An alternative strategy for Israel in Gaza

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to embrace the hiatus and Egyptian engagement as an opportunity to end the cycle of violence.

FISHING BOATS on the coast of Gaza. (photo credit: REUTERS)
FISHING BOATS on the coast of Gaza.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent US failure to muster a two-third’s majority for a UN resolution condemning Hamas violence was not taken lightly by the terrorist group. While it celebrated the result, it did not lose sight of the dramatic change in the numbers: Many more countries voted for censuring Hamas than voted against. The organization’s international isolation was again manifest in full view.
Still, external difficulties are the least of Hamas’s concerns. Internally, it faces mounting criticism for its failure to provide the basic needs of the Gaza Strip’s two million residents – with water, electricity, health services and employment topping the list.
As demonstrated by last month’s round of violence along the Israel-Gaza border, misery breeds violence. And although Hamas has managed to channel that misery against Israel, indications are that it is quite worried about an Arab Spring-like uprising turning against its rule.
A Qatari pledge of $150 million for Gaza fuel and civil servants’ salaries helped calm the situation. However, that pledge expires in four months. This pause must be used effectively to change the situation, otherwise, another violent eruption is just a matter of time.
One party has tried to do so since the end of the last war in 2014: Egypt. Supported by energetic UN envoy Nikolai Mladenov, Egypt has been working tirelessly to stabilize the situation. Regrettably, while Cairo and Mladenov deserve much credit for establishing and repeatedly restoring cessations of hostilities, they have not yet succeeded in mobilizing an Israeli and US pro-active engagement, without which no long-term stability is possible.
In fact, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to embrace the hiatus and Egyptian engagement as an opportunity to end the cycle of violence. Initially, his “strategic response” was confined to a sigh of relief. Challenged by his more extreme coalition partners, he recently coupled this with threats to escalate military response, which he clearly and wisely wishes to avoid.
Likewise, Washington’s approach has been self-contradictory. On one hand, the Trump administration declares support for Gaza stabilization; on the other, cutting funds to all Palestinians due to displeasure with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority has exacerbated Gaza instability.
Commanders for Israel’s Security, however, has developed a comprehensive approach to getting out of the endless circle of violence. The non-partisan CIS represents the overwhelming majority of retired IDF generals, the Mossad, the Shin Bet General Security Service and their police equivalents. The organization calls on the Israeli government to discard passivity and take the initiative, by seizing on Cairo’s energetic engagement and access to all parties; persuading Washington to change course by using carrots – not just sticks – with the Palestinians; and involving like-minded Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gaza donors.
THE PROPOSED CIS strategy for Israel involves three interlocking components: a robust ceasefire understanding and mechanism, a comprehensive Gaza rehabilitation, and restoration of PA management of the Gaza Strip. All three, CIS argues, must be implemented concurrently, yet gradually. And this must be conditioned on strict adherence to the ceasefire and to other Hamas undertakings, including returning the remains of Israeli soldiers and releasing civilians it is holding in captivity.
The logic of the three-legged-strategy stems from a reality whereby: 1) There can be no stable ceasefire without resolving the humanitarian situation, thus rehabilitation is essential; 2) Because the donor community for Gaza reconstruction refuses to strengthen Hamas or bypass the PA, restoring PA management is essential; and 3) Since these donors also refuse to see their investment go up in flames (again), a robust ceasefire mechanism is needed.
For this approach to work, Hamas must agree to yield control over the Gaza Strip; the PA has to agree to assume responsibility for it; and Israel has to undertake to lead all its elements – including convincing Washington.
Based on Israeli and other sources, CIS has reasons to believe that the more sober Hamas leaders, Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniya, have imposed their will on others so that Hamas would yield civil control to the PA, while giving up weapons may come later. However, PA President Mahmoud Abbas seems adamant in insisting on an all-or-nothing approach in which either Hamas disarms or the PA stays away.
For that to change, Israel has to lead the gradual approach: Provide Abbas with a security safety net until Hamas is disarmed; utilize Egyptian good offices in obtaining Hamas’s commitment to restrictions on its armament, specifically to end all assault tunnel construction; persuade Washington to mobilize donors to provide Abbas with a financial safety net (including for the West Bank); and use its other potent levers to convince Abbas to take over Gaza’s civil management and help him in that effort.
CIS’s 286 battle-hardened generals are not naïve about the prospects for getting all this done before another round of violence erupts. Yet, they are convinced that trying now may avert that next round, and that should this effort fail, Israel’s security challenges will not be more demanding than they are now.
Moreover, a sincere effort to implement the combined security-diplomatic-economic approach will serve Israel’s interests, even if it does not succeed. The regional and broader international community would likely exhibit greater understanding should Israel then need to use force.
Bringing all players to accept the three-layered initiative and play their part in a synchronized manner is a monumental task. Consequently, active, even aggressive, Israeli leadership and US engagement are essential to preventing another Gaza war, after which the same players would face the same challenges.
Amnon Reshef is a retired major general, a former commanding general of Israel’s Armored Corps, and the chairman of CIS. Nimrod Novik is a former senior policy adviser to prime minister Shimon Peres, a member of the executive and steering committees of CIS, and the Israel Fellow of the CIS’s American partner Israel Policy Forum.