On Israel’s doorstep – within mortar range of Israeli settlements and rocket range of Ben-Gurion Airport – there live two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Possibly the most densely populated area on earth. Living in misery, many sleeping in hovels, drinking polluted water, with limited access to electricity, they barely survive, some only thanks to food supplied by UNRWA. Many young people are unemployed. It is a time bomb waiting to go off.
The Gaza Strip is run by Hamas, a radical Islamic terrorist organization which is ideologically pledged to the destruction of the State of Israel. As if that were not enough, there is another terrorist organization active in the Gaza Strip – the Islamic Jihad. Whereas Hamas is on occasion restrained in attacks against Israeli targets due to its sense of responsibility for the population of the Gaza Strip, the Islamic Jihad is restrained only by its concern for the reaction of Hamas to its activities.
Defusing this time bomb, which sputters now and then and explodes every few years, presents a dilemma for Israel. Assistance to improve living conditions for the suffering population, allowing the building of a port and providing free access to and exit from the Gaza Strip for its population seems like an obvious step for Israel. But as long as Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, such moves would strengthen Hamas, and probably Islamic Jihad as well – and increase the likelihood of another round of fighting. Hardly a desirable objective for Israel, nor for all those who consider Hamas a danger to them.
Destroying the Hamas military infrastructure – its rocket arsenal, its rocket manufacturing facilities, its underground tunnels and command centers, and its leadership – is another possibility. The Israel Defense Forces is quite capable of accomplishing this. And then, with Hamas rule eliminated, Israel could assist in alleviating the situation of the population there, without simultaneously strengthening Hamas. But who would run the Gaza Strip once Hamas has lost its hold there? That was the quandary that Israel found itself in during Operation Protective Edge. The conclusion then was that better Hamas than the alternatives. The result was the present situation.
How do you cut the Gordian knot that ties the misery of the Palestinian population in Gaza to Hamas’ rule of the Gaza Strip? This needs to be done if security is to be restored in the south. It clearly requires putting an end to Hamas rule in Gaza. What is Egypt’s position on this subject? What are the alternative scenarios to continued Hamas rule in Gaza? These are question that deserve thought about before another round of fighting erupts in Gaza.
The pervasive fear that Israel must under no circumstances get bogged down in Gaza, this idée fixe that led to the blunder of the uprooting of the settlements in Gush Katif, and the abandonment of the settlements in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, a move that exposed the population just north of the Gaza Strip to mortar fire from there, should not serve as the only basis for creative thinking on this all-important subject. It was this fear that produced three rounds of fighting with Hamas that led to no substantial change in the situation. What is called for is more than a vain repetition of these costly operations.
A way should be found to alleviate the situation of the Palestinian population in the Gaza Strip without simultaneously strengthening Hamas and the Islamic Jihad who are mortal enemies of Israel. This is not an impossible mission. Israel might even find itself not alone in accomplishing it.
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