Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Latest Israel-Hamas Conflict and Where Israel Should Go From Here

Last December, 2008, after a renewed rocket barrage from Hamas ended hopes of an extended ceasefire, Israel launched a large-scale retaliatory air and ground assault on the radical Muslim group in Gaza.

Three weeks, 1300 Palestinian deaths, and $2 billion worth of devastation later[1], not much seems to have changed, other than potential election gains for some.[2] Hamas may be weakened, but it is not broken, and its rocket attacks have not stopped.[3] Moreover, Hamas still has the support of the majority of Gazans.[4]

Indeed, if anything, the situation seems to have gotten worse for Israel, not better. Moderate Arab governments, particularly those of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are under more intense pressure than ever to defy Israel and support their Arab brothers in Gaza.[5] Support for Israel across the world has further plummeted as a result of the deadly scale of the operations in Gaza.[6] Worst of all, support amongst Palestinians for the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, the government that Israel had hoped to bolster as a moderate alternative to Hamas, has all but evaporated, with Palestinians increasingly associating Fatah with Israel and thinking, perhaps rightly so, that Fatah does not have their best interests at heart.[7]

Although Israel demonstrated in the recent conflict that it can and will not hesitate to muster overwhelming military might, it has also shown that it can not achieve its goals through such force.

The fact that Israel had to intervene militarily in Gaza to try to fulfill its goals is indicative of the failure of its two-year-long attempt to isolate Hamas by blockading Gaza. In the short run, Israel had hoped that the blockade would cut off Hamas from its funding and weapons smugglers. In the long run, Israel had hoped that the blockade would make living conditions awful enough in Gaza for the Gazans to shift their support from Hamas to Fatah and maybe even to rebel against Hamas.

This complete blockade has not advanced either of Israel’s goals. It has not enabled short-term peace and has in fact worsened long-term prospects for peace: as the U.S.-Muslim Engagement Project stated in its recent publication, Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World, “Israel’s… isolation of Gaza… undermine[s] security for all” and has ended up “encouraging extremism.”[8]

Israel should seek to change its current strategy rather than to continue to compensate for its failure by making more incursions into Gaza. Egypt, too, should strive for a more effective strategy, as it fears the growing influence and appeal of Hamas and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, amongst Egyptians. In the coming weeks and months, particularly after the new Israeli government takes over, Israel should work together with Egypt to jointly lift sanctions on purely economic products and activities that cross the Gaza border while intensifying crackdowns on weapons smuggling, especially the smuggling tunnels that bypass the Egypt-Gaza border. The Egyptians should improve their enforcement of their section of the Gaza border to ensure maximum efficiency, perhaps by raising the salaries of border guards, giving bonuses to guards for each tunnel they find and destroy, or through some other means. Perhaps an international peacekeeping force could help police the border as well. In addition, the Israeli and Egyptian navies might do well to enlist the help of other navies, perhaps the U.S. navy, to help make sure no weapons are smuggled into Gaza from the Mediterranean Sea.

Lifting some economic sanctions does not mean completely opening the border or leaving it unguarded. Indeed, Israel and Egypt should maintain all of the checkpoints that guard the Gaza border and should conduct thorough checks on anything and everything that passes through to ensure that no weapons get in or out. Nor should Israel and Egypt lift sanctions on absolutely everything; they should use export control models like those of the United States or some other country to determine whether a certain product or material could possibly be used in a weapon or have other military applications.

With these conditions in place, it would not seem so perilous for Israel and Egypt to allow economic activity into and out of Gaza. Such activity would have great long-term implications for Gaza and Israel, slowly, but surely lifting Gazans out of poverty and giving them some semblance of a normal life, which they would think twice about risking simply for the sake of radical, lofty goals of jihad and the overthrow of Israel. Moreover, if Israel were to allow economic activity into and out of Gaza and refrain from constantly invading it, Gazans would have a chance at prosperity and a better life, and perhaps then Gazans would not blame Israel and the West for whatever problems they might have and might develop a more favorable view of Israel.

Such a shift toward a prosperous, moderate Gaza would do more harm to Hamas than all of the bombs and troops Israel has ever sent its way. The bulk of Hamas’ support comes from Palestinians dissatisfied with their poverty and mistreatment by Israel but also with the corruption of past Palestinian governments; indeed, one of Hamas’ earliest functions was garbage collection, which had been largely neglected by the Palestinian Authority.[9] If Gazans were allowed a chance to prosper and were free from periodic devastation from Israel, they would probably be more hesitant to support a group whose stated goal is to wipe out the state of Israel, regardless of any other services it provides, for fear of losing their wealth and security.

When Gazans start to believe that they can obtain better lives through moderate means, then they will stop pursuing radical goals and supporting radical groups, like Hamas. If the Israeli government has the courage (in light of the view of much of the Israeli public) to encourage this idea, it will pay off in the long run. With a new American administration in place and a new Israeli one to come, and with Israeli operations finally at an end, for now, this may be as opportune a moment as ever for Israeli policy to shift toward this goal – and long-term peace.

[8] (p. 41)

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