Israel needs a new strategy in Gaza

Gaza remains a place where more than two million people have no hope, and that is why the ceasefire will remain temporary.

YAHYA SINWAR, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, has proven more than once he is pragmatic and is willing to deal with Israel.  (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
YAHYA SINWAR, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, has proven more than once he is pragmatic and is willing to deal with Israel.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
Israel and Hamas reached another temporary ceasefire agreement, this time with Qatari mediation. The suitcases of dollars carried by the Qatari emissary Mohammed al-Emadi helped to secure the deal. Once again Israel promised if the quiet remains, it will allow for some infrastructure projects in Gaza to advance – including a high-voltage electricity line from Israel into Gaza. Qatari fuel shipments by truck into Gaza will resume, enabling the crippled electricity plant to provide a few more hours a day of electricity. The fishing zone permitted by Israel will be expanded once again – like and accordion. The most important words here are “temporary ceasefire agreement.”
Long-term calm cannot be bought with $17 million from Qatar, even if it becomes a monthly payment (and it will not be a monthly payment). Gaza remains a place where more than two million people have no hope, and that is why the ceasefire will remain temporary. Gaza is a place where Israel has no long-term strategy and its continued short-term strategy is supporting a dangerous pro-Muslim brotherhood alliance.
It is probably too late to think about replacing Hamas with a more sympathetic regime. Too many years have passed and Hamas’s hold on Gaza has become too strong and too powerful. Hamas is extremely brutal toward its opposition within. No Balfour-type protests by young Gazans against Hamas could possibly bring about a regime change. There is the hope that someday, in the post-Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reality, the Palestinian people will once again have the opportunity to elect their leaders in democratic elections. But even if that comes to be, it is very hard at this point to imagine that Hamas will agree to free elections for a new regime that will govern both the West Bank and Gaza. Many Palestinians would like to see elections take place for reforming the institutions of the PLO, which is supposed to represent Palestinians in all of Palestine and around the world. Hamas wants to be part of the PLO, but Fatah has not agreed to the formula that Hamas has demanded – equal representation – so it is likely not to happen.
Is the current reality of temporary ceasefire understandings with periodic bursts of violence really the best we can do? While Israel and Hamas will not admit it, they have essentially been negotiating together these so-called “understandings.” Even without this admission, both Israel and Hamas have chosen to be pragmatic rather than ideological. Neither Israel nor Hamas want a full-scale war. Israel does not want to defeat Hamas because Israel does not want to rule Gaza once again. Hamas cannot defeat Israel, but could cause much more significant damage and loss of life to Israelis – soldiers and civilians – but it knows the heavy price it will pay for such actions. Third-party mediators step in each time there is another round and try to bring back calm, but this has really become the theater of the absurd. Not only is this not a solution, the increasing role of Qatar is dangerous, and if one looks beyond the immediate need for calm, it is against Israel’s interests – and those of Egypt, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, and those countries are now Israel’s strategic partners in the region. Qatar is part of an alliance which includes Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, and this should be a flashing red light for Israel.
It may not be possible to negotiate directly with Hamas, but my recommendation as someone who has negotiated directly with them in the past is to break the taboos we have placed on ourselves and try. Yahya Sinwar, the effective leader of Hamas in Gaza, has proven more than once that he is pragmatic and is willing to deal with Israel. I am quite sure that Israel’s intelligence forces know how to get the direct telephone numbers of most of Hamas’s leaders, including Sinwar. I have some of their numbers without having an intelligence operation at my disposal. It is possible that if a senior Israeli official, say the defense minister for example, called Sinwar directly, the Hamas leader on the other side of the phone might refuse to speak. That happened to me with Khaled Mashal when he was in Syria during the years that Gilad Schalit was in captivity. Perhaps Israel should try to start by issuing some statements regarding possible benefits that could be translated into reality, rather than the constant mantras of
public threats against Hamas, which is the norm. Call it attempts for one-sided normalization, since normalization has become such a popular term. Even if Hamas’s leaders won’t heed the call for some normalization, it is not for the benefit of the Hamas regime, but rather for the benefit of Gaza’s two million people. Renewal of Gaza’s economic relations with Israel, the West Bank, Europe and the Arab Gulf is in our interests and theirs. The money that can be generated from normal economic activities has far more value than the suitcases of dollars carried by the Qatari emissary. There are many possibilities of work in Israel for Gazans, even in the kibbutzim and moshavim around Gaza that have suffered so much from the balloon and kite fire bombs. There is even the possibility of rebuilding an industrial zone at Erez or some other place along the Israel-Gaza border where investments, even from the Gulf, could come and create many jobs for Gazan who could even once again work shoulder to shoulder with Israelis.
Israel could have a great positive impact on how Gazans see Israel, and this is what is needed to develop a longer-term strategy for our shared future. The young generation of Gazans who have never crossed the border into Israel have no understanding of the reality of Israel. A professor friend of mine in Gaza told me that his students who grew up under the Hamas regime and only hear the Hamas rhetoric do not believe Israel is a real country. They believe that it is possible that one day Israel will just disappear and they will “return” to their homes that no longer exist. This is their reality. Since 2005, Israel has not occupied Gaza from within, but it does have significant control over it. Israel and Egypt have complete control over the external borders of Gaza. Israel holds most of the controls over what goes into Gaza and what comes out. Israel also controls Gaza’s airspace and coastal waters. Gaza is almost completely at the mercy of Israel’s goodwill. There are a great deal of common interests between
Gaza and Israel. When there is no electricity in Gaza and the waste water treatment system collapses, it immediately impacts on Israel by the flow of raw sewage into Israel and into the sea that flows from Gaza right up to the Ashkelon desalination water plant. Uncontrolled spread of coronavirus in Gaza – or any other disease – will end up reaching and impacting Israel as well. There are many more examples of mutual interests between Israel and Gaza.
The main thing is that Gaza is not going anywhere, nor are the more than two million people who live there. It is therefore necessary we begin to implement policies with a long-term view of the future and leave behind the cycles of violence and short-term ceasefires. Maybe this is also the way that we will succeed after six years of also finally bringing home the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul and the repatriation of Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed to their families.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.