Critical Currents: The Gaza Syndrome

We can either repeat past mistakes or finally try something different.

naomi chazan 88 (photo credit: )
naomi chazan 88
(photo credit: )
Gaza is imploding, and once again everyone remotely involved is reacting according to a predetermined script. The Kassams are flying, Israel is bombing, the Quartet is consulting, humanitarian groups are appealing, and no respite is in sight. Rote responses to predictable actions may be emotionally understandable; they don't begin to address the ever-worsening Gaza Syndrome which now endangers the entire region. The situation in Gaza today is the end result of decades of isolation, abuse, manipulation and neglect. Egypt, Israel, the international community and the Palestinians themselves all share responsibility for this outcome. What happens there has, habitually, provided a stark preview of patterns that then radiate far beyond its limited confines. This was the case when Gaza became the depository of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in 1948, the cradle of the PLO in the 1960s, the breeding ground of Hamas in the 1970s, the ignition point of the first intifada in 1987, the initial home of the Palestinian Authority in 1994, the hotbed of violent Islamic extremism at the turn of the century, and now the focus of internecine strife. At each and every juncture, the noticeable deterioration in Gaza has been compounded, with tragic regularity, by an inability (or unwillingness) to delve beneath the surface and tackle its root causes. Events of the past few years have only served to accelerate these trends, starting with the increase in unfettered violence leading to Israel's unilateral disengagement from Gaza without either agreement with the Palestinian Authority or adequate transitional arrangements. The broadening of the appeal of Hamas was belittled in the name of democratization, and when the results threatened this very process, the imposition of an embargo only expedited the breakdown. Gaza is currently the locus of a spate of gang wars with extensive political overtones. THE PREVAILING anarchy has not been eased by the knee-jerk reactions it evokes. The US has chosen to sidestep the Gaza minefield if possible. Europe, by circumventing the PA in line with Quartet dictates, has undermined its already dwindling institutional capacities in the name of humanitarian relief. The Arab states have been unusually evasive in the face of widespread anomie, while Egypt is increasingly at a loss as to how to proceed. The Palestinians, in turn, are embroiled in nothing short of a civil war which inevitably spills over into violent outbursts against Israel's civilian population. Israel has responded to the latest spate of rocket attacks on Sderot in a sadly Pavlovian manner. The Olmert government, under immense domestic pressure, has intensified air strikes while continuing its efforts to delink Gaza from the West Bank. In doing so it has not only contributed to the growing chaos, but has played directly into the hands of the extremists who are counting on such a policy to thwart any progress on the diplomatic front. Fine-tuning repetitious (but scarcely successful) methods is not a way to correct mistakes, just as revenge is hardly a substitute for informed and crafted decision-making. It is high time to tackle the Gaza imbroglio directly and strategically. THE STARTING point for such an undertaking is to draw some clear conclusions from past experience. The first, and the most obvious, is that the situation in Gaza cannot be artificially divorced from political currents in the region as a whole and in the West Bank in particular. The containment approach, however convenient, has proven to be totally misplaced. Second, the quest for closure via military means is illusionary. Attempts to step up attacks cannot but backfire under these circumstances, yielding further cycles of senseless violence. Third, Israel - or, for that matter, any other party - cannot contend with the Gaza conundrum alone. This task requires a concerted effort by all concerned. And fourth, no minimal order can be restored in the area without the resurrection of the central authority structure decimated in recent years. The lack of a legitimate power nexus is wreaking havoc throughout Gaza and its environs. These lessons clearly narrow the options available. A wait-and-see stance, entailing immense restraint on Israel's part, is an invitation to further escalation which cannot but boomerang. In the same vein, stepped up attacks on extremist headquarters consistently generate even more retribution. This means that only a measured, collaborative, multifaceted approach aimed at achieving stability with responsibility has any chance of stemming the tide. The immediate steps required, which must be carried out in tandem, are not beyond reach. These include the declaration of a cease-fire in the West Bank as well as Gaza, the lifting of the embargo on the PA and its replacement with a series of monitored institutional and infrastructural rehabilitation measures, and the initiation of talks with a view to convening a negotiating table within the framework of the Arab League Initiative without any preconditions. A viable international presence, equipped with a material and political incentive package, is necessary to implement these moves. The road to the resolution of the Gaza calamity within the context of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is unquestionably long and tortuous. But the continuation of the present dynamic is utterly disastrous. Unless a joint and continuous effort is made to begin dealing rationally with Gaza on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War and the 60th year of the UN partition plan, the insanity that is now Gaza will be everywhere.