from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Israel and Gaza

October 26, 2012

Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (L) and the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani arrive at a cornerstone laying... a new residential neighborhood in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 23, 2012. (Courtesy REUTERS/Mohammed Salem).
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The recent upsurge of mortars and rockets being fired into Israel from Gaza, the strong Israeli military reaction, and the possibility that a stronger reaction may yet come, have raised once again the issue of Israel’s relationship with the small area many Israelis call Hamastan. The visit to Gaza this week of the Emir of Qatar, who was the first foreign head of state to go there since Hamas took over in 2007 and who pledged $400 million in aid to Gaza, has also put the region back on the front pages.

One view suggests that the Emir’s visit is simply a disaster. The money will be very helpful to Hamas and its continued rule. The visit by a head of state itself accords Gaza almost the status of a state—and thereby helps Hamas in its continuing struggle with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. It legitimizes Hamas and its rule in Gaza, which is obviously bad for Israel, bad for the PA, and bad for the United States and all others who view Hamas as a terrorist group.

But there is another view, put forward this week by the former Israeli National Security Advisor, retired Major General Giora Eiland.

He thinks the visit and the aid were perfectly acceptable. He does not believe Israel has any particular interest in reuniting the West Bank and Gaza, rather than seeking a greater integration of Gaza with Egypt. He also notes that efforts by Israel to strengthen the PA and its leader, President Abbas, against Hamas quite often have the opposite effect. He also believes that weakening Hamas does not strengthen Abbas and Fatah in Gaza, because they are so weak there and unable to improve their situation. Instead, weakening Hamas strengthens even more extreme salafist and jihadi groups. He argues that to the extent that Hamas comes to be more like a stable government for Gaza, with a decent economy, it will have that much more to lose from confrontations with Israel. When many more valuable targets are at risk, he believes, Hamas will be more careful.

Eiland says Israel’s only real interest in Gaza is security. He therefore urges a different policy. The first element is to respond extremely strongly to any attack that does come out of Gaza. No slow escalation, no signaling and messaging, just very quick and very tough responses that make Hamas pay a heavy price. Second, after every incident close the border completely and cut off electricity for a while. Again, that is treating Hamas like the government of Gaza and punishing it and its constituents for mortars, rockets, and border attacks. Third, don’t worry about visits by foreign leaders like the Emir of Qatar and the money they bring. And fourth, try to keep the passages between Egypt and Gaza open (though he admits there isn’t much Israel can do here). Israel’s interest is peace and quiet, he says, and this is the way to achieve it.

It is a powerful argument. General Eiland, with whom I dealt often when working at the White House, is always worth listening to, always thoughtful, and often at variance with conventional wisdom. That it is in Israel’s interest to have Egypt play a larger role in Gaza is of course not a new idea, and the fact that elements of the Muslim Brotherhood now rule in both places makes this idea more realistic. And an open border between Egypt and Gaza would make the allegations that Israel has a blockade in effect on that area even more ridiculous than they are now.

Still, there are costs. The further weakening of the PA is not, in my view, in Israel’s interest. Missing in Eiland’s proposal are additional, simultaneous moves to strengthen the West Bank economy, encourage rich Arab leaders to visit there, and take actions that lead (and enable) the PA to act more like a government that is responsible for maintaining security.

Like the rest of us Gen. Eiland is not always right, but his arguments deserve a careful hearing and vigorous debate.

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