Israelis ponder alternatives to 'mowing the lawn' in Gaza

Israel has yet to articulate a long-term strategy for Gaza, but there is a growing consensus that a military operation every few years is not the answer.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Smoke rise after what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday. Israelis ponder alternatives to a long-term solution for Gaza.

Not too many Israelis seem able or willing to articulate a long-term solution for Gaza. But Gilad Sharon, the son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, has offered an unequivocal strategy: Crush the coastal territory with such force that Gaza militants will never again be able to strike Israel.

“There is no justification for the State of Gaza being able to shoot at our towns with impunity,” he wrote in a Nov. 18 Op-Ed for The Jerusalem Post, arguing that the territory has effectively become a sovereign entity under Hamas and thus bears responsibility for attacks on Israel. “We need to flatten entire neighborhoods in Gaza. Flatten all of Gaza. The Americans didn’t stop with Hiroshima – the Japanese weren’t surrendering fast enough, so they hit Nagasaki, too.

“There should be no electricity in Gaza, no gasoline or moving vehicles, nothing,” he added. “Then they’d really call for a ceasefire.”

Mr. Sharon’s strong words have caused wincing both in Israel and abroad, as international pressure grows for a truce to end the fighting. But there is a strong strain of thought in Israel that sees military deterrence as the pillar of any long-term strategy. Some compare Gaza militant groups to weeds, arguing that Israel’s military needs to “mow the lawn” every few years to keep the situation under control.

“I do think that their conclusion is that once every several years, we must launch a preventive operation and destroy some of the Hamas government’s [military] power, in particular the long-range missiles,” says political scientist Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University. “That’s the strategy.”

But even many of those who say that Israel has no other choice than to rely on military action acknowledge that brute force alone will not guarantee Israel’s security, given the hatred of Israel that is cultivated in Gaza schools and society – and heightened, some argue, by operations like Pillar of Defense.

“We see indoctrination as the key issue,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. “It’s got to be something really profound that stops it.”

“We have all kinds of contingency planning,” he said, speaking at a briefing last month before Operation Pillar of Defense began. “If worst comes to worst, we can take a much wider operation in Gaza … But this is not going to really solve the problem.”

There are also concerns on the Israeli left about what a semi-permanent state of conflict would do to Israeli society. “There is a danger of society taking on a bestial nature,” said celebrated playwright Yehoshua Sobol, one of roughly 100 Israeli figures who have drafted a petition to end the violence with Gaza. “The danger is not just from the missiles, but also from our society becoming morally corrupt. We have to remember that there are human beings on the other side, not animals,” The Jerusalem Post quoted him as saying

Withdrawing was a 'mistake'

It was former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who withdrew Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, a controversial move intended to reduce friction with Palestinians and stem international criticism of Israel for occupying the territory. The following year, Hamas won parliamentary elections by a landslide. Then in 2007, after quarreling with its secular rivals in Fatah, Hamas violently ousted them, estranging Gaza from the West Bank. The Palestinian house remains divided today, as reconciliation efforts flounder.

Some Israelis fault Mr. Sharon’s withdrawal for paving the way for greater militancy. “All the places where Israeli settlers used to live in Gaza are now areas from which rockets are launched [toward Israel],” says Mesodi Sugaker, a resident of Kiryat Malachi, where three people were killed by rocket fire last week. “They couldn’t do that before…. All the people who died, died because Ariel Sharon made a big mistake in his life.”

But there is little desire for Israel to reoccupy Gaza now, even though the Israel Defense Forces are strong enough to do so.

“The IDF can conquer Gaza tomorrow and wipe out Hamas, but then the question is, ‘What do you do the following morning?’” says Yehuda Ben Meir of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, pointing to the challenges the US military has faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It’s not so difficult sometimes to overcome the military foe but it’s very difficult to control the territory and to rule it. The last thing Israel wants to do is to rule Gaza again.”

Possible solutions

Professor Ben Meir says that while the ultimate solution would be to remove Hamas, sometimes there is no choice but to take a middle road.

“It doesn’t have a clear-cut end-game, but the idea is to create a deterrent,” he says. “With Hezbollah it’s worked for six years.”

Indeed, since the end of Israel’s month-long 2006 war with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the border has been very calm.

“This has been the quietest period in south Lebanon/northern Israel since 1978,” says Milos Struger, a veteran official with UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.

But Hezbollah is widely believed to be steadily rearming and fortifying its positions in the rugged hills of south Lebanon, and is now far stronger than when the last war broke out. And Ben Meir acknowledges that there are key differences between Hezbollah and Hamas. For one, Hezbollah has a dominant hold on south Lebanon, whereas Hamas has faced an increasing challenge from Islamic Jihad and has been either unable or unwilling to keep all of Gaza’s various militant groups in check. 

There is a growing consensus in Israel that the ultimate solution may not be the reunification of Gaza and the West Bank into a sovereign Palestinian state, but rather Gaza breaking off and either becoming its own entity or a statelet of Egypt – though Cairo doesn’t appear to relish that idea.

“The way out of the current situation in the long-term is the normalization of the international border between Gaza and Egypt for the passage of goods and people,” says Gershon Baskin, an independent Israeli negotiator who was working with Egypt and Hamas to arrange a cease-fire when Pillar of Defense broke out. “The total kind of dependence on Israel that existed in the past for electricity, water, food, and other things is going to have to be diverted toward Egypt.” 

“I think violence is not the answer for Israel,” he says.

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