We are looking on at the disaster that is taking shape in the Gaza Strip as if it were a fatal car accident happening in slow motion. The Israeli government is acting as if it were an event under full control, and the necessary emergency measures on its part that are required to head off a crisis, military confrontation or both, are not being carried out. It’s urgent that we shift behavior by understanding the causes of the situation and what is necessary to overcome them.
Last week it was reported that the Israeli army chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, warned the cabinet that Gaza was on the verge of collapse due to the worsening humanitarian situation there. In response, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said there was no humanitarian crisis in Gaza, even if “the economic situation is not simple and must be addressed.” Noting was reported about the steps that the cabinet intends to take.
So is there a humanitarian crisis in Gaza or not? Is it really on the verge of collapse? Such vague and subjective determinations should justify either a policy change or a continuation of policy, but they are a matter of interpretation. On the other hand, by many measures, the situation in Gaza is indeed deteriorating, including the quality of water and sanitation, electricity supply, fuel reserves, the price of goods and unemployment.
By most of these measures, the situation is not only getting worse but is at an all-time low. The situation in Gaza is the accumulating product of an ongoing process that is creating an illusion that it is possible to predict it and that the circumstances can be controlled. Similar developments result in a dramatic breaking point: when the situation moves from heating up to igniting and from pressure to explosion.
One difficulty in assessing the situation in Gaza is the phenomenon of acclimation. The warning signs are already there, and the next confrontation between Israel and Gaza has been late in coming many times already. Deterrence is strong and effective, and neither side has an interest in initiating such a conflict.
In addition to responses designed as a deterrent, Israeli defense officials have long been recommending steps to calm the situation, primarily of an economic nature: issuing work permits, easing policies relating to trade and freedom of movement and improvements to water and energy infrastructure. Most have either been rejected or approved sparingly out of competing considerations that in and of themselves have merit. Allowing workers into Israel from Gaza entails the growing risk of terrorist attacks. Allowing supplies into Gaza helps the Hamas government there and strengthens it. We also have an obligation to return Israeli civilians who are being held in Gaza as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers that are being held there from the last major round fighting in 2014. There is also the need to demilitarize Gaza as a long-term, albeit ambitious, strategic goal.
And there are other justifiable arguments. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Responsibility for the situation is that of Hamas, which rules the strip and has opted for military power and terrorism on the backs of the population there. Israel will not finance an enemy and not solve internal Palestinian disagreements. At any given time, there are reasons and justifications for refraining from making economic concessions there, certainly concessions related to the territory’s infrastructure, all the more so if they are urgent and wide-ranging.
It’s difficult, however, to imagine the scope of a crisis when it erupts, because unlike terrorist attacks and the firing of rockets from Gaza, we have never experienced epidemics, serious pollution of water aquifers, the collapse of sewage systems and mass population movements during or after a military confrontation. During the summer of 2014, decisions were made in the face of a similar set of considerations. Hamas responded to deterrence and neither side wanted a confrontation. Hamas’ distress worsened for reasons unrelated to Israel but that Israel would have found desirable.
Israel is not responsible for the situation in Gaza, but it is in its security interest to head off an escalation leading toward an explosion. Israel must therefore make an urgent change in policy towards Gaza to prevent a crisis involving a number of dimensions – infrastructure, the humanitarian situation and the military situation. The Israeli security cabinet should convene an emergency meeting to consider the scenarios and take broad action as soon as possible to moderate the approaching forces of crisis and escalation. The risks entailed in a change in policy should be weighed against the risk of a continuation of the current situation until it explodes – along with the costs versus the cost of scenarios such as wide-ranging confrontation and a disaster when it comes to sanitation, water and the environment.
And beyond all this, at the end of the day, it must be remembered that there are people living in the Gaza Strip and apathy over their suffering and distress also reduces the extent of our own humanity.
Assaf Orion, a reserve brigadier general, is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.
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