Gaza is in the news again – which is almost never a good thing.
On Tuesday, Israel took out three senior Islamic Jihad terrorists in Gaza in response to a massive rocket barrage a week earlier, which came following the death of yet another senior Islamic Jihad figure after a protracted hunger strike in an Israeli prison. Southern and central Israel are being battered by an onslaught of rockets from Gaza and the Israeli Air Force is carrying out a series of airstrikes against terrorist targets in the Hamas-controlled enclave.
I am writing this while flying over the Mediterranean toward Israel, wondering whether the rockets that are creeping ever closer to Ben-Gurion Airport will prevent us from landing. My colleagues at the paper are discussing where to seek shelter in our Jerusalem office building in the event of a rocket attack.
We’ve been here before.
Gaza is a place shrouded in myth and mystery. Among the myths is that it is the most densely populated territory in the world (untrue: while there are various ways of calculating population density, the Gaza Strip is not the most densely populated territory according to any of them; places like Macau and Monaco are significantly more packed); that Israel alone controls its borders (again, untrue: Egypt controls Gaza’s southwestern border, including the Rafah Crossing between Gaza and Sinai, as well as partial access to Gaza’s territorial waters, and it tightly restricts passage through both); and that rockets fired by terrorists in Gaza at families in Israel are a form of self-defense (that this is untrue should be self-evident, but it is repeated by terrorist apologists nonetheless).
What is true, however, is that Gaza is a morass of militancy and misery. While there is significant wealth in Gaza – showcased in videos of gleaming shopping malls, seaside villas and beachfront resorts that occasionally make their way onto social media despite carefully orchestrated disinformation efforts – that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small number of senior Hamas officials and their cronies, who have long made a practice of skimming foreign aid funds and tax revenues to line their own pockets.
Most Gazans live in abject poverty and unemployment in the territory is staggeringly high. Women, LGBTQ individuals and non-Muslims are subject to discrimination, harassment and persecution by the terrorist’s Islamist rulers. It is not a happy place.
As this paper noted in our Wednesday editorial, this week’s events have followed a familiar pattern of Palestinian terror and Israeli retaliation. Civilians on both sides are held hostage by the terrorist groups that initiate these hostilities time and again and it is often them – not the terrorists – who pay the highest price. “Until there is a fundamental change in the Hamas-controlled territory,” we wrote, “we have no choice but to resign ourselves to that cycle.”
It is time to break the cycle.
Israel is not the first to wonder what to do about Gaza. For millennia, the territory and its inhabitants have vexed their neighbors and the various powers that have risen and fallen in the region. In the Bible, Gaza is described as being inhabited by the Philistines, a seafaring people who frequently clashed with the Israelites. Alexander the Great laid siege to Gaza for months before capturing it in 332 BCE. The territory has resisted conquest and changed hands numerous times throughout history. Jews have lived there at various points and the city had a yeshiva as recently as the sixteenth century.
Egypt occupied Gaza following Israel’s War of Independence but held the territory at arm’s length, refusing to fully annex it while also withholding any meaningful self-rule. While Israel seems to have explored handing Gaza back to Egypt after taking control of the territory during the 1967 Six Day War, there is general agreement that Egypt was not at all interested.
Gaza became a hotbed of terror and extremism, serving as a launchpad for deadly Palestinian terror attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds of Israelis. Heart-wrenching as it was for Israel to pull thousands of Jewish families out of their homes during the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, many Israelis were glad to hand the keys to the territory to the Palestinians and rid themselves of the problem once and for all.
Of course, that is not at all what happened. Shortly after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Hamas seized power in the territory, throwing members of rival Palestinian faction Fatah off of rooftops and imposing a fundamentalist version of Islamic law on Gaza’s inhabitants.
Hamas and its fellow terrorist groups, chief among them Palestinian Islamic Jihad, have since fired tens of thousands of rockets and missiles at Israeli towns and cities and have dug attack tunnels into Israeli territory, sparking several wars and military operations that have claimed thousands of Palestinian and Israeli lives. Rampant corruption, an Israeli-Egyptian blockade aimed at preventing weapons smuggling into the territory, and repeated rounds of Hamas-instigated warfare have devastated Gaza’s economy and fostered a pervasive sense of hopelessness among its residents.
Over the years, various proposals for how to deal with Gaza have been floated by an assortment of actors. The more realistic ones have tended to include several basic elements: international investment in Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, the easing of Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on travel and commerce, and Hamas’s agreement to a long-term truce with Israel.
The previous Israeli government presented a plan that contains all of the above. In September 2021 then-Foreign Minister Yair Lapid set forth a two-stage plan based on what he called “economy for security.” In the first stage, basic utilities and services would be rebuilt and enhanced in exchange for Hamas’s commitment to long-term quiet and the international community’s participation in efforts to prevent the terrorist group from arming itself.
In the second stage, a concerted international effort would pump massive investment into Gaza, an artificial island with a seaport would be constructed off the coast, the territory would be connected to the West Bank via a transportation link, and the Palestinian Authority would assume civilian and economic control over the territory. “Life in Gaza will look fundamentally different,” Lapid said at the time.
Prime Minister Netanyahu had previously explored a similar plan. In July 2018 Israeli media reported that Netanyahu was on the verge of presenting a proposal for Gaza that would include a durable ceasefire, the rehabilitation of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and a transfer of power from Hamas to the Palestinian Authority.
If successive Israeli governments have accepted some version of the same formula, it seems clear that the primary obstacle to its advancement is Hamas, without which nothing – including attacks by other terrorist groups – happens in Gaza. While it may be tempting to argue that Hamas need not take broader considerations into account as it prioritizes its militant agenda above the welfare of Gaza’s residents, this is patently untrue.
A host of international actors – from Egypt to Turkey to Qatar and others – exert leverage over Hamas and have exercised it at various points, including to end previous rounds of warfare. Moreover, as popular discontent in the territory grows, Hamas will come under increasing stress from within. We need not rely on Hamas’s goodwill or concern for those within its domain.
The combination of internal and external pressures, if carefully and calculatedly applied, may well force Hamas to begrudgingly consider a rehabilitation scheme for Gaza that would see the territory’s overall situation dramatically enhanced in exchange for a protracted cessation of hostilities.
The cycles of intense warfare and tense calm between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza need not be a fait accompli. There can be another way.
Israel has stated its desire to dramatically improve the lives of the people of Gaza. All it asks in return is a sustained period of calm and an end to attacks targeting Israelis.
The ball is in Hamas’s court and there are those who can force the group to pick it up. Whether or not Hamas will pick it up tells us if the quiet at the end of the current round of hostilities will last.