The political, security, humanitarian and economic crisis in the Gaza Strip has been on the Israeli, regional and international agenda for many years now. However, the disengagement from the Gaza Strip (Summer 2005) and the Hamas takeover (summer 2007) have created a unique situation that undermines Israeli interests and requires courageous decision-making. From Israel’s point of view, the situation in the Gaza Strip is not anymore its responsibility, since the withdrawal from this territory in 2005. The Disengagement Plan, however, states that Israel will continue to provide Gaza with water, electricity, gas and fuel and will control the passage of goods to Gaza. Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, Israel has imposed a land and sea closure that varies based on the developments on the ground and the intensity of conflict between the two sides. It is no wonder, therefore, that from the international community’s point of view, Israel has a significant responsibility for the situation in Gaza. The violent confrontations between Israel and Hamas, since Operation Protective Edge (summer of 2014) to this day, produce various, sometimes even “creative”, settlement attempts (e.g. the transfer of funds from Qatar), but they do not offer a real lasting solution to the crisis.
Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip is one of transferring the responsibility for the situation over to the “other side”: be it Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) or the international community. The argument’s essence is: “we are here and they are there”, and Israel therefore claims that it is neither its business nor its responsibility to find a solution. This kind of policy is certainly not appropriate for a country responsible for the humanitarian needs of Gaza, and in doing so Israel is burying its head in the sand. There is no escape from advancing a clear and courageous Israeli strategy towards the Gaza Strip. The guiding point of departure should be that the problem is at our doorstep and it does not really matter whether we are right or wrong. The reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, which occasionally comes up as “a necessary alternative that demonstrates Israel’s heavy hand and preserves its deterrence”, is contrary to Israeli interests. It is not without reason that Israeli governments, including the outgoing one, refrained from using this alternative. After all, it is preferable to deal with a rival such as Hamas, even if it is a non-state actor with an extreme ideology, rather than deal with chaos or the rise of even more extreme groups. In the end, after an extensive military move, Israel will likely face the same dilemmas, only at higher cost.
Israel should essentially be interested in preventing a comprehensive escalation in the Gaza Strip and attain a long-term ceasefire, as part of an economic-humanitarian arrangement, while preserving the option to move forward with the peace process, eventually leading to a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian final-status agreement. The proper way to achieve these two objectives is through a broad international initiative, that also includes Israel and other regional actors, for rebuilding the Gaza Strip. This initiative should address the main problems involved: the lack of infrastructure, primarily the shortage of electricity, the water problem, the collapsing health system, high unemployment, and the isolation from the world. It is obvious that the familiar counter-arguments immediately emerge: such a move will strengthen Hamas, the PA will oppose and jeopardize the agreement, Hamas and other organizations will continue smuggling weapons, and finally, it is not clear who will pay for such an extensive rebuilding initiative.
While these arguments are indeed legitimate and correct, at least partially, we should not use them to block all initiatives, or else the problem will remain with us. Currently, the peace process is stalled, and both sides are deeply skeptical about the prospects for its renewal, also due to the Palestinian split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. However, it should not discourage us, and perhaps even serve as a catalyst for action. Even in the view of Israel’s right-wing government, which is not particularly troubled by the political deadlock and does not seem to be concerned with the renewal of the peace process, a move to rebuild the Gaza Strip must be a major interest.
The proposed outline should include the following components: (a) an Israeli initiative to formulate an international plan – a sort of “Marshall Plan” – for the rebuilding of the Gaza Strip; (b) a rehabilitation plan to be led by the international community, that will include an economic-financial mechanism to support Gaza and provide a political umbrella; (c) involvement of the PA in the implementation of the plan (but this does not need to be a precondition, should the Palestinian leadership refuse); (d) participation of Israel in the process, including in terms of allocating funds for its implementation; (e) formulation of an international supervision mechanism to prevent the smuggling of weapons into the Gaza Strip.
The moral aspect should also lead Israel to take such action. Although Hamas is a non-state actor that is responsible to the serious situation on ground, Israel is facing a serious problem, for which it is partially responsible as well. The duty to protect Israeli citizens and the strategic security interests of the State of Israel are not in conflict with the need to acknowledge the harsh living conditions at our doorstep. Ignoring them seriously jeopardizes Israel’s long-term interests. Israel’s claim to be the only democracy in the region and an island of stability and pluralism obliges us to weigh the ensuing moral responsibility, and to initiate an urgent political-economic-humanitarian process to support Gaza. This will probably not be a perfect move, but a necessary one that serves a host of Israeli interests, and in any case its human and economic cost is lower than that of any other alternative.
Amb. (ret.) Michael Harari is a Policy Fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. He served as the Israeli Ambassador to Cyprus from 2010 to 2015.