Israel faces difficult choices in Gaza. There is no off-the-shelf remedy for the unprecedented situation, no playbook to follow.
Consider the picture. Israel withdrew all its forces and civilians from Gaza more than two years ago. It created the first opportunity in Gaza’s history for self-governance. Never before, certainly not during Egyptian military rule till 1967, did local residents have their fate in their own hands.
What direction would Gaza take? Would it recognize that a peaceful approach was likely to accelerate a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by convincing Israelis of Palestinian sincerity? Would it take advantage of widespread international interest in underwriting economic and social development?
Sadly, the answer is a resounding no. In the past 30 months, Gaza witnessed the election of Hamas, the cohabitation of Fatah and Hamas, followed by a bloody coup against Fatah. The ascendancy of Hamas ensured the isolation of Gaza, as the terror group was unprepared to meet the Quartet’s three basic conditions for engagement.
Those who predicted that governance would moderate the Hamas message were proved wrong. They underestimated the religious fervor of its leaders. And those in capitals from Moscow to Pretoria, Ankara to Oslo, Cairo to Riyadh, who believed they could talk sense to Hamas had little to show for their efforts.
Israel faces an Iranian-financed franchise on its border. Rather than focus on construction in Gaza, Hamas has pursued destruction of neighboring Israel. This is consistent with its 1988 charter, which is replete with references to eliminating Israel and murdering Jews. A typical excerpt: "The time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews [and kill them]; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: ‘O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him.’"
And lest there be any doubt that the stated aims remain unchanged two decades later, a Hamas spokesman recently declared: "Palestine is Arab Islamic land from the river to the sea, including Jerusalem. There is no room in it for the Jews."
Gaza has become ground zero for smuggling and local arms production. The border with Egypt has provided an easy conduit for weapons, terrorists, and cash to reach Gaza. Rocket and mortar attacks have become daily fare, as Sderot and other southern Israeli towns and villages lie in the cross-hairs of the terrorists. Since Israel left Gaza, literally thousands of such attacks have occurred. Why?
Israel has no territorial ambition in Gaza. It is, moreover, in Israel’s interest to see Gaza prosper, not suffer. The last thing Israel needs is a failed state that succeeds only in producing missiles, mortars, and "martyrs." At the end of the day, it has but one goal — quiet on its border. But alas, there is no quiet. What is Israel to do? Ignore the attacks? Turn the other cheek?
Some would have Israel negotiate with Hamas, but over what? If the other party does not recognize your right to exist, what is there to discuss? The timetable for your own destruction? Others propose a hudna, or temporary truce. But if the outcome is to allow Hamas to strengthen its terrorist infrastructure, much as Hezbollah did in southern Lebanon after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal in ‘000, then Hamas, not Israel, benefits.
Egypt is critically important. Mindful of the importance of bilateral ties, Israeli leaders have soft-pedaled their concerns about Cairo’s inconsistent attitude toward smuggling from its territory to Gaza.
Still, an Egyptian get-tough policy could only help, while assuming greater responsibility for Gaza’s future direction. Egypt has no less a stake than Israel in Gaza’s future. Qatar ought to do a better job of monitoring the use of the reportedly lavish funds it sends to Gaza. Money, after all, is fungible. And the Quartet must hold the line on its three conditions; otherwise, it emboldens Hamas, while weakening the moderates in Ramallah.
No doubt, progress on the negotiating track between the Palestinian Authority in the west bank and Israel would send a signal to the residents of Gaza that they have little to gain, but much to lose, by sticking with Hamas. Meanwhile, Israel has no choice but to defend itself. That is admittedly a dirty business. When terrorists use civilians as shields and fire from population centers, they create a profound moral dilemma for democratic Israel — and know it. But Israel has no alternative. The security of its population is paramount, and few armies have gone to such lengths to avoid civilian casualties, even at the risk of putting their own soldiers in danger.
Israel deserves understanding as it seeks to cope with an untenable situation. Hamas wants to use Gaza as a launching pad against Israel while seeking protection from the international community. That gives new meaning to the word chutzpah. To protect the possibility of peace, the international community mustn’t let Hamas get away with it.
David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee. This article appeared in the Miami Herald on Monday.