 1956, when my parents were nursery age. There was a shocking school take over in Maalot 1974, and the Coastal Road Massacre in 1978, both events leading up to the eventual First Lebanon War. These were both decades ago.
Now there were certainly suicide attacks in the 90s and early 2000s — I remember them very well — but even then, and certainly after the Second Intifada was put down, the ability to enter Israel and take hostages seemed far beyond the reach of Palestinian terrorist groups, given Israel’s military intelligence and preparedness. This is why, until now, Gaza has been limited to firing rockets, or snatching the occasional border guard, as terrible as that is. (And I have two high school-age boys, so trust me, I know.)
With yesterday’s massive invasion, Israel just suffered the equivalent of September 11th, with Hamas playing the part of Al-Qaeda. Like the aftermath of 9-11, Simchat Torah 5784 cannot end without the total destruction of Hamas — it is outside the realm of psychological possibility for Israelis. This was Hamas’ (terrible!) last hurrah. But Gaza and its millions of Palestinian inhabitants will still be here when this is over. So what comes next?
I am far from a political analyst, but writ large, there are three directions we can go: forwards, backwards, or standing still. Let’s take the possibilities in inverse order.
Israel can destroy Hamas, monitor new elections, which will inevitably support the PA (there will be no one else running), and return to the reality of an autonomous Gaza under new management. This was the original plan in 2005 and failed miserably in less than two years. I don’t see why it wouldn’t suffer the same fate again.
What I suspect will happen, if this government remains in charge, is that we will go backwards, cancel the Disengagement, retake Gaza, rebuild the destroyed settlements, and return to the status quo ante, circa 2004. This would mean ruling over another two million Palestinians without voting rights and with our (my!) boys patrolling the streets again. There is a reason why Ariel Sharon — the only general during military occupation to ever successfully pacify Gaza — came to the conclusion as prime minister that we simply can’t pacify Gaza forever; he more than anyone understood the cost. It will be just as bad, if not worse, the second time around.
And thus, I turn to forward, but here things get opaque. My overall view is that Israelis and Palestinians need to engage instead of disengage. This means redoing both the now defunct disengagement from Gaza as well as the dying ventilated corpse that is the Oslo agreement. It all needs to be rethought.
This involves Israel in many distinct steps, such as massive investment in Gaza and the West Bank, to bring Palestinian living conditions up to Jewish living conditions, creating a truly bilingual country with Palestinians fluent in Hebrew and knowledge of Jewish culture, and Jews fluent in Arabic and knowledgeable of Palestinian culture. It involves figuring out how to create quasi-autonomous regions that are part of one overarching federal government, with Israel as a Jewish state, but with Palestinian culture as an integral part of that state, with cultural representation and, of course, voting rights in the relevant regions.
I don’t know what the details of such an arrangement would be — organizations like A Land For All are working on this — but the status quo of occupation on one side and terrorism on the other cannot, or at least should not, continue. It is intolerable. None of this can happen under the current government, of course, but I believe it will happen under the next one.
All this, however, is in the — admittedly not too distant — future. For right now, Israel’s only move is to finish the process begun by Hamas by terminating the existence of this organization, which has outlived its place in the Middle East.