Encountering Peace: Israel’s strategic choices regarding Gaza

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, speaking about the Gaza Strip at the Herzliya conference, noted correctly that today Gaza is totally dependent on Israel.

Moshe Yaalon
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, speaking about the Gaza Strip at the Herzliya conference, noted correctly that today Gaza is totally dependent on Israel. Even years after Israel’s disengagement from Gaza, Israel remains in full control of Gaza’s borders, airspace and coastal waters.
The siege on Gaza is a joint Israeli-Egyptian venture that has totally closed Gaza off to the entire world.
Egypt’s siege is more hermetic than Israel’s since the takeover of Egypt by Abdel Fattah Sisi and the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt has closed the Rafah border with Gaza almost totally and has destroyed nearly 1,000 tunnels that fueled the Gaza economy. Gazans can no longer travel to the world via Egypt and only a few are allowed to enter Egypt for humanitarian purposes.
Israel’s border with Gaza is also closed to Gazans, except for humanitarian purposes such as emergency health care, which is approved and paid for by the Palestinian Authority. Gazans wishing to travel abroad to attend conferences, for university, or for tourism are not allowed to do so, except in rare cases. The Gazan economy is controlled by imports that Israel allows in from Israel, the West Bank or from abroad. Almost no goods or commodities are allowed to exit Gaza.
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Gaza is a lonely island, a tiny territory with 1.8 million people living in what can only be called a prison. The prison keepers are a combination of Israel, Egypt, Hamas and the PA, as well as the complacent international community which does little to ease the situation. The only words to describe the situation of the people of Gaza are hopelessness and despair.
I cannot even imagine what it is like to live in Gaza. It is impossible for me to comprehend how people live there with no hope of a better future. What kind of dreams can young people in Gaza have? There are schools and even at least five working universities. But what can a university graduate in Gaza hope to do with their education? Over the past years I have been approached by Gazans who received scholarships to study abroad. They asked my assistance in getting them permits to enter Israel to attend visa interviews in various embassies and consulates.
In most cases I was able to help. But once they received the visas and had their invitations to attend universities abroad in their hands, the Israeli authorities refused to grant them permits to travel abroad via Israel, even through Jordan, and they remained imprisoned in Gaza with their dreams flushed down the drain. Egypt won’t help them leave either.
Now there is talk in Israel that the continuation of Hamas’s control over Gaza is perhaps the best policy option for Israel. Hamas is facing threats from more radical groups within Gaza and its rocky relationship with Egypt has led to a new Hamas commitment to the Egyptians to fight terrorism threats coming from Gaza into the Sinai. Israel’s military and security chiefs believe that Hamas is there for the long run, so why not try to work out some kind of long-term cease-fire arrangements? Israel, as has been reported, is considering easing the siege on Gaza and even allowing some Gazans to seek employment in Israel once again, as was the case for tens of thousands of Gazans before the disengagement.
These steps are wise and will help ease tensions in Gaza and even perhaps postpone the next round of warfare between Gaza and Israel.
The way that these policy decisions are implemented are perhaps even more important that the policies themselves.
If the policies are aimed at empowering Hamas and sustaining Hamas’s grip on Gaza, then these policies are unwise and should be reconsidered. The need to ease life in Gaza should be coupled with the need to empower moderates at the cost of extremists rather than the other way around. Hamas should not be awarded for its intransigence.
The PA led by Mahmoud Abbas must be the benefactor of policies that will ease the lives of Gazans, even if the PA is waging an international diplomatic offensive against Israel; it has rejected the armed struggle and has no arsenal of missiles or battlefield of tunnels designed to kill Israelis. The choice between Abbas and Hamas is still strongly in favor of Abbas.
Yes it is true that Abbas has no real control in Gaza, but he still wields considerable influence there with an increasing number of Gazans fed up with Hamas rule.
Israeli work permits for Gazans should be administered through the PA in cooperation with Gaza’s private sector business leaders. Israel could demand that Abbas’s PA security forces be reinstated at the Gaza side of the Erez crossing in exchange for granting work permits. The same could be implemented on the Gaza side of Kerem Shalom for goods coming in and out of Gaza and in conjunction with Egypt on the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing.
Hamas would have little choice and would have to agree to these demands. All actions aimed at easing Gaza’s economic pressures should consider the way to empower Gaza’s moderates and the return of the PA to control of Gaza.
In principle the very best way to deal with Gaza would be in the context of a regional plan in which Israel would finally accept the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace. In this initiative Israel could request that the Arab Sunni moderate states of the Arab League convene a regional and international summit where Gaza’s future would be placed on the table. A plan could be fostered by Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and other Gulf States together with the PA on the reintegration of Gaza into the PA including the “decommissioning” of Gaza’s military forces with the assistance of an Arab League-led international force. This is obviously a political process which would take time to develop and build support for, but it could be launched by an Israeli initiative once the Arab Peace Initiative is accepted as the basis.
Temporary moves by Israel to ease life in Gaza, while positive in their intent, must take into account longer- term policy imperatives, which must include the demise of Hamas and other extremists. None of that seems to be on the Israeli agenda, which has done exactly the opposite of what it should be doing – strengthening the extremists at the expense of the moderates. This must change.
The author is the co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and in English as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.