LONDON-The first thing that strikes you about the Gaza Strip is how small it is.
Constrained by the Egyptian desert to its south, the Mediterranean to its west, and the barbed wire and concrete barriers of Israel to its north and east, Gaza is just 25 miles long and about five miles wide. Traded back and forth by empires since the Bronze Age, Gaza was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from the 16th Century until Britain claimed it after World War I, Egypt took it after the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and Israel seized it during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Today, 1.4 million Palestinians live on that strip, most of them descendants of 600,000 Palestinians who fled to Gaza and the West Bank in 1948 after Arab armies – who were unwilling to accept a 1947 United Nations plan to create two states, one Arab and one Jewish, out of British Palestine – chose to attack instead, only to be routed by the Israeli army. Many Palestinians in Gaza still live in refugee camps, waiting for the so-called “right of return,” where they hope to reclaim property left behind by their grandparents 70 years ago on land known then as Palestine but known ever since as the state of Israel.
Perhaps the most hopeful moment for Gazans came on August 15, 2005, when 55,000 Israeli soldiers fanned across Gaza to deliver eviction notices to 9,000 Jewish settlers living on the land, who were given 48 hours to leave. It was part of “the Disengagement,” a unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers ordered by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and supported by 70 percent of Israelis, who were united in the belief that leaving the land they had occupied since 1967 and giving Gaza over to the Palestinians would re-start the peace process. Gazans finally had self-determination at their fingertips.
Six months later, when Palestinians went to the polls for parliamentary elections – choosing between the long-dominant Fatah party or the Islamist extremists of Hamas – chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat declared, “[Hamas] must understand that the transfer of power and authorities will have to be through ballots and not bullets.” Yet, to the shock and horror of Israel and its allies, Gazans cast those ballots in favor of the bullets of Hamas, a terrorist organization whose sole reason for existence was the destruction of Israel. Fatah fled to the West Bank, Hamas took office, and immediately declared war on Israel.
By the time I visited some of the Israeli towns along the Gazan border in 2010, more than 8,000 Hamas rockets had fallen on Israel. Almost all had missed their targets, but one in three Israeli schoolchildren I met suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, the result of daily siren wails announcing they had about 16 seconds to find cover from incoming rockets. By then, Israel had imposed an airtight blockade, controlling Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters, and two of three border crossing points while severely limiting movement in and out of Gaza.
That’s where Israel remains to this day, locked in what Israeli writer Ari Shavit has called a “well-known vicious circle of violence, counterviolence, and countercounterviolence,” in which Israel stands as “a Jewish state in an Arab world, and a Western state in an Islamic world, and a democracy in a region of tyranny,” surrounding by neighbors dedicated to its destruction.
Since Palestinian riots began on March 30th in protest of the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, more rockets and mortar have rained into Israel from Gaza. In response, the Israeli military has reportedly taken more than 1,000 Palestinian lives. Global condemnation of Israel has been swift, with even young American Jews disapproving of Israel’s actions. For the first time in 4,000 years, Israel is Goliath, with a global diaspora, as Shavit has written, that has “paid too much attention to Israel’s wrongdoing, and not enough to the historical and geopolitical context within which Israel has to survive.”
What the world forgets is this: if Hamas recognized Israel’s right to exist tomorrow, the violence would end, the barriers would start to come down, and the spirit of 2005 – and of Gaza itself – would be reborn. Israel doesn’t continue to battle in Gaza because it wants to, but because it has to, to protect its very existence.
As hard as it may be, we have to remember that Palestinian and Israeli officials alike were enthusiastic about Gaza’s economic opportunities in 2005. Israeli settlers made up about 0.5% of the Gaza population, but owned about 20% of the land, which would be refurbished for Palestinian-run industry. Military checkpoints, fences, landmines, and other obstacles used to protect settlers and impede Palestinian movement were dismantled, and there was hope that trade crossings closed for security concerns would be reopened. Sharon even agreed to discuss rebuilding Gaza’s seaport and airport.
That same year, Israel and the EU signed a joint-cooperation action plan, boosting its trade benefits with the economic bloc. Egypt and Jordan redeployed their ambassadors to Tel Aviv.As one senior Israeli defense official put it years later: disengagement had “filled Israel’s legitimacy reserves.”
But all that was stopped in its tracks when the first rockets were launched from Gaza into Israel in 2007. There is no question that Israel shares responsibility for Gaza’s current situation. But there is also no doubt that the vast majority of Gaza’s misery is owed to Hamas, which remains hell-bent on the unattainable fantasy of Israel’s destruction that has cost millions of Palestinians their lives and their livelihoods.
Under Hamas, the Gazan economy today is on the verge of collapse, with 60% of young people aged 15 to 29 unemployed. One in six Gazans now live below the “deep poverty line”- living on less than $3.40 USD a day. And electricity, water, food, and gas shortages threaten to make the strip “inhospitable” as early as 2020, by one UN estimate. Currently, 90% of Gazans do not have access to potable drinking water. As Palestinian journalist Mariam Shahin put the state of the strip post-disengagement: “It is a stillbirth of the Palestinian economy here.”
What’s more, Israelis and Palestinians alike realize that, at the moment, Gazans are stuck with Hamas. As one Israeli commander observed, “At present, and for the foreseeable future, there is not alternative ruler. The alternatives are the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) or chaos. Hamas is the only entity that can hold Gaza.”
So, what is there to learn from those early days of disengagement in 2005, before Gaza devolved into chaos? Three things.
First, regional engagement is paramount. It is a myth that Israel pulled out of Gaza unilaterally, with no time for the Palestinians to prepare. Disengagement became possible only after Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority blessed the move. Similarly, we’ve seen in previous engagements that partners like Egypt are particularly effective at bringing Hamas to the table. If there is no foreseeable future in which Fatah rules over Gaza, then the US and Israel need a legitimate broker that can get concessions out of Hamas, like the ceasefire Egypt orchestrated between Israel and Hamas in 2014.
Second, the most pressing concession should be to let Israeli, Palestinian, and international business interests into Gaza. Hamas regularly rejects aid and infrastructure support offered by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Just last month, Hamas members burned Gaza’s last gas pipeline. In late 2017, it rejected a proposal by Israel to receive desperately needed medicine in return for disarmament.
As a businessman, I would invest in Gaza if given the chance, and I know many Arab and Israeli entrepreneurs who are eager to bring industry to the area as well. In return, Israel could do its part to bring business to Gaza by easing trade, fishing, and farming restrictions, or finally acting on its promise to rebuild the airport it destroyed in 2001. As we saw in 2005 and the years leading up to Hamas’s election, economic misery breeds extremism. But, if given the chance, economic relief could bring greater connection and engagement – and even a chance at peace.
And finally, Israel’s leaders must take a note from Sharon: making peace means taking risks. Sharon knew in 2005 that he was potentially clearing the way for a Hamas takeover. He knew how hard it would be for Israelis to watch thousands of Jews getting kicked out of their homes. Yet, he also recognized that both his people and his soldiers would be safer if there were no Israelis in Gaza. And, by and large, he was right. Sharon prioritized the security of his people, but he also knew that Israel could have security and peace if its leaders were willing to take the necessary risks. Too bad he had a debilitating stroke before he could see that vision through.
Today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his conservative governing coalition speak not of taking risks, or making peace, but the best way to “manage the conflict.”Their strategy accepts a world of perpetual conflict, of security or peace.
This is a false choice, and Sharon knew it back in 2005. Even today, his words launching the Disengagement ring true: “We have passed difficult years, faced the most painful experiences and overcome them. The future lies before us. We are required to take difficult and controversial steps, but we must not miss the opportunity to try to achieve what we have wished for, for so many years: security, tranquility, and peace.”