Operation Protective Edge is Israel’s third major assault against the Hamas regime in Gaza since the latter took power. In the previous operation, Pillar of Defense, Israel bombed Gaza from the air; ground forces were not used. In the operation before that, Cast Lead, Israeli ground forces entered Gaza and operated there for a few days. Neither operation put an end to the threat to Israeli civilians from Gaza.
Israel faces an apparent dilemma.
Public opinion is strongly opposed to a restoration of Israeli control over the hostile Arab population of Gaza. At the same time, it seems clear that no lasting solution to the problem of Gaza can be conceived unless the Hamas regime is disarmed, or at least put in a position where it can neither build up its inventory of rockets nor replace those it fires at Israel. Despite Egypt’s hostility to the Hamas regime, Egypt has proven incapable of preventing the seepage of rockets, explosives and the tools to produce weapons into Gaza.
There is a solution, however. Israel needs to isolate the Hamas regime hermetically from all its sources of supply in the outside world. At a minimum, Israel needs to take over and hold permanently a “sterile zone” along the border between Gaza and Egypt wide enough to fulfill two requirements: First, it must be too wide to tunnel under. Second, it must enable Israel to extend the security zone which currently almost surrounds Gaza so as to complete the encirclement of Gaza on three sides, southwest, southeast and northeast, the sea forming the northwest, fourth side of the box.
This security zone is not simply a fence. It is a multi-layered defense system which includes a strip of open, unobstructed land several hundred meters wide on Hamas’ side of the border fence and another on Israel’s side.
These open zones are critical to enable Israel to detect threats approaching the border well in advance, and to provide a buffer between the border fence and civilian as well as military targets (such as kibbutzim and army bases).
Put together these requirements and Israel’s new security perimeter has to be drawn no closer to the Egyptian border than north and east of the Gazan town of Rafiah, which is located on that border.
The IDF has just advised 100,000 Palestinians to leave the area along the Gaza perimeter, and they’d be very wise to do so posthaste. Israel is not required to let them back. According to international treaties, in a war situation Israel has the right to remove a hostile enemy population from areas where their presence constitutes a security threat, as long as it does not remove the population onto Israel’s territory. In other words, Israel can force the population of Rafiah and its environs to move further northeast into the Gaza strip, beyond the security zone Israel needs to create along Gaza’s border with Egypt, and to stay there.
That’s exactly what Israel should do. It is not a very nice thing to do, but firing rockets indiscriminately at five million Israeli civilians is not a nice thing to do either. And unlike the rocket fire, it would be legal under international law.
Even before Operation Protective Edge started, Gaza was not a pleasant place to live. It will be an even more unpleasant place after the operation ends. Thousands of residential buildings will have been destroyed and a lot of infrastructure. Israel will have to cut off the supply of significant products: concrete for construction, because it can be used to build fortifications; most kinds of fertilizer, because they can be turned into bombs; pipes and most kinds of unfinished metals, because they can be used to make rockets; and most machine tools. Of course, the population of the southwestern end of Gaza will have been turned out of their homes, and there is not exactly an abundance of available housing in Gaza.
Israel cannot use force to expel people from the Gaza Strip, but it can make things easier for those who want to leave. It could offer, say, 5,000 euros per person and airfare to any family that wants to start life over somewhere else.
They don’t have to emigrate to wealthy Western countries; there are plenty of places in the world that look better than how Gaza will look in a couple of weeks.
Israel should encourage as many Gazans as possible to leave and do everything it can to facilitate their absorption in distant lands. Even if Israel were to spend up to a billion euros a year on this project, less than one percent of our GDP, the contribution it would make to our security worth more than any alternative use of the money.
Who knows? Perhaps in 10 years the leaders of Hamas, surveying their remaining rockets and the wreckage of their ghost towns, may themselves decide to take advantage of Israel’s aid in emigrating. Bon voyage!
The author is director of policy research at the Kohelet Policy Forum. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of Kohelet Policy Forum.