Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen
Overthrowing Hamas and handing rule in Gaza to Mahmoud Abbas will not bring about a solution to the Gaza problem. It was, after all, Yasser Arafat, Abbas’s predecessor as PLO leader, who transformed Gaza into an ineradicable terrorist hotbed by flouting the Oslo Accords that he had signed. The solution to the Gaza problem does not lie in Ramallah but rather in the Strip’s historic hinterland – the Sinai Peninsula.
When a single rocket launched from Gaza into central Israel forces the Israeli PM to cancel an important slate of meetings in Washington and return post haste to Jerusalem, it is clear that the Strip has become a major strategic threat rather than a containable terror problem. Yet while public discourse on the latest conflagration revolved around the desirable IDF response to Hamas’s growing brazenness, with the customary recommendations ranging from dealing a harsh blow that would “restore lost deterrence” to a campaign to vanquish Hamas, it is worth taking a broader look at how the Gaza problem came to pass in the first place.
A city in a cul-de-sac
The current tendency is to see the Gaza problem as originating in the refugee population that burgeoned there after the 1948 War of Independence. It would make more sense, though, to go back a few steps further and consider the city’s millenarian geographic location as an intermediate station on the ancient highway – between Asia and Africa, between Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Without that main route as its wellspring, Gaza cannot go back to being what it was. Even after the 1906 drawing of the international border by Britain (which had controlled Egypt since 1882) and the Ottoman Empire, traffic through Gaza did not stop. It was the establishment of the State of Israel that blocked this ancient route, severed Egypt from the Arab east (mashriq), and turned Gaza into a cul-de-sac at the edge of Egyptian territory.
The March 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty considerably exacerbated the Gaza problem. In a shrewd move, President Anwar Sadat shifted the Gaza problem exclusively to Israel’s purview. After the Israeli town of Yamit and neighboring villages had been razed and the Sinai in its entirety had been restored to Egyptian sovereignty all the way to the 1906 international border, Gaza could no longer develop westward into the potential open space between Rafah and El-Arish. The Strip was thus closed in the Egyptian direction and deposited on Israel’s doorstep as an urban pressure cooker on the verge of explosion.
Sadat thus set in train the transformation of Gaza and the West Bank into a single entity and made Israel solely responsible for solving the Palestinian problem in the territories it held. As Ezer Weizmann, defense minister at the time of the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations, put it on the tenth anniversary of the peace treaty: “I have a feeling that [PM Menachem] Begin is sitting at home not because of the commonly assumed reasons [i.e., 1982 Lebanon war] but because he has realized that with the signing of the 1978 Camp David Accords he put the future of ‘Greater Israel’ in a delicate situation, if not in jeopardy.”
The 1993 Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority further marginalized Gaza in comparison to the governmental and economic center in Ramallah. Discussion of a strategic solution to the Gaza problem must, therefore, begin with the geographic background that spawned the Strip’s distress as a territory with no egress. Even if the IDF removes Hamas from power, Gaza’s plight will continue, and it will require a solution that cannot be found solely in the domain of Israel’s responsibility.
And what happens after the takeover?
Over the years, the issue of the objective of a ground operation in Gaza has become a complex dilemma. One can see how much things have changed simply by reading the IDF’s definition of the offensive’s goal in its basic combat doctrine: “An offensive seeks to impose a change in the existing political-strategic reality by applying the conquering state’s sovereignty to the conquered territory.”
Therein lies the basic unanswered question: Is it desirable for Israel to conquer Gaza and reimpose its rule, as in pre-Oslo days? If not, then Hamas’s military defeat requires an answer to the question of who should be given control of the Strip. Should Israel sacrifice its sons to serve Gaza on a silver platter to Mahmoud Abbas? It was, after all, Yasser Arafat, Abbas’s predecessor as PLO leader, who transformed Gaza into an ineradicable terrorist hotbed in flagrant violation of the Oslo Accords that he had signed.
This kind of predicament is not unique to Israel. A few weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks, the US army responded by pounding Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Ever since then, along with NATO troops, US forces have been bogged down in a futile attempt to create a stable government in the country. The IDF undoubtedly has the capacity to defeat Hamas, but this could well turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
It is ironic that those pushing for a victory in Gaza are the same people advocating total withdrawal from the West Bank, basing their readiness to assume the security risks of such a withdrawal on these four key premises:
Territorial separation, including a massive evacuation of Jewish neighborhoods, will define the borders, reduce the points of friction, and foster stability.
If stability is undermined to the point of an intolerable security threat, the IDF will launch a preemptive strike that will quash the threat from the prospective Palestinian state.
The IDF, with its perennial superiority, will be able to eliminate such a security threat in a few days.
A West Bank withdrawal and the end of the “occupation” will ensure widespread international support for Israeli military operations of that kind.
The security situation since the 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza in general, and last year’s violence in particular (ranging from riots along the border fence, to incendiary balloons, to exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas) underscores the hollowness of those assumptions and the existential threat attending their adoption.
No less importantly, this has far-reaching implications for devising Israel’s Gaza strategy: namely, that the solution to the Strip’s problem will not come from Ramallah. The center of gravity for dealing with the Palestinian problem should instead be shifted from Ramallah to Gaza, with the aim of creating economic and infrastructure linkages between Gaza and its historic hinterland – the Sinai Peninsula.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for forty-two years. He commanded troops in battles with Egypt and Syria. He was formerly a corps commander and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.