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The Gaza conundrum and the two-state solution

No matter how the latest exchange of fire between Israel and Hamas ends, the standoff in Gaza raises serious questions about faith in reviving the peace process.

A view of the Gaza Strip as seen from the Israeli side of the border on Aug. 9, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
A view of the Gaza Strip as seen from the Israeli side of the border on Aug. 9, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

For Israelis, it’s a case of déjà vu all over again.

As they have so many times in the last 11 years since the Hamas coup in Gaza, residents of southern Israel have spent the last days dashing to shelters as the Islamist terrorist group showered the region with rocket fire. Once again, the Israel Defense Forces struck back hard and prepared for the possibility that Hamas will make a fatal miscalculation, leaving Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu no choice but to launch the sort of devastating military campaign that would—like “Operation Protective Edge” in the summer of 2014—bring some quiet to the border.

View of the Gaza Strip as seen from the Israeli side of the border on Aug. 9, 2018. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

But whether or not another temporary ceasefire is reached before things get out of hand, the one thing that everyone on both sides of the border knows is that a real solution to the problem is not in sight.

Neither Israel nor Egypt will lift the blockade of Gaza as long as Hamas is in power—for the very obvious reason that doing so would allow Iran and other bad regional actors to help arm the terrorists and make the strip an even more formidable military stronghold.

Since Israel has no desire to rule Gaza again—let alone pay the price in blood and treasure in order to take back the territory it abandoned in 2005—the only possible candidate to replace the Islamist group is the Palestinian Authority. But despite its occasional feints in the direction of a unity deal with Hamas, the P.A. has no interest in taking on the burden of administering Gaza. Indeed, it was the P.A. and its leader Mahmoud Abbas’s attempt to put financial pressure on Hamas that has helped precipitate the new round of fighting.

While Hamas wouldn’t mind seeing their Fatah rivals that run the P.A. having to figure out how to collect the garbage and carry out all the other responsibilities that make governing the impoverished enclave a near impossible task, they will never surrender their weapons or give up the armed struggle against Israel. Indeed, they have spent the last year doubling down on the notion that they represent the cause of the descendants of the 1948 refugees, and their desire to “return” and end Israel as a Jewish state. This helps focus the population of Gaza on external foes—the Jews they’ve been taught to hate—rather than on the Islamist tyrants who have spent the last 11 years worsening an already dismal situation on the strip.

That means the possible terms of a long-term truce with Gaza, including a return of the remains of Israeli soldiers and the building of a seaport for Gaza, as well as the opening of more border crossings, that have been floated are as much a fantasy right now as the Palestinian delusions about wiping out the last 70 years of history. Though neither side, especially Netanyahu, who is characteristically cautious about putting the IDF in harm’s way, wants another war, Hamas may wind up overestimating its leverage because it thinks that Israel is too concerned about the threat from Iran and Hezbollah in the north to pay attention to the enemy in the south.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that cooler heads prevail, and Hamas decides to stop firing rockets at Israel. Let’s further assume that somehow the threat of an IDF offensive causes Hamas to clamp down on the launching of incendiary kites and balloons that have burned so many fields, and made life on the border hell for Israelis in recent months. That would be an optimal outcome for Israel and, no doubt, revive hope for a renewal of the peace process and encouragement for the Trump administration’s plans to put forward a new peace proposal.

But even if all that happened, this shouldn’t provide any comfort for those who still hold onto hope for a two-state solution.

Abbas and the P.A. have made it clear that it won’t negotiate or make concessions that would mean a permanent end to the conflict with Israel. But even if they did accept Trump’s terms that would give them a state, that would merely replicate the current crisis in the south in the far larger and more strategically placed West Bank alongside Jerusalem and Israel’s most heavily populated areas.

A theoretical peace deal will likely give Israel all sorts of security guarantees. But what good would those guarantees be once an independent Palestinian state fell under the sway of Hamas, as Gaza did within two years of Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal of every Israeli soldier, settler and settlement in 2005? At the time, Sharon and others who supported his plan boasted that if the Palestinians in Gaza caused Israel any trouble, the IDF would make them pay such a terrible price that they’d never try it again. But what Israelis learned was that no matter how terrible the pain the army inflicts on Gaza, it doesn’t stop the Palestinians from resuming the fighting the next time one of their leading terror groups decides its in their interest to do so.

While those who care about Israel should be focused on the suffering of the people of towns like Sderot, which are once again under siege from Hamas fire, we should also spare a thought for what would happen if the rockets were being fired from an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, and the suburbs of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were transformed into new and even more vulnerable Sderots.

Nothing short of Palestinian groups explicitly admitting defeat and renouncing their war on Israel will bring relief to Gaza or make two states possible. Even if we believed Abbas and Fatah really wanted peace, as long as Hamas is armed and in control of any territory, that isn’t possible. While we should all pray that a ceasefire is reinstated and holds for as long as possible, until this basic conundrum is addressed, the efforts of the Trump administration and others to promote peace will continue to be an exercise in futility.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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