The Endgame in Gaza

Jul 22, 2014

Until I heard CNN's weekend interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and watched Bloody Sunday unfold with scores of Palestinian civilian deaths and 13 Israeli soldiers killed, I thought I had the Gaza thing pretty much figured out. It would end -- more or less -- the way the two previous movies had concluded.

In both 2008-2009 and 2012, Israel degraded Hamas's high-trajectory weapons; but Hamas survived and restocked its arsenal with weapons of greater range, precision, and lethality. Hamas maintained control over Gaza and even derived a few political benefits in the process. Meanwhile, the people of Gaza continued to suffer -- from both Israel's unrelenting economic blockade and Hamas's catastrophic mismanagement and fixation with its armed struggle against Israel. With the advent of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government in Cairo, intensified Egyptian pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood also pinched Gazans.

But Netanyahu has now laid out a different vision for an acceptable endgame -- the "demilitarization" of Gaza. And the precedent he cited was the U.S.-Russian agreement on removing Syria's chemical weapons, an accord he has praised several times in the past.

This is a big statement for a risk-averse Israeli prime minister who rarely lays out big visions when it comes to matters of war and peace. Is he serious? Is a demilitarized Gaza really possible? And would such a solution actually provide for more than just a temporary respite between confrontations?

Let's be clear: "Demilitarization," as Netanyahu means it, is on the far end of the outcome spectrum. This would mean a cessation of hostilities far different than in previous rounds of fighting. It would require a fundamental change in Gaza's political situation brought about either by military or diplomatic means. Given the loss of 13 Israeli soldiers on Sunday, July 20, in a single incident, it's hard to imagine that Netanyahu is prepared to do this through force of arms -- an undertaking that would require the reoccupation of the Gaza Strip for a prolonged period and the extirpation of Hamas's military and political wings. Indeed, the number of casualties on the Israeli and Palestinian sides would likely make the costs unacceptable.

It would also require someone to assume real responsibility for Gaza. A transformed and defanged Hamas is hard to imagine. But if Israel forcibly tried to dismantle Hamas as an organization, there would likely be massive casualties on both sides. And in these circumstances neither Egypt, let alone the Palestinian Authority, could ride into Gaza on the backs of Israeli tanks amid the carnage.

Demilitarization is impossible without a diplomatic solution by which Hamas agrees to give up its weapons in exchange for a fundamental change in the economic and political conditions in Gaza, perhaps a kind of mini Marshall Plan. Several Israelis, including former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, have presented variations of this concept. The model, coincidentally, is the U.S.-Russian deal to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's store of chemical weapons. In its most robust form, such a deal would see Egypt, the United States, and the Palestinian Authority -- backed up by the international community -- broker a deal between Hamas and Israel. Mofaz proposes a $50 billion fund to support economic development in Gaza.

Meanwhile back on Planet Earth.…

Of course, none of this seems even remotely possible. Hamas would have to abandon its 35-year reason for being, give up armed struggle, accept Palestinian Authority rule, and become a political party without achieving the end of Israel's occupation, let alone statehood. Someone would also have to supervise the area close to the Israel-Gaza border inside the Strip in order to ensure that Hamas didn't continue to tunnel. An acceptable international force would have to be organized to identify, collect, and destroy Hamas's weapons. All other smaller resistance groups, including Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees, would need to be defanged. Israel (at least temporarily) would need to accept the reality of Palestinian unity government during the transition, and the international community -- in an uncharacteristic display of focus and commitment -- would need to step up with tons of money and technical assistance. In other words, forget it.

In the 1990s, when there actually was a real peace process rather than the Kabuki theater that passes for one today, I'm not sure even this kind of resolve was possible. I wish I had a dollar for every time some well-intentioned soul approached me with some new Marshall Plan for Gaza or the Middle East.

Perhaps the best we can hope for would be a clean cease-fire deal brokered by the Egyptians that, once accepted, might begin to provide some economic benefits for Gaza: perhaps with Qatar paying the salaries of 43,000 Hamas employees, Cairo doing more to regularize the crossing at Rafah, and the Israelis allowing more imports in and exports out of Gaza. The International Crisis Group laid out something very close to this in its most recent report.

Hamas, however, has more-ambitious demands for a fundamental change in Gaza's economic situation that it wants to take credit for delivering, including a Gaza port and airport. Long-suffering Gazans deserve this, and more. But the cruel realities of Middle Eastern politics will likely conspire to ensure they don't get it. Egypt isn't going to help facilitate a miracle on the Mediterranean when 40 percent of its own people live on less than $2 a day.

Some Israelis like the idea of two Palestinian statelets rather than one because it would preclude a negotiated two-state solution. But no Israeli government can reward and strengthen Hamas with these goodies when Hamas continues to call for Israel's destruction and arm itself for the next round. And Hamas's own willingness to preserve itself and its resistance ideology at the expense of Gaza's economic development, as well as its endless calls to fight the Israelis to the last Gazan civilian, doesn't exactly create a reality where it's a partner for good governance and development.

When it comes to Gaza, don't dream about demilitarization or economic miracles. In fact, forget the endgame. Right now, summoning the urgency, the right mediator, and a deal to stop the killing will be hard enough.

This article first appeared on Foreign Policy.com.

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