Israel and Gaza: the way ahead

The latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be traced to decisions made since 2004. Its solution lies in a recognition of strategic reality, says Eóin Murray.

Eóin Murray
21 November 2012

Some years ago, in Gaza, a journalist advised me the biggest mistake foreign media make in covering the conflict is to over-report recent events: the last attack always seems the most important. But in the middle east, history is a reality relived each day. The sources of conflict are as important as recent events.

Today’s escalation can be traced to early 2004. Israel's then prime minister Ariel Sharon declared a new foreign-policy initiative: the hitnatkut (Hebrew for "cutting off") or "disengagement" from Gaza. Sharon would remove Israeli settlers and military from inside the unruly strip and hermetically seal Gaza. It would - in Sharon's eyes - mean the end of Israel's relationship with, and responsibility for, Gaza.

It was hailed as a bold move for peace. Even Pakistan spoke of nominating Sharon for the Nobel prize. The wily master-strategist appeared to have succeeded again. Upon removing the settlers from Gaza, Sharon set about realigning Israeli politics. He formed a new political party, while tightening his grip on the coveted West Bank.

His "masterstroke" also had unintended consequences within the Palestinian polity. After a fractured election process a split developed between the Islamic party Hamas and the western-backed Fatah movement. Hamas seized control of Gaza and cemented its grip on the tiny enclave. They dealt brutally with dissenters of any hue: from al-Qaida sympathisers to Fatah supporters and human-rights defenders. The Israeli-imposed siege on Gaza, a slow strangulation whose grip had been tightening for sixty years, was intensified. In practice this meant Gaza's export-goods - like strawberries and flowers - rotted at the border. Ordinary people were trapped inside with no access to basic necessities or health services, such as cancer-treatment facilities. In response Hamas developed an extraordinary network of tunnels which could deliver any product, within their price range, to the citizens of Gaza. The illicit practice even developed a customs-and-excise dimension.

The Hamas strategy was clear: slowly secure popular support through "good deeds" for the poor; try to increase freedom of travel to Egypt; and keep the Israelis at bay with intense rhetoric and the occasional border skirmish. Hamas boasted of a clear end game: liberation of their people from an oppressor.

Israel's strategy was to cripple Gaza, increase the international isolation of Hamas and invest in high-tech military equipment to keep rebellious rockets out of their southern territory. In the West Bank, Israel rapidly expanded the settlements, seizing every available hilltop. Israel's endgame was, according to one of Sharon's top advisors, to place Gaza in "formaldehyde"; to create a geographic and political limbo from which no one could escape.

At first the Israeli strategy appeared to work. However, events overtook Israel's desire for stasis. The failure to deliver peace in the West Bank undermined the credibility of Israel's claim that it was committed to peace with those Palestinians not linked to Hamas.

This credibility was further eroded by the Gaza war of December 2008-January 2009 and Israel’s poor response to the Arab spring. Israel fears the rise of democracy across the Arab world because it relies on a United States-brokered stalemate to keep it on top in a balance-of-power game. Now, the balance of power has slipped towards the people of the Arab world. For them the daily affront to dignity endured by ordinary Palestinians is the gaping wound at the heart of the whole region.

The exit strategy

Today Israel’s "formaldehyde strategy" has clearly failed. Hamas has clung to power and recent turmoil has strengthened their position. The free flow of arms from the Sinai desert now means that Israel faces the reality of an angry, oppressed and impoverished population in its back garden, backed by the Arab region's most significant political player – a Muslim Brotherhood-led Egypt.

So, Israel reverts to form and launches the latest offensive in Gaza. The offensive, and the Hamas response, ignores the laws of war, which insist that armies must be proportionate in their response and distinguish between civilians and combatants.

One of Israel's stated war goals is to "re-establish a deterrence effect on Hamas". But Israel also has an eye on its unstable northern neighbours. In order to establish military pre-eminence throughout the region Israel seeks to subject Gaza to its will. Now, the logic goes, other regional players will know who is in charge. But this strategy will, inevitably, tend towards extremism and escalation by all sides. Israel's strategy is reminiscent of Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.

Today, the only possible strategy for Israel to pursue is detente, not deterrence. Israel must shift to place human security and protection of civilians at the heart of its political objectives. A human-security approach seeks to protect people first. It acknowledges that people living secure lives have less to fear and less reason to see violence as their only recourse. It focuses on both Palestinians and Israelis.

A Gaza living in freedom, with a sustainable economy and a flourishing rule of law is far more likely to deliver peace than one trapped in poverty because of years of siege and occupation. This new strategy would also require Israel to dismantle the settlements truncating the West Bank and to allow a fully joined up and functioning Palestinian state based on the will of the people, peacefully determining their own future. This new strategy is the only hope for a just and lasting peace.

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