How Israel Should Disengage - Again - From Gaza

Neither Israel nor Hamas have the means or the will to achieve total military victory. The only longer-term deal must be Gaza's economic rehabilitation in exchange for its demilitarization.

Uri Halperin
Uri Halperin
A convoy of Israeli tanks drives near the border after returning to Israel from Gaza August 3, 2014.
A convoy of Israeli tanks drives near the border after returning to Israel from Gaza August 3, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Uri Halperin
Uri Halperin

Despite the serial failures to reach a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, neither side has the means nor the will to achieve total military victory. The only option is for the two sides to discuss a diplomatic option for a long-term solution.

Israel is interested in completing its disengagement process from the territory, which began in 2005 under Ariel Sharon, including the demilitarization of Gaza and the minimizing, if not altogether ending, of Gaza's economic dependence on Israel. Hamas wants to leverage this conflict into a deal that will end the siege and yield financial benefits, knowing that if it fails to win even this victory, its standing with the people of Gaza will be seriously eroded.

The dramatic changes now in the Arab world and the Middle East have created a violent confrontation between the extreme and more moderate wings of the Islamist movement. This polarization has isolated Hamas between the moderate Muslim governments, especially cutting it off from Egypt, once its protector and benefactor. This isolation and Hamas' relative lack of leverage has opened a window of opportunity for Israel to achieve a reasonable agreement from its perspective.

However, the trend towards radicalization in the Middle East also gives Hamas less room for flexibility or compromise, and confines it within its extreme ideology. Hamas has lost a significant proportion of its capabilities in recent days, but out of concern about losing the battle for its image and prestige in Gaza and the Arab world it may well turn down attempts at reaching a compromise. Hamas may well feel that as the desperation and suffering of the civil population in Gaza increases, it is winning the international struggle for public opinion against Israel.

Any solution must include major sticks and carrots to force the Palestinians to stick to any agreements that can be reached. It will necessitate significant security assurances, including efficient inspection mechanisms, directed by Israeli military intelligence and acceptable to Israel.

Gaza's rehabilitation should be focused on building national infrastructures which will allow it to develop into an independent and growing financial entity over the next ten years. These infrastructures should include a sea and airport, power plants, desalinization installations, a new industrial zone and a technology-focused program to upgrade its agriculture.

Demilitarization is the condition for this comprehensive rehabilitation. This will include security arrangements for the inspection of imports and exports and a veto over any imported components that threaten Israel's security. An international monitoring group must be set up by an organization or government agreed upon by Israel and Egypt, perhaps even with their involvement, to complete the dismantlement of Hamas' military capabilities. The building of civil infrastructure in the Gaza Strip will proceed simultaneously to its demilitarization - but it can be completed only with the complete removal of Hamas' military threat.

The Palestinian Authority must be allowed to return to Gaza and receive both the political legitimacy and the financial tools to implement the rehabilitation agreements; a joint Israel-Egypt commission should oversee Palestinian compliance with the agreement's requirements. Israel will have to relinquish its opposition to a Palestinian unity government, with the condition that President Mahmoud Abbas restrain his coalition partners from among the terrorist groups.

There must be a price to breaking the agreement. Thus the agreement will have to stipulate that Israel retains the right to destroy the new infrastructure if Gaza once again becomes a military threat. This price should act as deterrence, causing the extremists to think again before confronting Israel, not least because of the cost in popular support this would cause them.

In the decade it will take to build the new infrastructure, both sides will agree on security procedures and an international inspection mechanism for the interim period and a gradual process with milestones for demilitarizing the Strip. This will be incentivized by launching the various rehabilitation projects which will create thousands of new jobs and economic growth in Gaza.

The moment of truth at the end of this round of violence has brought the sides to a place where the only compromise that will be acceptable to both sides must include the two basic elements of both opening up Gaza's economy and fully demilitarizing the Strip.

However, the hatred between Israel and Hamas, and the lack of readiness for such a solution, may lead them instead to yet another tense and temporary truce – one that ensures another round of violence in the foreseeable future.

Nor should Israel feel complacent. It's important to emphasize that the diplomatic environment and relative legitimacy Israel is now receiving for its operation against Hamas is misleading. As time passes, the legitimacy is eroding and Israel is losing the initiative to reach a beneficial solution.

As soon as possible Israel should launch a clear diplomatic proposal presenting the Palestinians with a true alternative. This could help the government to replenish its store of international legitimacy and signal to the Palestinian population that it would do well to act against the terroristic paradigm.

At the same time, the government should act speedily to repair its tense ties with the U.S. administration that it will need by its side in the U.N. Security Council, facing a possible flotilla from Turkey and fending off Qatari attempts at imposing its own policies. Other channels must be used to strengthen the current regime in Egypt, which is appears to be a strategic partner regarding Gaza and the fight against radical Islam. Israel's good relations in Congress and the administration should be utilized to improve U.S.-Egypt ties. A strong and stable Egypt is a clear Israeli interest; in the same way Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin supported the sale of F-16s to Jordan after the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, Israel will benefit greatly from playing a role in improving the troubled relationship between Cairo and Washington.

This plan may seem presumptuous and idyllic in these days of bitter fighting, but the realities on the ground dictate the boundaries of a solution to both sides – full demilitarization in exchange for an open flourishing economy in Gaza. Israel should be leading the initiative for such a solution, instead of having an agreement imposed upon it.

Colonel (res.) Uri Halperin was intelligence officer of Southern Command, IDF attaché to NATO headquarters and intelligence advisor in the Prime Minister's Office.

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