Op-ed: The change of governments in Washington and in Gaza is both an opportunity and a need to create a change. Israel should respond to the new government in the strip through a change in policy, rather than by just preparing for an inevitable conflict the old way.
A new Hamas leader was elected Monday—Yahya Sanwar, a murderer with blood on his hands. The man, who takes pride in the fact that he murdered 12 collaborators with Israel, plans to lead a tough line and to make soldier abductions a top priority, as he sees that as the essential tactic for releasing his friends who remained in prison after he himself was released in the Shalit deal.
In the past decade, Hamas’ policy has been a sort of compromise between the relatively cautious civilian wing, led by Ismail Haniyeh, and the military wing. From now on, there is only a military leadership, and it is very militant.
Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yoav Galant’s statements about an expected conflict with Hamas in the spring allegedly reflect an inevitable development, but that is not the case. Yahya Sanwar will also realize very fast that “things you see from here you don’t see from there.” Hamas’ supreme interest—to keep controlling Gaza—requires both minimum international legitimacy and an immediate improvement of the economic situation in the strip. Hamas is neither al-Qaeda nor the Islamic State. It is a political movement which needs the support of its street.
Israel can work to increase both the stick and the carrot, without using military force. On the stick side, with the help of the new administration in Washington, it can make a sharp change in the way we used to act in the past and clarify to Hamas—through Turkey, for example—that if it fails to maintain the calm, the state of Gaza and its residents will be prevented from receiving any economic aid, including the United Nations’ massive support for the educational, health and food institutions operating in the strip. In other words, the state of Gaza will not be able to have the best of both worlds—attack Israel with rockets while knowing that there is someone else feeding its residents.
When the rocket fire begins, Israel will immediately close the Kerem Shalom crossing. No fuel, no food and no medications will enter Gaza. A normal state does not keep providing supplies to a state it is in war with. If the Hamas government wants to end its civilians’ suffering it must stop the rocket fire.
On the carrot side, Israel can and should encourage an infrastructure reconstruction project in Gaza, including the creation of a seaport. Gaza’s reconstruction should be carried out in cooperation with the Gaza government, just like anywhere else in the world. Hundreds of millions will be invested in the construction of power stations and desalination facilities, which will provide Gaza’s residents with 24 hours of electricity a day compared to only six hours today, and drinking water. All this will happen if the calm is maintained. When everyone—the government in Gaza, the Strip’s residents, the United Nations and the donor countries—know that as soon as Gaza opens fires these infrastructures will be destroyed, the Gaza government—even a government headed by Sanwar—will not rush into a decision to stop playing by the rules.
In order for such a policy to succeed and prevent a military conflict for a long time, two things should be done: First, the narrative must be changed. Gaza is a state for all intents and purposes, and if this state chooses a military conflict, it will pay the price along with its residents, as has always happened throughout history. By creating a distinction between “the bad guys” (Hamas) and “the good guys” (Gaza’s poor residents), we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
The second thing that must be done is to explain our expected policy in case of a military conflict in advance. When Ehud Olmert first traveled to Washington as prime minister, in the spring of 2006, he avoided discussing the Lebanese issue. When the Second Lebanon War broke out, it was already too late to coordinate the policy with the United States.
The change of governments in Washington and in Gaza are an opportunity, on the one hand, and a need, on the other hand, to create a change. The response to the new government in Gaza should therefore be a change in policy, rather than just preparing for an inevitable conflict the old way.
Major-General (res.) Giora Eiland is a former head of Israel's National Security Council.