What Should Israel Do in Gaza?
It’s too soon to assess the potential of the recent demonstrations in the Gaza Strip to take a sharp turn. Even without knowing how things might develop, it is clear that, as of now, the extent of the demonstrations and the Palestinian civilians’ daring willingness to confront Hamas indicate the cumulative distress of the Gaza population.
Eight years after the initial shock of the “Arab Spring,” the Hamas government in Gaza understands that the potential threat could become real as public rage grows.
As of now, even if the Gazans’ fury is not leading towards a direct threat to Hamas rule in Gaza, it is nevertheless compelling the group’s leadership to recognize the need for an immediate solution, even a symbolic one, for the mass distress.
From that perspective, recent events can shed fresh light on the various considerations that come to bear on the Israeli government’s measured military responses to provocations from Gaza.
Over the past year, in deciding on policy and actions regarding Gaza, Israel has had to grapple with the basic question of whether an overall war to defeat the Hamas regime is in its own interests.
Recent events have added another aspect to those deliberations. When he was defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman repeatedly said that Israel should bide its time until the people of Gaza rose up against Hamas, which is responsible for their hardships.
Now that we see the first glimpses of mass popular protests, Israel’s dilemma is thrown into sharp relief: Should it seek to alleviate the humanitarian plight in Gaza by continuing to transfer money to the Hamas government, thus helping it secure its rule there — or should it suspend those transfers in the hope that the popular distress will cause the situation to shift in Israel’s favor?
At this strategic watershed moment, one can discern the logic of the policy that has guided the Netanyahu government’s approach to Gaza over the past decade: that it is in Israel’s interest for Hamas to remain in control until the group is rejected by its own people.
The choice not to take decisive action against Hamas, which played out in Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014 and in all the major decisions the Israeli government has made this past year, apparently stems from a deliberate strategic approach.
On the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, it is worth recalling that then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was politically savvy enough to leave the Gaza Strip in Israel’s hands. The burden of finding a solution to the Palestinian problem in Gaza, as well as in the West Bank, thus became Israel’s alone to bear.
The cutoff between Gaza and Ramallah, initiated by Hamas, also works in Israel’s favor. For now, it gives Hamas a kind of immunity, but in the long term, it will allow Israel to reach a better arrangement for the region.
As the situation in Gaza develops, Israel’s leaders must continue to act cautiously.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for 42 years. He commanded troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.
This article was originally published by The BESA Center. An edited version was published in Israel Hayom on March 17, 2019.