The world has nearly a century of experience in efforts to peacefully limit the inherent dangers from weapons of war. The usual tools are arms control treaties, demilitarized zones, disarmament, or peacekeepers and other security observers. Now, after its third war with Hamas, Israel wants to apply one of those tools.
As a condition for a cease-fire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks an international force to rid Gaza of any major weapons. His reasons are simple: For this war, Hamas relied on longer-range rockets and dozens of sophisticated tunnels to harm Israelis. Simply containing Hamas no longer seems an option for Israel. The threat from even more deadly weapons may grow.
Instead of seeking only a “quiet for quiet” truce, Israel wants a “lasting quiet.”
If the history of demilitarization and arms control is any guide, however, Israel’s demand could be a fool’s errand. Wars start not because of weapons but from the base instincts of either fear, greed, revenge, national pride, or, in the case of Hamas, religious fervor. Unless those are set right, weapons might simply be taken up again. At some point, Israelis and Palestinians will need to agree on a way to live with each other.
Still, to give Mr. Netanyahu his due in focusing on a physical solution first, it is worth looking at past attempts to disarm entire nations or peoples.
One of the first arms treaties, the Washington Conference of 1922, tried to fix the size of naval forces for Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and the United States. It failed, and may have even contributed to World War II.
Yet a 1925 ban on the use of poison gas and bacteriological weapons set a strong precedent for applying such an international protocol. After World War II and through the cold war, many more attempts were made at weapons elimination and containment, especially nuclear weapons. The Korean demilitarized zone became a model for reducing the risk of war.
The United Nations Charter itself sets strict limits on the use of force. Japan and Germany were occupied until their societies adopted pacifism. The US used a blockade of Cuba to prevent Soviet missiles from being stationed there.
On a global scale, treaties were negotiated to wall off Antarctica, the seabed, and outer space from weapons. Starting in the 1970s, the US and Soviet Union began to mutually curtail their nuclear buildup and encourage other nations not to build such weapons.
Precedents were set by South Africa and Libya to unilaterally rid themselves of weapons of mass destruction. Under threat from the US last year, Syria agreed to give up its chemical weapons.
Last year, the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international body set up to do the work of actually removing such weapons.
In other words, the momentum has been on the side of disarmament and arms control. Most wars since 1945 have not been between states. They were civil conflicts.
Israel’s idea deserves a serious international effort. A former Israeli defense minister, MK Shaul Mofaz, has even proposed a $50 billion investment in Gaza in return for Hamas and other militant groups complying with a disarmament under international supervision. The Islamic militants in Gaza are very isolated right now from their traditional friends or allies, such as Iran, Egypt, and Syria. And the US and Europe back Israel’s idea.
A demilitarized Gaza might help bring about a final Israeli-Palestinian peace pact. And it might even help break the deadlock in talks to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Preventing war can be done in many ways. Curbing the means of war may not be the best. But at least there is a track record for it.