Does Israel have a moral obligation to prevent Gaza's collapse?

Does the Palestinian sense of victimhood make political change impossible?

A GIRL WALKS by the remains of a house in the northern Gaza Strip that was destroyed during Operation Protective Edge. (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS)
A GIRL WALKS by the remains of a house in the northern Gaza Strip that was destroyed during Operation Protective Edge.
There are numerous indicators that the situation in the Gaza Strip has gone from bad to worse. And this has direct implications for Israel. The likelihood of another war with Hamas-controlled Gaza has increased; environmental dangers such as sewage and diseases have become more acute; and Israel’s moral obligation as a neighboring country with the ability to help has become more pressing.
It is difficult to say which of the many crises facing Gazans is the most severe. But it seems that much of the problem stems from the lack of a steady supply of electricity. Sewage treatment plants cannot be operated and large-scale desalination is impossible. Over-pumping of aquifers has resulted in seepage of seawater into the groundwater.
Ahmed al-Yaqoubi, a hydrologist who is an adviser to the Palestinian Water Authority, told the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies last month that almost 90% of the drinking water in Gaza exceeds the maximum salinity standard of the World Health Organization.
Untreated sewage causes sickness and even deaths inside Gaza, and the backflow into the Mediterranean regularly pollutes the beaches of Ashkelon and Ashdod.
The lack of a reliable electricity supply means that hospitals are unable to provide adequate treatment and industry is crippled. This leads in turn to lower productivity, further deterioration of the economy, lower purchasing power, and fewer goods shipped into Gaza. Unemployment is estimated to be around 50%; the number of commercial trucks passing through the Kerem Shalom crossing into Gaza has dropped from over 1,000 to about 350 per day.
It is widely recognized that Hamas, a party that has enjoyed wide popularity among Palestinians at least since 2006 when it won a plurality of the vote in the Palestinians’ last national elections, is to blame for the situation in Gaza.
Hamas’s refusal to adopt a more pragmatic approach to politics has resulted in both Egypt and Israel imposing a blockade on its borders. Egypt has blamed Hamas for aiding Islamists operating in Sinai who have killed hundreds of Egyptian soldiers.
And Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. Much of Gaza’s limited resources – materials, know-how, manpower – have been channeled into building attack tunnels and developing weapons. Hamas has proved to be completely incompetent at caring for the two million Palestinians living in the Strip, despite extensive humanitarian aid. And it has refused to give up its military control over Gaza, thus blocking any possibility of reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority.
Still, neither Israel nor Egypt has an interest in seeing the situation in Gaza deteriorate to the point of a total breakdown, even if this were to lead to the demise of Hamas.
The collapse of Gazan society would increase the likelihood of another war with Hamas; but it would also be a humanitarian disaster which the world, including Israel, has a moral obligation to help prevent.
Complicating the situation further are the conflicting messages being sent out from the security establishment. While the IDF has warned that Gaza is on the verge of a humanitarian crisis, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has rejected this prognosis, saying on Monday that “the situation in Gaza is difficult but there is no humanitarian crisis.”
There are a number of steps that Israel could and should take to alleviate the suffering. Hooking up Gaza’s US-funded sewage treatment project to electricity is one thing. Another positive step would be to help build and operate a desalination plant. Laying a new high-voltage line and even building a Gaza harbor are additional ideas.
However, as long as Hamas cleaves to its Islamist ideology and rejects any form of cooperation or recognition of Israel, it is difficult to envision any of this happening.
We wonder whether the essence of Palestinian identity precludes the possibility of a change in political leadership. Does the historical narrative that Palestinians tell themselves, their fixation on supposed Israeli injustices, their strong sense of victimhood, make it impossible for a more pragmatic Palestinian political leadership to take over from Hamas and Fatah?
But maybe it is possible for a dynamic, less dogmatic and more positive political leadership to change direction and start focusing efforts on building a viable state for the Palestinian people that fosters peace at home and with its neighbors. They can start with Gaza.