Any time there is an interval between one flare-up of tensions and another in the Gaza Strip, there is an Israeli tendency to turn to ‘more pressing’ matters. The discourse boils down to surrendering to the “there is no solution” slogan and its mistaken underlying assumption that the choice begins with the dictates of Hamas and ends with the illusion of ending the problem with a military knockout – which threatens to drag the IDF into taking control over the Gaza Strip and managing the lives of its two million residents without an exit strategy.
The next government should consider alternative strategies, including the one offered by the Commanders for Israel’s Security – to adopt a gradual, three-legged initiative: codify and upgrade the ceasefire; enable Gaza rehabilitation and development; facilitate reinstating the Palestinian Authority (PA) to administer the Strip.
The inter-dependency among the three facets underpinning the initiative stems from the following reality: Without Gaza rehabilitation there will be no stable ceasefire. Without stabilizing the ceasefire, donor countries refuse to invest in rehabilitation, lest their investment goes up in flames in another round of violence. The donor countries also refuse to strengthen Hamas, hence will only provide the resources needed once the PA is reinstated.
Three challenges stand in the way of executing the proposed initiative. The first is the Israeli government’s refusal to allow the PA to return to the Gaza Strip. The refusal is derived from the government’s strategy of separating Gaza from the West Bank, in order to deprive the PA of the claim that it represents all Palestinians and is therefore a available partner for negotiations. I hope that our next government will prioritize calm for the Israeli residents of the Gaza surrounding (and the needs of the Gaza Palestinian population) over another excuse to avoid negotiations.
Once Israel changes course and chooses to engage, the US support can be expected. Likewise, cooperation with Egypt, which advocates a similar course, will secure the support of its partners – Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This broad coalition has the power to apply potent ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’, which should overcome the second obstacle: the PA’s reluctance to reassume responsibility for the Strip.
While important PA leaders in Ramallah support this process, President Mahmoud Abbas and some others oppose it. Some suggest that Abbas is too tired for the challenge, but younger contenders for leadership wish to pursue this course of action. Others have different interpretations for the intra-PA disagreements on this matter. Regardless of the reason, the Israeli initiative should address two legitimate PA concerns: one – that the return of the PA to Gaza before the Strip has been demilitarized would turn it into a victim of Israeli reprisals should any third party violate the ceasefire. This can be addressed via a security safety net, which will be incorporated into the new ceasefire understandings, and specify the conditions under which Israel will not retaliate but let the PA deal with violators as well as circumstances when it acts in self defense. The second is that the PA does not have the resources needed to administer and rehabilitate the Strip. To address this legitimate need, an economic safety net should be provided, based on a US-mobilized, donor community funds.
Besides the ‘carrots’ – which must involve changes in Washington’s attitude towards the PA – the regional coalition and, more importantly, Israel, have available powerful sticks. The mere threat of employing them might do the job.
The third challenge is Hamas: why should it agree to relinquish power? It turns out that the man at the helm in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar, has long concluded that if Hamas does not withdraw from civilian administration, it is likely to face the fate of other victims of the Arab Spring. Consequently, he developed a strategy for Hamas renewal, which involves withdrawal from the day-to-day administration of the Strip, a return to Hamas’ early mode of investing in its grass roots infrastructure,all in preparation for a future run for Palestinian leadership, and not only in the Gaza Strip.
In this context, he coordinated with Egypt, sent messages to Israel, and took concrete steps indicating his intention to replace Hamas management with the PA’s, and his confidence in his ability to force his colleagues to comply with the change. In so doing, he also took steps indicating that gradually, the change will not be confined to civilian matters. Some of the steps have already included consent to the deployment of 3,000 Ramallah Presidential Guard troops at the Gaza Strip’s borders and crossings as well as the PA’s takeover of tax collection – Hamas’ main source of income; all provided that Hamas’s disarmament would only be dealt with in subsequent stages, when a unified Palestinian administration has been reinstated. After failing to obtain Israeli consent and initial Israeli gestures that demonstrate to his leadership colleagues and the broader constituency that his strategy was working and conditions in Gaza began to improve, he found refuge in extreme statements and escalation moves along the border and beyond.
There is no telling whether Sinwar will live up to his commitments and whether he will be able to overcome pockets of resistance within Hamas. In any case, signs of erosion in Hamas’s ability to enforce ceasefire discipline over its domestic challengers – primarily the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – should weigh heavily on our leaders’ minds. Which brings us back to the Israeli policy. Early Israeli response to the short term needs of the Gaza residents can enable Sinwar to demonstrate that his strategy is delivering results and may help enforce the ceasefire commitments on other organizations in the Strip.
Given the phased nature of the proposed initiative, the transition from implementing one stage of Israeli and international relief measures to another is contingent on the Palestinian sides’ compliance with the ceasefire conditions and the return of the Israeli MIAs and detainees.
It is the CIS conclusion that the upside of the proposed initiative exceeds its risks. If successful, it will bring lasting calm. It may also be a step in the long journey towards separation from the Palestinians in an eventual two-state solution. But even if the initiative fails, the security challenge we will face will not be significantly different than the current one. Yet, the sincere effort to bring about change by other than military force may result in greater understanding in the region and beyond if Israel is forced to pull the trigger once again. More importantly, Israelis will know that their government does not put our soldiers at harms way before exhausting all non-military alternatives.
Major Gen. (ret.) Amnon Reshef is Founder and Chairman of Commanders for Israel’s Security and a former commander of the Israeli armored corps.