A couple of months ago, Israel entered into talks with the Hamas government in Gaza with the hope of reaching a temporary arrangement that would ensure quiet along the border. The talks, mediated by Egypt, have not borne fruit and recent days have seen renewed violence along the fence between Gaza and Israel. This attempt at cease-fire or ‘arrangement’, as it is locally referred to, is informed by Trump’s ambiguous proposal of a ‘peace deal’, which is yet to be detailed. The Israeli government appears to be keeping its own goals vis-à-vis Gaza similarly ambiguous. Clearly, the best result for Netanyahu’s government would be for Hamas to stop setting fire to fields in southern Israel and to generally decrease its attacks, which are pushing Israel to the brink of another military operation in Gaza. At this point, Israel is unlikely to emerge from the talks with its two citizens who are trapped in Gaza and with the bodies of two IDF soldiers killed in 2014, unless it offers something similar in return.
The government has apparently chosen to set its sights low in these talks, despite the fact that for years, Gaza has been a powder keg that explodes every now and then. Gaza is ruled by Hamas, a movement that is hostile to Israel, financed by Iran and averse to a long-term compromise. More extreme Jihadi and Salafi groups are also operating in Gaza, fuelled by humanitarian conditions that have reached an all-time low in this small strip of land. The population, suffocating under a joint Israeli and Egyptian blockade and furious with Hamas, may well erupt in a popular uprising that would be more violent than anything we have seen to date.
The Israeli government has chosen to respond to this time bomb with nothing more than a superficial, inherently temporary arrangement with Hamas. Some of our ministers do not even think that is necessary, with the minister of defense blithely declared that he is not involved in the talks. The message is clear: Netanyahu’s government has failed to resolve the threat posed by Hamas. Israelis are expected to accept life in the shadow of violence by a hostile regime and find no fault with a government that has not developed any strategy to protect them – nor shows any inclination to do so in the future.
Netanyahu’s security policy for the south has Israel in a bind. On one hand, it signals to Hamas that Israel has nothing to gain from yet another military operation and so wants to avoid escalation. On the other hand, holding back from gestures that would advance a long-term solution limits any potential gains of a well-considered arrangement.
Placing prior restrictions on the achievements to be gained by an arrangement while holding back from military action leaves Israel with one course of action: staying passive and giving up on any initiative regarding the violent forces at play in Gaza. Any arrangement will be temporary and limited, as it will not change the power balance in Gaza by incorporating the Palestinian Authority in governance. Without striving for a long-term solution, any temporary lull will eventually lead us back to square one – rising violence along the southern border.
Experts agree that Gaza can be rehabilitated without compromising Israeli security. Many in our government even agree. Yet in order to achieve any substantial improvement in the lives of Gazans, talks with Hamas must be driven by the long-term goal of establishing a Palestinian state. That is why a right-wing government that fundamentally objects to a Palestinian state is simply not equipped to resolve the Gaza crisis, and any arrangement would be fleeting by definition. In contrast, Israel’s progressive base understands that a Palestinian state is a vital national security interest. The Left understands Israel’s interests vis-à-vis Gaza and is therefore better equipped to advance a solution that would provide safety for Israelis and stability throughout the region.
Accordingly, the goal of this paper is to reorganize what little real debate there is in Israel about Gaza in the proper context: progress towards a long-term solution in the form of two states. That is the only framework for achieving a real end to the crisis. Along the way, Gaza can be turned from a seemingly intractable problem into a lever for broader stability.
At this point, Hamas wants to ease suffering in Gaza, for fear of a domestic uprising such as almost occurred this year. It is keeping up attacks against Israel because no such gains have been reached. The leadership in Gaza will not make do with the lull that Israel hopes for, with the population in such a dire humanitarian and economic condition. Hamas cannot afford to be seen as waving a white flag before either Israel or Fatah. The security coordination between Israel and the PA in the West Bank, which has not resulted in major gains for the Palestinians, has branded the PA as collaborating with Israel. Any conciliatory gestures towards the PA would paint Hamas in the same light – as long as Israel does not give the Palestinians carrots in the form of progress towards a long-term solution. Only if Hamas sees the PA as advancing its own interests – a Palestinian state – rather than Israeli ones, will trust be possible between the two Palestinian factions.
At present, relations between Hamas and Fatah are based on hostility and deep mistrust. Hamas refuses to disarm and let the PA’s security apparatuses into Gaza; Fatah refuses to enter Gaza and participate in governance unless Hamas hands over its weapons. The PA will only re-enter Gaza if Hamas hands over its arms to Abbas’ people, but Hamas will not be able to do so as long as this is seen as surrender and indirect collaboration with Israel. For each side to emerge from its entrenched position, they both need to show real gains to the public in the West Bank and in Gaza. An additional player in this dynamic is Egypt, whose regime is opposed to Hamas yet cannot come down too hard on the movement for fear of unrest on the Egyptian streets, where the Muslim Brotherhood is very popular. As both Israel and Egypt want quiet on the Gaza front, Egypt’s involvement in the current arrangement talks and in any future plan to rebuild Gaza is crucial.
What arrangement would most benefit Israel?
The flaws of the two leading approaches to Gaza in the Israeli government are detailed above. Netanyahu’s line of maintaining a status quo leaves Israel passive and will merely stall the next violent round for several months, at best. Bennett’s fantasy of a military victory is impractical and will turn Gaza’s humanitarian crisis into a full-blown catastrophe. This approach is not likely to be implemented as long as Jewish Home members are not the main policy makers on Israeli security concerns. In any case, neither approach helps Israeli security; as for improving the humanitarian situation in Gaza, Netanyahu’s line is cosmetic while Bennett’s suggestion is downright horrific in the humanitarian suffering it would cause.
We are faced, therefore, with an absurd state of affairs. While a long-term resolution – and lack thereof – is what is shaping Palestinian policy, the Israeli leadership is doing all it can to bury the peace process. Netanyahu prefers to “manage” the conflict rather than resolve it not because it is intractable, but quite the reverse – because the price of a resolution would be to evacuate settlements and withdraw from parts of the West Bank. That is how we reached the current point: Israeli governments have been sacrificing the safety of southern communities for years, with no hope in sight, in order to preserve settlements in the West Bank. It is clear why Netanyahu’s government is trying to remove the peace process and the two-state solution from public debate. As long as voters do not demand that their leaders restart the peace process to protect Israeli interests, citizens will remain mystified as to why these attacks are coming from Gaza and why the government is doing nothing to solve the problem. Without a long-term diplomatic solution on the table, more Israelis are calling for a violent, massive assault upon Gaza.
That is exactly why the peace process must be brought back into the focus of public debate, with the end goal of establishing a joint Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, uniting the two territories under a single leadership. This will preserve Israel as the democratic and safe state of the Jewish people, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence – a country secure in its borders and in its vision. Establishing a Palestinian state will serve Israel’s national and security interests. The government’s failure to deal with the Gaza crisis proves yet again that throughout his entire premiership, Netanyahu has failed to come up with a viable alternative to the two-state solution that would keep Israelis safe without becoming citizens of an apartheid state. Since both Fatah and Hamas are desperate to show gains on the diplomatic front, restarting peace talks together with rehabilitating Gaza would help both Palestinian movements move towards cooperation without being seen as weak. Israel’s goal in this matter is to get the PA as involved as possible in governance in Gaza.
Israel must strive to deal with Gaza’s immediate problems – improving the humanitarian and economic situation, opening the border crossings with tight supervision of people and goods passing, allowing Gazans as much freedom of movement as possible, permitting Gazans to work in Israel again and creating economic ties, in exchange for the cessation of rocket fire and incendiary weapon attacks. This should go hand in hand with new infrastructure projects such as a seaport, desalination systems and power plants, also funded by the Gulf States – as part of the overall logic of working towards a two-state solution. All this should be carried out with the cooperation of regional and international elements that would supervise affairs with Gaza.
Working consistently to make life better in Gaza is an Israeli national security interest. Keeping this up must also be a matter of good will, so that the entire process does not grind to a halt the minute another rocket is fired. Improving the lives of Gazans and making positive gestures in exchange for cessation of terror and compromise will strengthen moderates and create deterrence – as more violent elements will be loath to undermine these benefits for daily life in Gaza. The success of such a plan, immediately and certainly down the road, will prove that two states are not only the fairest solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also the safest one – and an arrangement that would best serve Israel’s interests.
Our current leaders have been striving for years to sever Gaza from the West Bank, as part of a “divide and rule” approach to weakening Palestinian society. This is supposed to help maintain the status quo and thwart progress towards a two-state solution. Many in Israel now (falsely) believe that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza has made it a de-facto sovereign state, and thus terrorism coming from Gaza can only be explained as primal hatred of Israel that has nothing to do with the daily troubles of the people living there. Yet violent Islamist attacks coming from Gaza do not diminish the plight of the population. The suffering of millions is the reason for Hamas’ insistence that Israel and Egypt lift the blockade. The popular discontent, which was primarily aimed at the Hamas government, was channeled into violence against Israel.
Severing Gaza from the West Bank, so that it is not part not of any final-status talks (meager as they may be), is part of the current government’s policy on the conflict. On one level, Netanyahu is leading a conservative approach based on maintaining the status quo and preventing diplomatic progress with the Palestinians while minimizing harm to security – whether because he believes the conflict cannot be resolved or has no desire to do so. On another level, the settler Right is calling for a more activist approach, represented in government mostly by the Jewish Home party but also by parts of the Likud.
In reality, neither approach can benefit from a military operation in Gaza. Netanyahu is refraining from any moves that could lead to unpredictable and undesired outcomes, while the settler Right has largely come to terms with removing Gaza from the vision of Greater Israel (although some fanciful factions in the Jewish Home still hope to rebuild the Gush Katif settlement bloc). Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett, flanking Netanyahu from the right, is leading a hawkish demand for forceful action that would lead to a military victory and topple the Hamas government. That is the reason for Bennett’s objection to a negotiated arrangement (although it is hard to predict whether the government will fall if the terms of an agreement are brought to vote). Defense Minister Lieberman has not taken a clear position, but has indicated that he is not part of the talks led by Meir Ben Shabbat, the national security adviser. Needless to say, that our minister of defense allows himself to simply ignore such talks is sheer absurdity and irresponsibility.
Netanyahu’s approach is pragmatic up to a point, as he acknowledges that no real gain can come of a violent escalation that would lead to military intervention, while his government would pay a very real political price. For Netanyahu there are clear political advantages to his conflict management policy – regarding Gaza, but also in the general Palestinian context and on the Iranian front – since Hamas is a convenient demon for stoking public fear and helping Netanyahu with his base. Aside from offering Israelis nothing but despair, the major flaw in this approach is that it keeps Israel passive. When Israel acts as though it has nothing to gain regarding Gaza and merely wishes to avoid confrontation, Hamas keeps the power and initiative. Indeed, in recent months, Hamas has decided the timing and scope of every round of violence. Moreover, Netanyahu may not think that the price Israelis are paying for this management of the conflict is too high: a round of violence every few months, a military operation every few years, and fields burned in the south meanwhile. Yet judging by recent rumblings, Israelis are no longer willing to accept this price as a given. Southern communities, who are the primary victims (on the Israeli side) of the current situation, have voiced especially loud criticism. Coincidentally, many communities along the Gaza border have been traditionally affiliated with the Israeli Left. Netanyahu should be upfront with his citizens and explain that his policy is sentencing them to life under Gazan violence.
Bennett’s approach, meanwhile, is to ignore reality and experience. In modern conflicts, and especially asymmetrical ones, there are no total victories. Hamas cannot be defeated and forced to surrender. Even if we do get rid of Hamas somehow, other organizations, far more extreme, will take its place – such as the Islamic Jihad or the Salafi Jihad currently operating in Gaza. Talk of victory and the illusion that all we need is a bit more effort to beat Hamas for good is bad for Israeli deterrence. The worse life gets for Gazans and the less they stand to lose, the less they will care about retaining current assets. Our goal, therefore, should be to create significant assets in Gaza that will motivate Hamas to keep the peace. Bennett’s massive military operation would cause heavy damage, strengthen extremist groups, destabilize Israel’s relations with moderate Arab countries, heighten frustrations among Palestinian citizens of Israel and further weaken Israel’s international standing. To make matters worse, the international community will be much less willing to invest in rebuilding Gaza if the new infrastructure is set to be destroyed in Israel’s next strike.
Since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative council elections in 2006 and violently took control of Gaza in 2007, Israel and Hamas have been embroiled in an ongoing conflict. To date, this has included five military operations and endless shorter rounds of fighting, with Israel striking Gazan targets in response to fire at southern communities. For almost ten years, Gaza has been under blockade with all border crossings closed (including along the Egyptian border). In recent years, Israel has also shifted to treating Gaza as a political entity that is separate from the West Bank. At the same time, the PA under Abbas and the Hamas leadership in Gaza are at loggerheads, despite several reconciliation agreements and short-lived unity governments, the most recent one in 2014.
By now, Gaza is in the throes of a severe humanitarian and economic crisis, exacerbated by the last major military operation in 2014 (Operation Protective Edge). The accepted official figures paint an undeniably dire picture: Gaza has one of the lowest GDPs in the world, an unemployment rate of 42% (as of 2016) and a 40% poverty rate. Almost half of the population lives without food security, the power supply meets only a quarter to a third of demand, and there are severe shortages of water and fuel. With almost no possibility of exiting or re-entering Gaza, roughly 2 million people are essentially living in a huge open-air prison. Since 2014, the Israeli government has led a policy of opening border crossings in exchange for restraints on terrorism. This flies in the face of recommendations by national security chiefs and especially by the IDF, which has repeatedly called upon the government to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
Gaza is currently ruled by Hamas – an Islamist terror organization that originated in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The movement’s fundamental ideology is to take over all of historic Palestine, apply Sharia law there and expel the Jews. Traditionally, Hamas has shown no inclination to compromise. In recent years, the transformation from a violent resistance movement to a governing power has forced Hamas to tone down its positions and agree to a compromise – albeit temporary – in the form of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, as stated in a document of principles issued last year. Nonetheless, contrary to Fatah, Hamas still refuses to recognize Israel or its agreements with the PLO and to relinquish the principles of armed resistance. For Hamas, a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders is a temporary situation, the end goal being an Islamist Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Other Islamist organizations are also active in Gaza. These groups are more radical than Hamas and at times even work against its interests. Some are affiliated with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Recently, after a three-year disconnect, Iran and Hamas renewed their close relationship, which includes financial aid, weapons development and military training. Hamas controls the population in Gaza with harsh measures and governs through oppression. The severe plight of the people is compounded by the lack of any political horizon. On the whole, Palestinians see the Trump administration as an extension of Israel’s right-wing government and harbor little hope that his ‘deal of the century’ will offer them fair terms. Affairs reached boiling point when the US embassy opened in Jerusalem last May – for Palestinians, conclusive proof that the US has abandoned neutrality and, like Israel, is indifferent to their feelings and fundamental demands.
These domestic and external circumstances combined to create a wave of popular protest in Gaza. The unrest was initially aimed at the Hamas government, which had only a 30% rating approval when the protests began several months ago. However, Hamas quickly regained control, diverted the demonstrations to the border with Israel and reframed them as Return Marches. With this double victory, Hamas both diverted domestic discontent away towards Israel and gained public support when the protests resulted in civilian casualties. Terrorist operatives infiltrated the masses of civilians demonstrating along the border and tried to break through the fence with Israel and harm both Israeli forces and civilians.