Lessons from the breach

Gaza must be rescued from the Palestinian Taliban.

Hamas gunmen 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hamas gunmen 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Hamas prepared the border breach between the Gaza Strip and Egypt for many long months. It also prepared public opinion by manufacturing a "night of darkness" a few days before the breach, thereby sharpening in the world's consciousness the Gazans' sense of siege and desperation. Yet the objective of the breach operation was political, not humanitarian: to force Egypt to break the siege of the Strip and demonstrate to the Gazan public that only Hamas, by force of arms, could alleviate its suffering. Still, there is no certainty that Hamas will in the long term be seen as the winner of the breach. That depends to a great extent on whether the other actors in this drama, each in its own way, draw the requisite lessons from their experience. Israel has a number of lessons to learn. First, economic siege and military operations alone cannot achieve the strategic objective of ending Hamas rule in Gaza. Limited Israeli military activities cannot shatter Hamas's military power, the primary buttress of the Hamas regime in Gaza. Second, the economic hardships imposed on Gaza by the Hamas takeover must be contrasted with substantial economic improvement in the West Bank, and Israel has to agree that the Gaza-Israel passages be operated by the Palestinian Authority. Third, progress in peace negotiations with the official Palestinian delegation is the most effective weapon against Hamas. It's time these negotiations got serious. TURNING TO Egypt, Cairo must conclude that its soft policy toward Hamas has failed. Muslim Brotherhood rule, Hamas-style, in Gaza, constitutes a genuine danger to the stability of the regime in Egypt. If the latter's border with the Gaza Strip remains wide open, it will become responsible for an additional 1.5 million poor. If the border is not sufficiently closed, weapons, ammunition and Iranian funds and instructors will flow into Gaza, while in the opposite direction fanatic Islamist terrorism will enter Egypt. Cairo cannot neutralize the ticking bomb in Gaza with gestures to Hamas: placating Hamas in Gaza will neither alter its nature nor its close links with those who seek to topple the Mubarak regime from within. If Egypt wants to ensure its own domestic stability, it must accept that the elimination of Hamas rule in Gaza is in its own interest. This means preventing any and all funding and weapons from reaching Hamas by effectively sealing the border, agreeing with Israel and the Palestinian Authority on alternative border transit arrangements and - of no less importance - ceasing to attempt to mediate between Hamas and Fatah. THE BORDER breach halted a prolonged drop in Palestinian public support for Hamas; but the Fatah movement has not yet completed the internal process needed for it to present itself as a ready alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza. Hamas will not fall unless there is such an alternative. The breach brought the people of Gaza momentary relief. They stocked up on needed provisions and breathed different air. Yet even if the border were to remain open, it would not constitute a solution to Gaza's poverty. Egypt is not a primary market for Gazan produce, and investments that create new jobs will not flow into the Strip as long as Hamas rule prevails. Gaza's natural link is to Israel and its economy. Yet this link cannot exist under Hamas rule. The international community empathizes with the suffering of the Palestinian population. Yet all it can actually do is send humanitarian aid via relief organizations. There is no chance, and no sense, for an international force to deploy in Gaza. No chance because after the Afghanistan and Iraq experiences, I don't see any country volunteering to carry out a similar task in Gaza. And an international force makes no sense because as long as Hamas rules it will not permit such a force to deploy; and once it ceases to rule there will be no need for an international force. WHAT IS required to ensure that Gazans have an economic horizon and a way out of poverty is a "Marshall Plan" for economic reconstruction and development. A group of private-sector companies can be formed to commit to investing in Gaza as soon as the legitimate and internationally recognized government restores authority over the Gaza Strip. Investments could be directed to transportation projects, tourism enterprises, labor-intensive industry and natural gas production. Gaza has no political horizon without an economic horizon. Gaza's 1.5 million inhabitants are the main casualties of Hamas rule. Hamas exploited Israel's September 2005 withdrawal not for economic development, but rather to turn the Strip into a launching pad for rockets and missiles aimed at Israel. Only a joint Israeli-Egyptian-Palestinian effort, supported by the international community, will rescue Gaza from the rule of the Palestinian Taliban and afford its inhabitants a chance of freedom and dignity. The writer, a Labor member of Knesset, was Israel's deputy minister of defense until July 2007. This piece originally appeared on the Web site www.bitterlemons-international.org, an Internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East.