Israel must take and hold Gaza indefinitely – analysis

Had anyone in 2005 warned that Israel would be facing the threats it faces today, they would have been dismissed and denounced as radical right-wing scaremongers.

By Martin Sherman

“Operation Breaking Dawn” vividly underscored the pernicious paradox that has characterized Israel over the last five decades. On the one hand, the country displays indisputable tactical and technological brilliance. On the other, it is chronically afflicted by gross strategic imbecility.

While some might find this assessment excessively severe, consider the massive enhancement of Israel’s tactical-technological capabilities since the 1967 Six-Day War and the commensurate degradation of Israel’s strategic position over the same period.

After Israel’s stunning victory over the combined forces of six Arab armies and the widespread international admiration that followed, who would have imagined that Israel would be where it finds itself today? Enemy militias are deployed within mortar range of the nation’s parliament and the very idea of Jewish national sovereignty is under savage global attack.

Moreover, the Arabs have succeeded in shearing off large swathes of territory from Israeli control. Despite wallowing in backwardness and failure, they have advanced inexorably closer to Israel’s metropolises, industrial hubs and major population centers relative to the situation that prevailed in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war.

Moreover, many of Israel’s recent technological marvels were developed in order to deal with threats that only arose because of strategic myopia. For example, the much-vaunted Iron Dome defense system was created to deal with the rocket threat that emerged following the ill-advised abandonment of the Gaza Strip in 2005. Likewise, the ultra-sophisticated, billion-dollar barrier surrounding the Strip was constructed in response to the maze of underground attack tunnels that proliferated once the IDF pulled out.

Had anyone in 2005 warned that Israel would be facing the threats it faces today, they would have been dismissed and denounced as radical right-wing scaremongers.

The perennial defect in Israeli strategy has been based on the faulty perception that the Palestinian Arabs should be treated as potential peace partners rather than implacable enemies. This spawned the additional assumption that the Palestinian public is the unfortunate victim of its bellicose leadership, rather than the source of that leadership itself.

Just how hopelessly out of touch with reality Israeli leaders are was underscored by senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar’s rejection of then-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s 2017 offer to turn Gaza “into the Singapore of the Middle East.” Liberman proposed building a seaport and an airport, as well as creating an industrial zone that would help produce 40,000 jobs in the Strip. All this would be done if Hamas agreed to demilitarization and dismantled the tunnel and rocket systems it had built.

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The Hamas response came quickly. Zahar dismissed Lieberman’s offer, sneering, “If we wanted to turn Gaza into Singapore, we would have done it ourselves. We do not need favors from anyone.”

This tart retort prompted a bleak observation from Gatestone scholar Bassam Tawil, “Why did Hamas reject an offer for a seaport, airport and tens of thousands of jobs for Palestinians? Because Hamas does not see its conflict with Israel as an economic issue. The dispute is not about improving the living conditions of Palestinians, as far as Hamas is concerned. Instead, it is about the very existence of Israel.”

He added caustically, “Hamas deserves credit for one thing: Its honesty concerning its intentions to destroy Israel and kill as many Jews as possible. Hamas does not want 40,000 new jobs for the poor unemployed Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. It would rather see these unemployed Palestinians join its ranks and become soldiers in its quest to replace Israel with an Islamic empire.”

Naive optimism vs. Gaza polls

Those who subscribe to the rationale underpinning Israeli strategy appear to cling to the belief that most Gazans resent Hamas and would willingly cast off its authoritarian control of their lives, especially if it would enhance their economic well-being.

Such naïve optimism does not only fly in the face of Zahar’s statement, but is refuted by the results of public opinion surveys conducted by reputable Palestinian pollsters.

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For example, one survey showed that in the immediate aftermath of “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in May 2021, despite the heavy damage inflicted on Gaza and its residents, public support for Hamas rose steeply.

Over 70% of those polled believed that Hamas’s motive in the fighting was to defend Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Almost 80% felt Hamas had won the clash with Israel and nearly two-thirds thought Hamas had achieved the goals it set for itself. Public assessment of Hamas’s performance was “excellent.”

Similar praise was assigned to Israeli Arabs for their violent riots across Israel. Almost 55% considered Hamas, rather than Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah Party, worthy of representing and leading the Palestinians.

Moreover, nearly 95% of those surveyed felt a sense of pride in Hamas’s performance. Almost 70% expressed willingness to renew the fighting if Israel carried out the court-mandated eviction of Arab residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem.

A more recent poll conducted in Dec. 2021 reflected similar public sentiments, with support for Hamas significantly outstripping support for Fatah.

Almost a quarter century has passed since Israel unilaterally abandoned the Gaza Strip, removing almost every vestige of Jewish presence and Zionist industry. In stark contrast to the promises made by the architects of the withdrawal, it brought neither peace nor stability. Quite the reverse. The threat from Gaza has grown exponentially, from a terrorist nuisance to a strategic threat.

‘Acceptable losses’

Despite this, Israeli policymakers have clung stubbornly to the idea that the Palestinian Arabs will undergo a miraculous metamorphosis that will transform them into something they have not been for over a hundred years and induce them to accept permanent infidel control over land they consider their own.

The periods of calm that have followed Israel’s clashes with Gaza have led to misguided discussion on whether the heavy damage and casualties inflicted deterred the enemy from further aggression. While it is true that each round of fighting led to a ceasefire, there is no indication that any substantial deterrence was achieved.

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In fact, the opposite is the case. Gaza terror groups have exploited the interbellum lulls to regroup, rearm and redeploy. They have emerged each time with their capabilities enhanced and their willingness to reengage undiminished.

This pattern repeated itself in “Operation Breaking Dawn.” Israel displayed remarkably accurate intelligence capabilities and precise use of technological munitions to launch surgical strikes against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) leadership. Yet despite an overwhelming preponderance of military might, the IDF was unable to stop the rocket fire from Gaza. Even with its leadership decapitated, the PIJ showed it could still rain down hundreds of missiles on Israel.

Moreover, Israel again permitted its terrorist enemy to survive, inflicting what its adversary considered “acceptable losses,” leaving it spoiling for another fight.

Reality is brutal and simple

In its quest for lasting peace, Israel has run the gamut of possible policies: negotiated withdrawal, unilateral retreat and periodic military operations. None have brought about the desired result. At times, they have even been counterproductive.

Israel’s political leaders do not seem to understand this. They resolutely refuse to change their mentality. Surely the inconvenient truth, however unpalatable, should be apparent, even to those reluctant to recognize reality.

This reality is brutally simple: It is or should be clear that Israel cannot control the situation in Gaza until it controls Gaza. It cannot determine who rules Gaza or how it is ruled unless it rules Gaza itself. Israel, in other words, must take, hold and govern the Gaza Strip indefinitely.

In the end, the lesson of Gaza is that Israel must abandon the forlorn hope of winning Arab friendship. It must pursue different strategic goals. The maximum it can hope for is to be grudgingly accepted as an invincible rival. The minimum it must achieve is to be feared as a ferocious adversary, never to be trifled with.

Martin Sherman is the founder & executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.