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The Economic War Against the Palestinians Has Failed

In recent weeks, the Israeli military shut down a series of West Bank charitable and educational organizations affiliated in one way or another with Hamas, even though the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority is apparently incapable of providing these services. Last week, threats by P.A. Prime Minister Salam Fayyad caused Israel to reverse itself in one instance where it had closed an entire shopping mall in Nablus because two or three storeowners had ties to Hamas.

This week, the United Nations reported that after more than a month of cease-fire in and around Gaza, 95% of Gazan industry remained closed, as did many of the Gaza passages through which goods enter and leave the strip. Israeli monetary authorities did, however, graciously accept delivery of more than 16 million shekels worth of worn bills and coins from Hamas monetary authorities in Gaza and replaced them with new bills and coins.

These are just the most recent absurdities in the hapless economic war Israel has been waging with the Palestinians for the past 41 years. Amazingly, Israeli authorities — left and right, military and civilian — still don’t acknowledge that wielding economic carrots and sticks does not substantially affect Palestinian political behavior.

It all began with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan following the Six-Day War in 1967. He wielded carrots: Erase the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank and Gaza, he believed, allow Palestinians to work in Israel and Israelis to tour and buy and sell in the territories, and economic integration will guarantee tranquility. By the time that concept blew up in our faces 20 years later with the outbreak of the first intifada, Israeli Jews were also settling and living in the territories, thereby sowing the seeds of a major security and demographic problem.

Since then, we have learned to use sticks as well. Take the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza three years ago. Israel initially agreed to proposals by Madrid Quartet envoy James Wolfensohn to open a broad network of passages through the strip’s borders with the object of linking it economically with Egypt and the West Bank. Israel threatened that if, following withdrawal and elimination of the occupation, militants in Gaza persisted in firing Qassam rockets at nearby Israeli towns and kibbutzim, it would strike back militarily.

Inevitably, the rockets came. But rather than attack militants in Gaza with great force to restore the military’s damaged deterrent profile, Israel closed the passages and initiated an economic siege of the strip. Economic hardship, it was argued, would break the back of Palestinian resistance, while a military response would cost lives and solve nothing.

The rockets still fell. Then, just over a year ago, when Hamas forcibly took over the strip, the siege of Gaza was tightened and the system perfected: Gazans would starve — or nearly so; supplies allowed in were calibrated to keep the population just above the starvation level set by U.N. nutrition standards — while a flood of international and Arab aid funds would, under the direction of Wolfensohn’s successor Tony Blair, fill the bellies of West Bankers and make their industries thrive and their fields bloom. Even the Fatah leadership in Ramallah supported the denial of basic goods and infrastructure to Gaza.

Now, once again, we confront the total failure of this economic warfare policy. Deprived Gazans never turned against their Hamas leadership, which maintained a steady barrage of rocket and mortar attacks until Israel agreed to a cease-fire last month. Better-off West Bankers have not rallied around the inept Fatah leadership; there can be no more persuasive proof than the Israeli military’s perceived need to shut down all those flourishing Hamas social institutions.

And what happened when the latest cease-fire was again jeopardized by Qassams and mortars fired from Gaza? Israel, rather than responding militarily (as of course it had threatened), again shut down the flow of goods and infrastructure into Gaza.

This is not an argument in favor of knee-jerk military retaliation for every perceived attack on Israelis launched from Gaza. Nevertheless, Israel has every right to defend itself, and a review of Israel’s responses over the past seven years reveals that the only time Israel created an effective deterrent that delivered half a year of peace and quiet was when, in Ariel Sharon’s day, it assassinated the Hamas leadership in Gaza.

This is certainly not an attempt to advocate denying Palestinians in the West Bank the opportunity to better their economic situation; that can hardly be a bad thing. Nor is this analysis motivated by the Israeli industrialists, merchants and farmers whose income has been depleted by close to $1 billion annually because they were denied their captive Gazan market.

Rather, it is a call for Israel and its supporters in its confrontation with Hamas to recognize that the substance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is political and ideological, not economic, and that a solution needs to be crafted accordingly.

Integrating the Palestinian and Israeli economies between 1967 and 1987 did not prevent violence. Indeed, both intifadas, in 1987 and in 2000, broke out at times of relative Palestinian prosperity. Denying basic goods and services to Gaza has not subdued the population, changed the regime there or prevented violence; it has fortified Hamas and allowed it to rationalize violence.

It is also a major stain on Israel’s humanitarian record and that of its supporters, including the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership and the quartet of the United States, European Union, U.N. and Russia. Had this latest use of the economic stick worked, it could be justified in the spirit of “a la guerre comme a la guerre.” But it has failed.

It’s time to reopen those passages. Get Gazans back to work. If the violence and military buildup in Gaza continue, we can again try a military response, whether by reoccupying the strip or targeting Hamas leaders. Or we can for the first time try talking to Hamas. But starving Gazans is plainly counterproductive.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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