Israel’s strategic dead end in Gaza
Many high-level meetings of security experts and officials in Israel have tried over the past few weeks to come up with policy directives regarding the future of Gaza. This is a positive development, especially because over the past 11 years there has not been a serious review of Israel’s strategic goals in Gaza. Even after three wars with Gaza, the Israeli policy has been to leave a weakened Hamas in power.
When the policy of “isolation” (bidul in Hebrew) of Gaza began – after the Hamas coup d’etat against the Palestinian Authority in June 2007 – the basic idea was to advance the peace process in the West Bank and its economic development while closing off Gaza, so that Palestinians could easily see the difference between the two regimes, their interaction and openness to Israel and to the world. Those were the days when Dr. Salam Fayyad was prime minister in Ramallah. Though he was the “darling of the United States and the West” whom some Israelis called “the Palestinian Ben-Gurion,” prosperity and peace did not appear.
With each round of violence and war, Hamas grew stronger. As the noose around Gaza tightened, the people of Gaza and the West Bank increased their anger toward Israel, not Hamas. The idea of punishing the people of Gaza for choosing Hamas did not succeed in weakening Hamas’s control of Gaza. Hamas grew stronger and the people of Gaza suffered more.
They became the victims of both Hamas and Israel.
And after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, Egypt became a co-co-co-conspirator.
After the collapse of internal Palestinian reconciliation efforts, in the eyes of the Palestinian public, the Palestinian Authority is also blamed for Gaza’s suffering, but after Israel’s primary role.
Over the years, Palestinian public support for internal Palestinian reconciliation continued to grow. Over this last year, together with significant pressure from Egypt, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority began a serious course of negotiations toward ending the division between the two Palestinian territories.
This was most definitely the will of the people.
HAVING LOST the support of Egypt when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi kicked out the Muslim Brotherhood – and with that the end of the tunnel enterprises for smuggling goods and weapons into Gaza from Sinai – Hamas found itself financially bankrupt and unable to govern Gaza, but still holding on to the military power that they refuse to surrender. Reconciliation reached deadlock and the chances of advancing as long as Mahmoud Abbas is president of the Palestinian Authority seem very slim.
I have heard many Israeli security experts and officials declare that the primary interest of Israel is to see the PA retake control of Gaza. As they said, it is much more preferable for Israel for the rulers of Gaza to be people we can talk with and to have them engaged in security coordination with Israel similar to the West Bank. Oddly, these are the same people who repeatedly declare the Mahmoud Abbas is not a partner for peace.
There are so many contradictions in the discussions and debates among these people, some of whom have direct influence on Israel decision-making. Another example is that the same people who want the PA back in Gaza, advocate reaching a long term cease-fire with Hamas. Yet they recognize this will strengthen Hamas and weaken Abbas. They also have no problem supporting the new call heard in Israeli policy circles to deduct taxes and customs collected by Israel on behalf of the PA on the basis of the Paris Protocol (the Israeli Palestinian economic agreement from 1994) in order to pay salaries of PA officials in Gaza, and the electricity and water bills of Gaza – and now, even to pay damages for the fires around Gaza from the incendiary kites and helium balloons coming from Gaza.
The PA is sanctioning Gaza in order to weaken Hamas. That is the stated goal of the PA. They want to bring the Hamas leadership to its knees by not paying for electricity and water and salaries. Deducting Gaza payments unilaterally from money that belongs to the PA by agreement with Israel will most definitely weaken the PA. The whole policy debate is complex and confusing. It seems there are no easy answers from the Israeli point of view.
My own assessment is that if Israel was truly prepared to enter into a genuine and serious peace process with the PA, then it makes sense to advocate policies that will directly weaken Hamas. Then it would be clearly understood that there is a true alternative between Hamas and the PA.
BUT THIS is not the case. The Israeli occupation is being entrenched in the West Bank, settlements are expanding, and with that the de facto annexation of parts of the West Bank is moving forward. There is no peace process. There are no negotiations, and none in the foreseeable future. It is easy to blame the PA as well as Israel, but from the point of view of the Palestinians, it doesn’t really matter who is responsible – there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Israel should not be interested in strengthening Hamas. But there is no real alternative to Hamas at this time and there is a possibility of adopting a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas by Israel that will be replied to by a more pragmatic approach toward Israel by Hamas. The main focus of Israel’s attention right now should be that two million Gazans are living under intolerable, inhuman conditions that will continue to feed despair and hatred of Israel.
The people of Gaza will remain Israel’s neighbors forever. They are not going anywhere. The combination is highly unlikely of a meaningful cease-fire; the limited ability of Hamas to increase its military power; the possibility of Egyptian and perhaps even Saudi observers in Gaza; a significant decrease in the economic blockade; and the return of the bodies of Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al Sayed to their families. However, to accomplish this last item – even if Israel has to release a few tens of Palestinian prisoners who did not kill Israelis, including most of the Schalit deal prisoners who were rearrested in 2014 but did not really return to terrorism – it is the right thing to do.
The larger broader strategic considerations and possible impacts should be delayed to a time when Israel and the PA are more prepared to re-enter serious negotiations on the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel based on 1967 lines. Until then, the larger issues are really quite moot and irrelevant.
Gershon Baskin ist Autor des Aachener Friedensmagazins www.aixpaix.de. Seine Beiträge finden Sie hier