The situation in Gaza is depressing, it’s true. But rather than give in to despair, I would like to suggest a practical solution that could save us and the Gazans from the vicious cycle in which we are currently trapped.
This depressing situation has arisen in Gaza, and to a large degree in the West Bank too, because there is no significant force acting to improve conditions for the people. Hamas’ main interest is in preserving its power while amassing firepower, and it is willing to sacrifice lives to this end. The Israeli government is not offering any original ideas, and is taking a fairly passive stance toward Gaza. It certainly isn’t overly concerned with Gazans’ welfare. Egypt is trying to minimize the damage from Gaza, and international organizations are working at the margins, on a small scale. From time to time, conferences are held about support for Gaza, but they are mostly for show. In the absence of an “unseen hand” that will bring real change, this trap will continue to exact a heavy price.
A practical solution exists, however, and it is even fairly simple and inexpensive. The Gaza Strip is not the focus of any religious-ideological dispute, and is not situated in a strategic location. Its fundamental problems are terrible overcrowding, extreme poverty and continuous destruction of infrastructure. As Emmanuel Sivan recently wrote (in Haaretz in Hebrew, May 18), this situation has been developing for more than 30 years. But it is now acute, because Gaza has become vulnerable to epidemics that could overwhelm its hospitals and to possible acts of despair.
There is a connection between this situation and the events of the past days and weeks – the clashes over the marches to the border fence and the round of fighting (rocket and mortar fire from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes in response). Israel is mistaken to think that military pressure will lead to a solution in Gaza. In the 11 years since Hamas came to power, the situation has only gotten worse, as has the negative reaction to Israel.
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Israel has taken hardly any positive, constructive steps. Its responses have been to destroy infrastructure, tighten the blockade and use military firepower. I’m not saying that an economic solution will end the conflict, but the logic that was applied with the Americans’ Marshall Plan following World War II should be applied here too: One should aid in the civil and economic rehabilitation of the enemy, and not only that of the allies (Germany received the third largest amount of American aid).
There are proposals, such as building an artificial island, that could bear fruit many years from now. But by then Gaza will have collapsed. Practical steps must be taken first before weighing the viability of such grandiose projects.
Much more modest proposals, like easing the blockade and the facilitating the transit of goods, are insufficient. This sort of thing is heard all the time from politicians and pundits, but Israel cannot easily implement these steps — and, in any case, they would be a mere drop in the sea, given the scale of the problems.
What solution would give incentives for greater calm and pave the way to a sustainable “hudna” — or long-term cease-fire? Israel could act behind the scenes to establish an international task force, without being part of it. This task force would bring together experts in fields like health and vital infrastructure and would include European countries acceptable to both sides (Britain, Germany and France, for example).
The task force’s first objective would be to rebuild the health and sanitation systems in Gaza, improving water and sewage systems and ensuring that hospitals can function properly. These countries have a wealth of experience with such systems in large urban areas, so progress could be seen in six to eight months, and this would help alleviate the humanitarian crisis that fueled the recent violence.
If there were major construction projects underway on the Gaza side of the fence, the kind of protests we’ve seen lately would almost surely have been less massive. If the task force is successful, these countries could set up something akin to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to address infrastructure problems.
Such an international professional body could jumpstart a long list of short-range and long-range projects (like building an airport and developing the offshore gas field). As for the “security risks” involved, bear in mind that Hamas has already waged several rounds of warfare against Israel, fired rockets and dug tunnels despite the Israeli blockade of the past decade or more. Still, creative ways can be found to reduce these risks.
This task force could also ensure that the funds reach their intended target — not the Hamas leadership. The cost of such an economic effort - $1-4 billion per year for several years, in my estimation – is not high in international terms. Remember that the Gazan economy is relatively small with a limited capacity to absorb investment.
Several hurdles must be overcome in order to ensure the success of this plan. The Israeli public’s feelings toward Gazans range from indifference to hatred. Politicians, who have no vision for the future, fan these feelings as they concentrate on getting elected or staying in power.
The military leadership, which sees the dangers directly, isn’t built to provide such solutions. The army knows how to fight, not how to build health infrastructure.
Add to this the fact that the world isn’t all that concerned with the problems of Gaza. There are so many disasters happening in the Middle East (in Syria, Yemen, as well as Iraq and Libya) that it’s hard to know what can be done, and ultimately nothing is done.
It’s heartbreaking to see Gazans’ suffering while many in Israel and the world remain indifferent, when an applicable solution is within reach.
Prof. Eran Yashiv teaches at Tel Aviv University’s Berglas School of Economics.