Once again, Israeli politicians and former generals are calling for a “major military operation” in Gaza to beat Hamas to the ground, to chop off the heads of the snake, to mow the lawn of terrorism, to round up the weapons, to rebuild deterrence. Some of the more extreme militarists among them are repeating the call to retake Gaza and to eliminate Hamas entirely. Others are calling to renew the policy of targeted killings. I guess they are all calling for that because these policies have worked so well until now?
The situation in the south of Israel is intolerable, and shooting rockets at the Israeli civilian population from Gaza is a war crime – there is no question about that. All Israeli governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens and to guarantee their safety. Like all Israelis, I, too, have friends and relatives in the communities around Gaza easily within shooting range of mortars and rockets. I expect my government to do more to resolve the situation in the western Negev.
But I know for sure that the use of more force will only bring more force in return from the other side, and in the end we will be left with many more dead people, mostly Palestinian non-combatants (many women and children among them), dead Israeli soldiers and Israeli civilians (in smaller numbers), and a lot of destruction, mostly in Gaza. We will have additional wounded bodies and souls on both sides, many of whom will desire revenge and more suffering.
Deterrence will not be rebuilt, because it never existed from the beginning. If Hamas hasn’t waged a full-scale war in the past years or months, it is because they did not see the advantage of doing so when it seemed that they might achieve easing of the siege on Gaza. Despite the obvious fact that Hamas’s military force is minuscule compared to the mighty Israeli army, and Hamas doesn’t have an air force or artillery, Hamas is not deterred from fighting Israel when it decides that it is ready to do so. Hamas has its own calculations – which seem impossible for us in Israel to comprehend – but fear of fighting, fear of losing and fear of death are not among the main constraints for not engaging in warfare.
There are enough people in Gaza who are willing to fight Israel and to die in doing so, and it is not because they are imbued with hatred from their mother’s milk. It is because of the reality that they live, which is so bleak, and their real belief that one day they will return to their place of origin inside of Israel.
SOME 80% of Gazans come from refugee families and they live with the belief that they have been treated unjustly by the world and by Israel, and that justice means that they will eventually return to their homes. In reality, there is no reason for them to honestly believe that return will one day be possible, but they have so little else to believe in, so why not hold on to the dream? For them, fighting Israel is part of their right to resist Israel’s siege on Gaza and the occupation of other parts of Palestine, whether that means the West Bank and east Jerusalem or all of the land between the River and the Sea.
The dream of Palestine being liberated is their hope for a better life. And why not? They don’t see Israel ever allowing the situation in Gaza to improve. They see Israeli governments’ continuous plans to divide Palestine and Palestinians into a fragmented nation, to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state anywhere in Palestine. They see the occupation as ongoing and unending and the Nakba as something that began in 1947 and hasn’t ended until now.
The total disconnect between Israel and the Palestinian leadership that has emerged in Gaza and has governed Gaza since 2007, prevents both sides from engaging in a process which could change the reality on the ground. Israel’s unwillingness to deal directly with Hamas equals Hamas’s unwillingness to deal directly with Israel. The result is the horrendous suffering of most of the two million Gazans and the Israelis living around Gaza, who periodically suffer from the attacks against them.
I don’t understand why Israelis expect Gazans to behave differently from how they behave today. Gazans have seen their lives destroyed repeatedly by Israel. There are thousands of crippled Gazans who daily suffer the results of the ongoing conflict. The rubble from the war of 2014 remains all around Gaza. Israel continues to use brute force against Gazan protests every Friday, because Israel knows that eventually, it won’t be 6,000 Gazan youngsters on the border, it will be a march of hundreds of thousands walking to and across the border. And then, what Israeli officer will give the order to open fire on so many thousands of unarmed civilians, including women and children in the front?
For those who agree that the situation is intolerable, and I am among them, it is time to come up with a new strategy. Those who continue to push for a military operation have no answer for what happens the day after. More force brings more force – that is for sure – so how about thinking about engagement, opening the siege, and ending the occupation preventing the Palestinian people from having a state of their own; employment, investment, cooperation?
There was a time when Israel actually encouraged joint projects with Gazans. There was a time, even after Oslo, when the permit regime was established: that Israel granted permits to Palestinian peace activists in Gaza to participate in joint projects with Israelis inside of Israel. (There are still peace activists in Gaza). There was a time when we even organized joint activities and conferences inside of Gaza.
But those times have been over since 2006. Over the past 13 years, Israel has prevented peace activists from Gaza to enter Israel. They are not in the categories set by the Israeli government for being allowed to exit Gaza. Who does that benefit? What policy directive has that achieved? Whose interests have been served by preventing contact?
It is time for action vis-à-vis Gaza – just not the kind that most of the Israeli politicians speak of.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.