We can no longer hesitate on the Gaza Strip - comment

Our room to maneuver is diminishing and time works against us.

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence (photo credit: REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence
The new government will certainly seek to revert to its predecessor’s agenda. However, the time bomb that is Gaza requires a paradigm shift and its placement as a focal point of national decision-making.
Eighteen years have passed since the start of the launch of rockets into Sderot. Since then Hamas has become an organized army with significant capabilities, operating in accordance with strategic objectives. In the offensive arena, it has set itself the goal of growing in strength in terms of its rocket capability in order to allow it to threaten and paralyze the routine of life in Israel. In the defensive arena, it aspires to deter Israel from a general confrontation because of the fear of the price in bloodshed that such a confrontation would claim.
Hamas is close to achieving its objectives. The freedom of action it exercises – from breaches of public order around the fence and to the sporadic firing of rockets into the center of the country – indicates the confidence of its leaders in establishing a balance of terror vis-à-vis Israel. This is the result of our policy of suppressing the problem and treating Hamas as a tactical nuisance. This policy – whether or not it was right at the time – must change.
The Gaza Strip has long since been more than a tactical nuisance. The determination we demonstrate in demarcating red lines in the Syrian arena, where we do not overlook even random shooting toward the Golan Heights by the Iranians and their proxies, must also be expressed here. Hamas’s light finger on the rocket “trigger,” its proven ability to disrupt the routine of life in the country in the blink of an eye, and to paralyze air traffic – all sharpen the understanding that this threat has become unacceptable. It seriously erodes our deterrent power and causes cumulative attrition damage to an extent not even reached by the Iranians.
The dilemma is complex. On the one hand, occupation of the Gaza Strip and the removal of Hamas are possible; not without a price, but the IDF is a very strong army and is up to the task. However, our history has proven that occupation of a territory in order to eradicate hostile entities has not led to moderate regimes and has forced our continued presence for many years. On the other hand, the option of recognizing the legitimacy of Hamas as a partner in dialogue and for entering into negotiations in order to create new conditions in the field, has so far been inconceivable.
THESE ARE questions awaiting the political leaders who need to consider the degree of political merit and the derived costs.
We can no longer allow ourselves to hesitate. Our room to maneuver is diminishing and time is working against us. Moreover, the population of Gaza itself – almost two million inhabitants – is showing signs of being a powerful time bomb that could explode in all our faces and at a magnitude that is totally beyond control – not by Hamas and not by us. With unemployment at about 60% and no hope, the population is even losing the fear of Hamas. When its patience is exhausted, chaos will reign in the Gaza Strip and on the border fence. This could ignite riots in Judea and Samaria, too, and lead to escalation and a popular uprising of an extent not previously seen.
It is clear, therefore, that the policy of postponing the end is over. A two-stage plan is required in which operation of the second stage will be conditional on the success or failure of the first.
First, there must be recognition of and dialogue with Hamas with the objective of trying to alleviate the anger and despair of the population and to distance the moment of collapse by creating levers of hope. The implementation of the effort should be conditional on arrangements that lead to disarmament and demilitarization of the Gaza Strip. This is not a romantic notion coming from “peacemakers,” but one that is of primary Israeli interest that needs to be presented as a “last chance” program. Failure of this stage will legitimize the second stage in which we will have to take military and political action to remove Hamas and forcibly disarm Gaza.
At this time the most important decision is the decision to decide!
A political-security group – headed by veteran and experienced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; the apparent Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who brings with him experience, creativity and determination; and Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, a brave commander who knows the Strip well – could successfully lead to such a two-stage plan. The plan, in both its stages, must integrate into the important and welcome American peace plan, including assigning to Egypt the responsibility of rehabilitating the Gaza Strip following its occupation.
Postponing the end will eventually light a fire of the sort that no supertanker will be able to contain.
The writer is a retired major-general who served as head of the Operations Branch and as commander of the Gaza Division.