A Short Path, From Gaza to Somalia

Daniel Levy
Daniel Levy
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Daniel Levy
Daniel Levy

As the defined period for the Gaza cease-fire comes to an end today, preceded by a new cycle of violence, Israelis are being treated to a predictable dose of political posturing and chest-thumping. "We must do something, exact a price," we hear. Yes, the rocket fire needs to stop, but there is no military answer to this predicament.

To recap: For most of the six months of the cease-fire, relative quiet prevailed, and life returned to near-normal for the residents of Sderot and environs (though not for Gazans, who remained under siege). Then on November 4, an Israeli operation sparked a new round of dangerous, if controlled, violence - characterized by occasional Israeli strikes and incursions, matched by Palestinian rockets and shooting across the border.

The cease-fire, while far from ideal, was an improvement over what had preceded it. Of course, Hamas sought to upgrade its military and defensive capacities during this period, as Israel should have been doing on the other side of the border - it would have been absurd to expect otherwise. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail and the cease-fire will be extended - it is in the interests of both sides. The military alternative is not an attractive one - from Israel's side, escalation leading to partial or full reoccupation of Gaza, from Hamas, rockets and perhaps armed attacks from the West Bank in response. It also has no obvious exit strategy.

But the debate in Israel about continuing the cease-fire largely misses the point. Whether or not it's extended, Israel's overall approach toward Gaza is dangerously mistaken. A siege designed to depose Hamas rule (a problematic goal in itself, but that's another story) risks triggering a social collapse that would have devastating consequences for all concerned. Anyone in search of a cautionary tale, and a peek at a possible future scenario for Gaza, should look at Somalia - which has the dubious distinction of having reintroduced piracy to the daily news lexicon, and from which Ethiopian troops are now planning to withdraw following an ugly two-year occupation.

Somalia has gone through 17 years of impoverishment, chaos, destruction and warlords, featuring 13 transitional governments - and is somehow still getting worse. In June 2006, having overrun most of the country, a coalition known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), together with businessmen and clan leaders, ousted the various warlords and the woefully ineffectual Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) from the capital Mogadishu. The following months of ICU rule, despite the often unpopular imposition of strict Islamic law, according to The New York Times, "turned out to be one of the most peaceful periods in modern Somali history."

But that December, the Ethiopian military, with American support and at the invitation of the discredited TFG, invaded Somalia and has been there ever since. Though the initial military victory was a rout, the illegitimacy and brutality of the Ethiopian presence soon led to the inevitable - a bloody insurgency.

The insurgents, now divided and including the ICU and other armed factions, are winning. The Ethiopian military and a small African Union force are readying their withdrawal, and the TFG is bitterly divided. The future looks bleak.

What, if anything, might Israel learn from all this?

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is beginning to approximate that of Somalia, where 77 percent of the population requires emergency humanitarian support, and the rate of malnutrition is the world's highest. Food insecurity in Gaza currently runs at 56 percent and is deteriorating rapidly, 42 percent of the Strip's population is unemployed and 76 percent is receiving humanitarian assistance (all UN figures). Harsh closures have effectively led to Gaza becoming deindustrialized, and Israeli reluctance even to replenish tattered banknotes is demonetizing the economy. There is a slippery slope from an entrenched humanitarian crisis into bloody anarchy and ungovernable chaos - especially when arms are ubiquitous and there is an open wound of unresolved national grievance.

One thing that can prevent a descent into the abyss is the existence of recognized and accepted political leadership. At the very least, Hamas today is an address for possible deals and decision-making, but Israel's assassinations and imprisonment of its leaders take their toll. An Israeli military escalation would likely accelerate the splintering of Hamas' leadership and the emergence of more radical alternatives; that was the effect of Ethiopia's intervention in its backyard. Both Somalia and Palestine are in need of broad and inclusive power-sharing arrangements, brokered internationally and insulated from neighborhood vetoes.

If Israel were again to find itself stuck in Gaza, don't expect international forces to come riding to the rescue. Ethiopia's military hoped to be replaced by an internationally sanctioned African Union force, but the troops couldn't be summoned. Handing over a Gaza that's been re-invaded by Israel to Arab and international forces is equally unrealistic.

Finally, there is the destabilizing regional effect of failed states. In Somalia's case, it was Eritrea and Djibouti that bore the brunt of the impact, in addition to Ethiopia, and of course the infamous piracy in the oil-shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden. Alongside Israel, Egypt is most immediately affected by turmoil in Gaza - with potentially severe consequences for regime stability and legitimacy, and for security in the Sinai and beyond.

Gaza is not yet Somalia. But the warning signs are there. There was nothing inevitable about the disintegration of Somalia. It happened as a result of misguided policies - notably of the current Bush administration and Ethiopia - which should not be repeated by Israel in Gaza.

Israel must do more than extend a cease-fire - Israel must allow Gaza to breathe, to reconnect to the world, to live on more than international handouts, and to reclaim its dignity. Could Hamas benefit in the short term? Perhaps. But worse things can happen - and not just to the Palestinians. For Israel, too, much is at stake. It's no fun to live in a Somalia, and no picnic either being its next-door neighbor.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was previously an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.