Articles

On Gaza

In Politics on January 28, 2009 by Filmosaur Tagged: , ,

Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza is now largely concluded (though occasional strikes are still occurring), but the questions of objectives and success remain. The strikes targeted Hamas, the militant organization that also happens to provide the only political authority within the Gaza Strip, and which has the destruction of the state of Israel as one of its stated aims. While the ostensible immediate catalyst for the Israeli strikes was the firing of rockets from Gaza into Israel, the broader question surrounds the willingness of Israel to tolerate what amounts to a militant base camp on its southern border.

Israel has little to gain in terms of long-term security by its latest action. In spite of numerous Hamas casualties and the removal of several important figures from the leadership, Palestinian support for Hamas remains strong in Gaza, and with it the threat it poses. Short-term gains, including a reduction in the number of rockets fired into Israel, temporary disorganization within Hamas that may reduce its operational capabilities, and the domestic political benefits of perceived operational success to Israel’s leadership, cannot be discounted, but they are merely tactical results and do not address the big question: Will Israel accept a Hamas-led Gaza as a permanent political fixture?

World political opinion suggests Israel has little choice but to do so. The two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem has been so widely accepted that to suggest anything else would immediately set off a firestorm of criticism toward Israel, and likely result in more direct support from the world to Gaza in spite of Hamas’ leadership there; this is precisely what the Israelis do not want. As long as Hamas can supply the people of Gaza with their basic needs and political leadership more effectively than any other acceptable alternative, their power base will remain secure, and they will thus demand inclusion in any Palestinian state.

Further military action on the scale seen recently holds significant risks for Israel. If losses rose to levels deemed unacceptable to the Israeli people, or if Israel found itself attempting to occupy Gaza again, the price of such action in domestic political capital or global tolerance for the use of force in self-defense would rapidly outweigh any immediate benefits. Further, such actions would only serve to strengthen the position of Hamas in Gaza and among its state sponsors elsewhere in the Middle East.

In spite of these limitations, Gaza is small and relatively easy for Israel to isolate, and the threat it presents is one of comparatively little real danger. It encompasses only a minor segment of territory claimed by the Palestinians for their nascent state, and is politically, economically, and religiously insignificant compared to the West Bank, and here lies an option for the Israelis to consider if they have indeed resigned themselves to a true Palestinian state. The West Bank is currently run by the Palestinian Authority, hardly a model of political strength or unity, but infinitely less objectionable to the Israelis than Hamas. Divisions between these two Palestinian organizations have left the Palestinian cause divided, and here is where Israel should seek its long term solution.

Perception in the Muslim Middle East and around the world tends toward seeing Israel as anti-Palestinian; this must change. Embracing the PA to a degree it has not previously, Israel has an opportunity to encourage the development of a practical alternative to a Hamas-led Palestine. The purpose of this is purely pragmatic; the Israelis have no love for the PA, and it may ultimately be doomed to fail, but if it is seen by its own people to be an even marginally effective conduit for assistance and authority, it may last long enough to begin to discredit Hamas as the only mechanism of real Palestinian political control.

Perception is more important than reality, and the Palestinians and the world must see Israel as committed to the success of a PA-run Palestinian state. This will involve a juggling act of increased commerce and loosening travel restrictions for West Bank Palestinians while limiting the domestic political fallout from such actions. It is a precarious situation, one that could easily be disrupted by even very limited terrorism originating from the West Bank. Israel must convince the Palestinians themselves that they are committed to the two-state solution, but only under the PA. Assistance must be overt and played-up, while continuing restrictions and limitations on Palestinians being taken “under consideration” for lifting. Significant investment in the West Bank should be encouraged, with contracts given to Arab firms from states that have little to gain by antagonizing Israel. The goal is a rapid and obvious improvement in the standard of living the West Bank, with the PA receiving most of the credit.

A revitalized PA thus becomes the vehicle by which statehood may be achieved. Though nominally independent, any Palestinian leader in the West Bank understands that their success (and even survival) depends on Israeli support. Similarly, Israeli leaders know that they must maintain such a Palestinian state if they are to reap the benefits of their investments there. In such a mutually beneficial relationship, there is no room for an organization such as Hamas.

The real and immediate prospect of a Palestinian state, even a partial one composed of just the West Bank initially, may well be enough to isolate Hamas sufficiently in the Palestinian community that they are seen as the problem rather than the solution. If Israel is to be successful in achieving the long term objective of security while establishing a Palestinian state, it must use the influence it currently has in the territories to shape the eventual form of the Palestinian state. As long as Palestinians and much of the rest of the world see it as an obstacle to peace, Israel will not succeed; it must act to encourage the world to identify Hamas as that obstacle, and allow the focus of international pressure to shift naturally to it.

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