The Israel Defense Forces are currently confronting masses of Gazans along the Gaza-Israel boundary fence. Sadly, the confrontation brings into focus the abject lack of a viable strategy on the part of all sides to this conflict. Accordingly, when the smoke clears a month or so from now, there will be no winners. And everybody — Israel, Hamas in Gaza, the PLO in the West Bank — will have lost something.
Israel has no viable strategy. Reoccupy the Strip? The cost in Palestinian suffering and IDF casualties would be horrendous. And Israel would once again be directly responsible for the welfare of two million Palestinians who tip the demographic balance between Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.
Talk to Hamas? The Palestinian Islamist movement, which preaches Israel’s destruction, won’t talk to Israel. But even if it agrees to, this is liable to be seen as a dangerous betrayal of the West Bank-based PLO, Israel’s official negotiating partner, and of moderate neighbors like Egypt and Jordan that support the PLO and oppose the Palestinian Islamist movement.
Opinion | Carnage In Gaza Is A Disaster For Everyone — Including Israel
Plow money into the Strip and turn it into a “Singapore of the Middle East”? That was the slogan 25 years ago when the Oslo process was born. Now Oslo is dead and every investment in Gaza has been swept into the sea along with Gaza’s sewage. Besides, experience should have taught us that “economic peace” projects end up benefiting neither the economy nor peace: Gazans are storming the border fence out of religious-ideological ardor and because for them the conflict has become a dead end.
Seal off the Strip? Israel can employ Iron Dome in the air, a concrete wall to sever tunnels underground, and sharpshooters above ground. But can the Gaza Strip be quarantined forever?
So Israel falls back periodically on “mowing the lawn,” hardly a strategy. Opening fire on Hamas militants but also on unarmed demonstrators is supposed to deter Gazans. Eventually it will succeed — for a while. Having no strategy means there is no alternative to short-term deterrence.
Most Israelis support this approach. A minority, concerned for Israel’s soul and Gaza’s humanitarian dilemma but also lacking a viable strategy, found its voice in the Meretz party’s call to investigate the extent of last Friday’s killing of 16 Gazans at the fence. They were dismissed by Defense Minister Lieberman as “not belonging to Israel.” Thus does the absence of a viable Israeli strategy feed Israeli ultra-nationalism and anti-pluralism.
Hamas has no viable strategy either. As an Islamist movement, it is incapable of coming to terms with Israel’s existence. As a military organization it can only bring suffering and defeat to its minions, even as it expands its attack tactics from rockets to underground tunnels and now to masses of humans. A refugee march back into Israel from Gaza was threatened as early as 1949 and was blunted then, as now, by armed force.
Nor does Hamas seem capable of generating a genuine passive resistance movement. The Palestinian concept in the West Bank has always deemed lethal stoning and Molotov cocktails to be “non-violent”; now in Gaza we encounter armed attacks through the fence under cover of unarmed demonstrators. Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar was heard last Friday inciting his fighters to “eat the livers” of IDF soldiers. It is hardly surprising that most of those killed by the IDF were identified as Hamas fighters.
The current Hamas strategy appears to be two-pronged. It enables Gazans to vent their frustrations on Israel rather than on their hapless Islamist leadership. And it generates the photo-ops and emotional funerals that produce another round of international hand-wringing at the United Nations and vicious verbal attacks on Israel by the likes of Turkey’s Erdogan.
Hamas believes it is entrapping Israel by obliging it to kill Palestinians. All it really does is feed Palestinian extremism. Netanyahu’s Israel, with an incoherent Trump administration and an indifferent Sunni Arab world behind it, appears to be unimpressed.
But this is not over. Hamas intends for mass demonstrations at the fence to escalate regularly: on Fridays; on “Prisoners Day,” April 17; on Nakba Day, May 15, paralleling Israel’s seventieth Independence Day and the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem. Hamas seeks to expand the protest to the West Bank, where aging PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas contemplates both the total absence of a viable US-sponsored peace process with Israel but also the Hamas challenge to his leadership — to which he has responded by cutting funds to the Strip. Abbas, like Israel and Hamas, lacks a viable strategy.
Will this drama spin out of the control of Israel, Hamas or both? Will it produce another war involving Hamas rockets and tunnels and an Israeli invasion? Will a mass of refugees succeed in breaching the fence, thereby realizing Israel’s worst nightmare? Will the international community again sanctimoniously condemn Israel’s excesses and pledge millions in aid to Gaza that won’t be delivered? What is certain is that Gaza’s humanitarian crisis will continue and deepen. UNRWA, the UN’s instrument for both prolonging the refugee issue and feeding more than a million hungry Gazans, won’t be reformed. The cry for “return” by millions of grandchildren of 1948 refugees who insist that Israel was born in sin won’t be stilled.
Back in April 1956, when the original refugees murdered Israeli settler Roi Rotberg, Moshe Dayan stood over his fresh grave and proclaimed, “Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken. This is the fate of our generation.”
And another generation, and another, both Israelis and Palestinians. There is absolutely no end in sight. There is only the slippery slope down which all of us, bereft of viable strategies, are descending toward an ugly and conflicted bi-national reality.
Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and former coeditor of bitterlemons.net. His most recent book is No End of Conflict: Rethinking Israel-Palestine.