MAIN FINDINGS: Findings of the second quarter of 2015 indicate a high level of frustration among Gazans, with half of the respondents stating that they are considering emigration from the Gaza Strip. This is the highest percentage ever recorded in our polls.
– The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, Public Opinion Poll No (56) – June 9
Groups like Islamic Jihad have been a part of what many consider to be a deteriorating status quo in Gaza, where Hamas’s rule has been challenged by splinter organizations and terrorist cells who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
– The Jerusalem Post, June 27
We must initiate an international initiative for the reconstruction of the [Gaza] Strip at the civilian level in exchange for [Hamas] ceasing its rearmament. Reconstruction for ceasing rearmament. We have a big interest in civilian reconstruction of Gaza.
– Education Minister Naftali Bennett, Channel 2, June 27
The first of these excerpts underscore how counterproductive the measures, suggested in the third excerpt by Naftali Bennett, are. The second excerpt underscores how futile they are.
I voted for Bennett in 2013 and might well have voted for him in 2015, had I not thought it more important to vote against the treacherous Herzog-Livni “twofer,” and cast my ballot for Netanyahu. This was not because I had great expectations of Bennett, but because, since on security and foreign policy he, ostensibly, had the most hawkish positions of all electable candidates, he seemed to be the “least of all evils.”
Sadly, however, on several occasions, he has given much cause to doubt that assessment.
His weekend interview on Channel 2’s Meet the Press was one of them.
In it, Bennett called for a change in policy towards Gaza, and then proceeded to suggest a formula, liberally laced with the fashionable buzzwords “initiative” and “creative,” which is virtually guaranteed to make matters worse – whether it succeeds or fails.
To his great credit, Bennett has a remarkably impressive biography, both as an officer in some of the IDF’s most elite special forces, and as a successful hi-tech entrepreneur.
It is perhaps his successful past in the military and in business that makes his short-sighted (to be charitable) policy proposals all the more disappointing.
Vote Bennett, get… Herzog?
Surprisingly – some might say disappointingly – in the interview, Bennett expressed his willingness to embrace a somewhat less robust formula than that articulated in the recent election campaign by the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog.
Indeed, Herzog also spoke of the “desperate” need for reconstruction in Gaza, declaring “... Gaza desperately requires economic reconstruction,” (The Jerusalem Post, February 8). He went on to call for “a binding resolution calling for the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip in exchange for very significant reconstruction.”
Clearly, this is strikingly – some might say, startlingly – similar to what Bennett called for in his interview. However, whereas Herzog called for the demilitarization of Gaza, i.e. the disarmament of Hamas, Bennett was significantly less demanding. Rather than call for disarmament – i.e. stripping Hamas of its arms – Bennett merely called for ceasing rearmament – i.e. permitting Hamas to retain its current level of arms.
Of course, both proposals, Herzog’s harder line and Bennett’s softer line, are wildly unrealistic, both in their chance of ever being accepted by Hamas, and their chance of bringing about any positive outcome, if they were accepted.
The call for Hamas to abstain from being a militarized organization in exchange for enhancing the welfare of the civilian population is about as plausible as trying to tempt a carnivore to become a herbivore with promises of a choice selection of the finest veggies.
For Hamas to forgo its military prowess, or the endeavor to enhance it, would be tantamount to forgoing its raison d’etre and the fundamental rationale, not only for its founding, but its continued existence – as brief perusal of its charter would show.
Moreover, the increasingly conciliatory overtures made toward Hamas only serve to reinforce the Islamist organization’s conviction of the merits of its obdurate rejectionism.
After all, it has seen Israeli attitudes soften dramatically over the decades, despite enduring Palestinian intransigence.
The message that Israeli “pragmatism” conveyed was inevitable: Arab concessions are unnecessary.
This was driven home most graphically by the disengagement from Gaza which proved that if the Jews are confronted with sufficient resolve and violence they will concede everything – for nothing. Arik Sharon’s defiant dictum in 2002: “The fate of Netzarim [a Jewish community destroyed by Sharon in the 2005 disengagement] is as the fate of Tel Aviv” was now indelibly inverted in the minds of the Arabs, who were now – understandably – convinced that “the fate of Tel Aviv will be the fate of Netzarim.”
The Bennett-Herzog formula is as futile as it is counterproductive – and totally detached from the recalcitrant realities of the region.
But before elaborating further on this, it is important to remember that according to the Oslo Accords, Gaza is supposed to be demilitarized today. The fact that it has become a burgeoning arsenal, bristling with increasingly deadly tools of war, despite a stringent land and sea quarantine, should give any serious-minded person cause to doubt the prudence and plausibility of any proposal based on the assumption that a verifiable, enforceable and durable restriction on arms is feasible.
But even under the highly fanciful assumption that Hamas would agree, in good faith, to refrain from rearming, the question immediately arises as to how it would sustain its rule against challenges from even more extreme elements, either within the Gaza Strip or from the increasingly powerful jihadist groups in Sinai – which clearly would not be bound by any commitment by Hamas.
As if to underscore this threat, on Wednesday, Haaretz published a report headlined: “ISIS vows to topple Hamas in Gaza,” warning that “Islamic State insurgents [are threatening] to turn the Gaza Strip into another of their Middle East fiefdoms.”
The International Business Times ran a similar piece a day earlier titled: “Isis in the Gaza Strip: Jihadists threaten to topple Islamist Hamas rule,” with the ominous caveat that “Hamas’s rule in Gaza has been threatened by Salafists from Islamic State.”
These warnings follow a spate of articles, from wide-ranging sources, over the past year, providing details of the growing presence of Islamic State-affiliated elements and the prospect of a mounting challenge to the rule of Hamas.
Surprisingly enough, when questioned this week on the Voice of Israel radio, on Bennett’s support for engaging Hamas, Jeremy Saltan, a prominent activist in Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi party, replied: “What we have been witnessing over the last few months is actually the Islamic State taking up roots within Gaza as well as being responsible for most the rockets that have started to ‘drizzle down’ once again...
“... the idea is to try... and do something... to have some quiet down south, to make sure that we don’t see a takeover by more extreme elements... That is something that certain people, within the government, including Minister Bennett... are... looking into.”
Weakened Hamas vs strengthened ISIS?
So that’s the big plan? To weaken Hamas, which allegedly is not responsible for most of the firing against Israel, so, somehow, it can then restrain its more radical opponents, which allegedly are responsible... and which would not be party to any understanding on arms restrictions with Israel? Really? In his Meet the Press interview, Bennett stipulated that measures will have to be put in place which would ensure that “not a grain of explosives would be smuggled in, or a centimeter of tunnels excavated.” But with Hamas defanged, just how can that be ensured/enforced without a massive Israeli presence on the ground within Gaza, was not hinted at, never mind fully explained.
The inevitable/unenviable predicament that any agreement on demilitarization, whether it was honored or violated, would place Israel was succinctly articulated by none other than Shimon Peres.
He cast doubt on its credibility over time, asking rhetorically, “Even if the Palestinians agree that their state have no army or weapons, who can guarantee that a Palestinian army would not be mustered later to encamp at the gates of Jerusalem and the approaches to the lowlands?” Moreover, even if it was honored, he warned of the consequences: “... if the Palestinian state would be unarmed, how would it block terrorist acts perpetrated by extremists, fundamentalists or irredentists?” (The New Middle East, 1993)
Insurgency in Sinai
This of course is a question of equal pertinence regarding Hamas today – facing not only challenges from “extremists [and] fundamentalists” in Gaza itself, but increasingly from jihadist cross-border elements in Sinai.
Bennett’s proposal for reconstruction in exchange for a freeze on rearmament was predicated on a long-term truce, hudna, with Hamas, with much of its efficacy hinging on effective Egyptian prevention of arms smuggling.
This is a hopelessly optimistic premise on which to base long-term policy prescriptions. For as this week’s assassination of Egypt’s prosecutor-general starkly illustrates, the future of Egypt is still shrouded in grave uncertainty.
There is certainly no guarantee that the current regime, with its like-minded attitudes toward Islamist-ruled Gaza, will endure. If it does not, there is no guarantee its successor will have any interest in restraining the flow of arms into Gaza.
But even if it does endure, and strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can retain his hold on power, there are serious doubts as to his long-term ability and motivation to impose law and order in Sinai. Indeed, as I was writing these lines, news came in of a series of coordinated, lethal attacks on Egyptian forces in Northern Sinai that left scores of soldiers dead.
Egypt in five years?
This is merely the latest – albeit one of the most deadly – episodes in the jihadist insurgency in Sinai, which “is seeking to topple the Cairo government and has managed to defy one of the toughest security crackdowns in Egypt’s history.” (Reuters) With the cost of restraining the insurgents spiraling ever higher and increasing challenges in Egypt proper, President Sisi may well find himself compelled to siphon off resources from Sinai to bolster his regime closer to home.
This problem is likely to be greatly compounded no only by the growing Islamist threat from Libya in the West, but by friction with Ethiopia over its construction of a massive dam on Egypt’s lifeline, the Blue Nile. If, as is likely, these tensions continue to escalate, Cairo would have to allot massive resources to deal with this existential threat – and have little inclination or ability to enforce stability and security in remote Sinai.
The security implications for Israel are as clear as they are grave, and Gaza, reconstructed or otherwise, under the control of Hamas, defanged or otherwise, could well be overrun by forces even more bloodcurdling than the current Islamist theocracy.
Deconstruction not reconstruction
The only way that Israel can determine who rules Gaza – and who does not – is by retaking and holding it. In light of experience, present events and prudent projections, this should be abundantly clear. (The same might eventually prove true for Sinai – but that is a very different kettle of fish and a topic for a different column.) The only way Israel can retake and hold Gaza without having to “rule over another people” is by humanitarian relocation/rehabilitation of the non-belligerent population elsewhere – out of harm’s way. Indeed, judging by the findings of the recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (see introductory excerpts) this is already the desire of a significant proportion of the population. These numbers are likely to be greatly enhanced if such relocation/rehabilitation is accompanied by generous funding to help facilitate it.
So Bennett and Herzog are right to call for an international initiative to resolve the problem of Gaza, but instead of the objective being the reconstruction of Gaza, it should be the deconstruction of Gaza.
For the residents of Gaza the grim alternative is being subjected to continuing rounds of death and devastation every time Israel is forced to repel attacks that emanate from that territory. For Israel, the choice is bleak. As the last encounter a year ago clearly signaled: There will either be Arabs in Gaza, or Jews in the Negev. It is increasingly unlikely that there will be both.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (www.strategicisrael.org)