How to bolster morale and resilience on the Gaza border

What are the options when an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight?

By ELI BEN MEIR
March 1, 2019 02:41
4 minute read.
Protesters near the Gaza border last November.

Protesters near the Gaza border last November.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Much has been written about the deteriorating situation in Gaza and the best possible ways to alleviate it. Everyone claims that an escalation of violence is not in the best interest of either side, and that Israel is still in a position of deterrence. Or is it? People on the Right consistently back the prime minister, while those on the Left extol diplomacy as the only way to resolve the conflict.

This issue will take its place at the forefront of public discourse in the coming weeks, as we get closer to the April 9 elections. It is likely that Hamas and the other radical organizations in the Gaza Strip will try to generate challenges for Israel’s security situation in an effort to influence the outcome of the elections. As a result, each of the political parties vying for seats in the next Knesset configuration will have to demonstrate how it envisions solving the Gaza problem.

It’s important though, in my opinion, to recognize that at the current time, Israel has neither a political nor a military plan to end the Gaza conflict. As a result, I believe that the correct policy is to continue managing the conflict in an effort to maintain the status quo and strengthen our deterrent capabilities. We need to absorb the minor infractions, namely intermittent rocket fire on Israeli communities, and ensure that as minimal damage as possible is incurred by these events.

This argument is based on the following basic assumptions:

• Hamas controls all military and civilian aspects of life in the Gaza Strip. In addition, there are a number of terrorist organizations such as the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad that operate in Gaza, whose interests are not always aligned with those of Hamas.

• It is in the best interest of the Palestinian Authority that the situation in Gaza remain unstable, since this harms Israel and Hamas. Moreover, the PA is making great efforts to undermine Hamas.

• After a long period of inaction, Egypt and Qatar are once again endeavoring to exert influence on the Gaza Strip by acting as a mediator between Hamas and Israel.

• The Europeans have become a practically irrelevant player with respect to events taking place in the Middle East in general, and in Gaza in particular.

In light of these basic assumptions, and despite the IDF’s clear military capability of occupying Gaza, we must ask what strategic purpose this would serve. Overthrowing the Hamas regime would require prodigious military intervention, would generate a large number of casualties, and would require that the IDF remain in Gaza for an extended period of time.

And even after all of this, it’s not clear if an alternate regime would be preferable – especially considering that an organization like Islamic Jihad might be the one to fill the power vacuum. We must acknowledge that although the PA would probably vie for control, it is not very popular in Gaza.

More limited military conflicts, such as Operation Protective Edge, will not do anything to reduce Hamas’s control over Gaza in the long run. All it will do is damage its military capabilities for a limited period of time, severely damage infrastructure, and lead to the deterioration of the already dire living conditions there.

It’s safe to say that a long-term ceasefire would not lead to an end of the conflict. If an agreement were reached between the two sides, this would constitute a de facto recognition by Israel of Hamas as the legitimate ruler in Gaza. Israel would gain time and not be forced to solve the conflict militarily, but it would not solve the fundamental concern of Hamas being entrenched in the Gaza Strip. Either way, such an agreement would leave the ball in Hamas’s court. It would be able to break the ceasefire and initiate escalation against Israel at any moment it deems convenient.

Another option is for Israel to resume carrying out targeted assassinations. I have no doubt that this would lead to an extensive barrage of rocket fire by Hamas into Israel and another high-intensity round of fighting. Another result would be that other senior Hamas officials would most certainly modify their modus operandi, which would make additional targeted assassinations all the more difficult to carry out. In short, this is not a viable option.

Another option is reaching a long-term political solution through diplomacy achieved through international intervention (Egypt, Qatar and the US). The Palestinian Authority has absolutely no incentive to reach such a resolution of the conflict. In fact, it is doing everything in its power to undermine the stability of Hamas’s regime in Gaza. It would be a mistake on Israel’s part, however, to reach any sort of agreement that is not an overall solution coordinated with the Palestinian leadership. And I do not believe that there is any foreign body that would succeed in promoting such an initiative with the PA.

Consequently, I think we need to embrace a complete change of mindset. Since we can all agree that there’s not much hope of strategic changes taking place on the other side of the fence, we need to hunker down and make changes on our side. We need to offer economic benefits to Israeli residents of the Gaza envelope, reduce the amount of bureaucracy they face with respect to compensation for damage caused by rocket fire, offer them incentives to remain in the region – and find creative and effective ways to bolster their morale and resilience in the coming days.

The writer is a former head of the IDF’s research intelligence division.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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