By Matthew Duss, President Of The Foundation For Middle East Peace
The Gaza war – what was it good for, exactly? The conflict now seems to be winding down following the commencement of a 72-hour ceasefire Tuesday, leaving behind a toll of death and destruction. As of this writing, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are huddled in Cairo to try to work out a longer-term truce, so it’s time to consider how to avoid another rerun in two years.
There’s a growing consensus that a way forward is for the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to take control of the Rafah crossing on the Egypt-Gaza border, and, eventually, to assert broader security control under the auspices of the Hamas-Fatah unity government created in early June. Hamas forcibly ejected the PA’s security forces in a short but violent 2007 civil war, and there have been several failed attempts at reconciliation since then.
Unfortunately, bringing the PA back to Gaza is an option that could and should have been looked at more seriously before this latest round of violence, which has claimed some 1,800 Palestinian lives, at least half of them civilians. Rather than agree to work with the Palestinian unity government, as did the United States, the European Union and others, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately rejected it.
And yet it’s Netanyahu who is outraged about Western criticism of his ill-advised war. Over the weekend, as an earlier cease-fire broke down, he reportedly told U.S. officials “not to ever second-guess me again” on Hamas. Leaving aside the fact that $3 billion a year in aid should probably buy the United States the right to second-guess our client whenever we want, Netanyahu’s behavior over the past few years – whether it is building settlements that undermine the prospects for peace or shouting his vigorous opposition even to a sensible nuclear deal with Iran – indicates someone who deserves to be second-guessed, and loudly.
This is very much the case with Netanyahu’s response to the Palestinian unity government. In a press conference on Wednesday, Netanyahu indicated that he would be open to the possibility of the PA taking control of the Rafah crossing. It’s a tragedy that this option wasn’t explored earlier. At the time the unity government was announced, Israeli security analysts Kobi Michael and Udi Dekel recommended that Israel take the opportunity to empower the PA by “focus[ing] on rebuilding and developing the Gaza Strip, with the PA in charge of the Gaza Strip crossings” – precisely what’s being considered now, 1800 deaths later. Maybe the United States should have second-guessed Netanyahu earlier, and more forcefully, on this point.
It’s important to remember that Hamas came into the unity agreement on terms very favorable to its Fatah rivals, seeing it as the only option to reverse the militant group’s growing regional isolation. The United States agreed to work with the proposed government because it met the international community’s conditions—recognize Israel, honor past agreements, end the violence—conditions, it’s worth noting, that the current Israeli government does not meet with respect to the Palestinians
In the wake of Israel’s recent assault, however, Fatah’s advantage has diminished. Hamas’ military wing has been able to show that it can inflict casualties on an invading Israeli force while still firing off hundreds of rockets. And despite the Israeli government’s apparent expectation otherwise, Hamas, thanks to its “resistance model,” is now more popular than the more conciliatory Fatah even in the West Bank, notes the Ramallah-based journalist Dalia Hatuqa.
Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, who spent his career in the Israeli intelligence service worrying about terrorist attacks from groups like Hamas, agrees. He told Germany’s Der Spiegel: “Israel should have been more sophisticated in the way it reacted. We should have supported the Palestinians because we want to make peace with everybody, not with just two-thirds or half of the Palestinians.”
The blockade policy also should have been second-guessed earlier, and harder. Yes, preventing Hamas and other extremist groups from obtaining materials to construct weapons is an entirely justifiable and necessary goal—but the blockade was unnecessarily broad, punishing all Gazans for the crimes of Hamas and preventing any sustainable economic development. It also spurred the proliferation of a network of smuggling tunnels along Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, helping Hamas develop expertise in tunnel construction that it then used in the creation of its network of attack tunnels in the north, near Israel.
While it’s important to avoid the perception that Hamas is being rewarded for its provocations, continuing to squeeze Gaza to deny Hamas a “victory” would be short-sighted. Efforts to argue otherwise should be vigorously second-guessed. In fact, easing the blockade was a condition of the 2012 cease-fire, one that was never implemented by Israel, even though Hamas largely met its commitment to suppress rocket fire. This previous commitment should not now be retooled into a “concession.” At the same time, care should be taken to see that the benefits of ending the blockade accrue primarily to Gaza’s civilian population, not to Hamas.
Finally, if efforts to strengthen the PA in Gaza do move forward (and this is a big “if”), it’s important to stress that the PA cannot simply be empowered in Gaza as a security subcontractor for Israel, a perception that has continued to weaken Abbas and profit Hamas over the past years. To create a genuinely positive dynamic, Israel must meet Palestinian security cooperation with genuine steps toward sovereignty, security, economic development and eventually statehood. Netanyahu has shown little interest in these things. But the time for second-guessing is now—not when the next round of pointless fighting breaks out.