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columnIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

The Gaza Strip and learning to live with insoluble problems

It’s not easy to accept that alternatives to the dilemma created by letting it become an independent terrorist state may be worse than the status quo.

IDF tanks stationed near the Israel-Gaza border on March 26, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
IDF tanks stationed near the Israel-Gaza border on March 26, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Upon its conclusion, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rightly lauded the Israel Defense Forces for its brilliant work during “Operation Shield and Arrow.” The five-day campaign exacted a heavy toll on the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terrorist organization as the IDF took out several of the group’s leaders, along with rank-and-file members, as well as a considerable amount of its armaments and infrastructure. And thanks to the Iron Dome air-defense system, PIJ did very little damage to Israeli targets, making the terrorists much less likely to risk their remaining personnel and rockets on another barrage on the Jewish state in the immediate future.

But like every other previous exchange with Gaza-based terrorists, even the most successful strikes do not solve the problem Israel created in 2005. Israel is unwilling to pay the price to wipe out the Hamas organization that rules Gaza with an iron fist and continues to terrorize Israeli civilians. This gives the Islamist groups a degree of freedom of action enabling them to start hostilities time and again, disrupting Israeli life with relative impunity.

This raises an important question that is hard for both Israelis and Americans to answer: How do you live with an essentially insoluble problem?

The answer from most Israelis is the pragmatic one that Netanyahu and the country’s security establishment have settled on, albeit reluctantly.

The IDF doesn’t have the opportunity to defeat the terrorists in a conventional military manner, in which they would be disarmed and stripped of their ability to inflict future harm on Israelis—let alone fire, as PIJ did last week, more than a 1,000 rockets and missiles at the Jewish state. Only a few got through, including one that scored a direct hit on a building in Rehovot and killed an elderly woman, and another that ironically killed a Palestinian from Gaza who was working in Israel.

Still, the Israelis do have the capability to inflict considerable harm on the terrorists, forcing them to rebuild and rearm, essentially continually kicking the can down the road. The IDF calls this “mowing the grass,” an inelegant yet descriptive metaphor for a strategy whose optimal result is to preserve an unsatisfactory status quo or at least push off the threat to an indefinite future.

Not everyone in the country agrees with this.

For example, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich reacted to the end of the latest fighting by saying that it was “inevitable” that Israel would be forced to undertake a “major ground operation” in Gaza to get to “the root of the problem,” and dismantle and disarm the terrorist infrastructure.

That’s logical, though few other Israelis have any appetite for such a fight.

In 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon withdrew every Israeli settlement, settler and soldier from the Strip in the hope that this gesture would lead to the Palestinians creating a model for peace and development. Sharon assured skeptics that if the Palestinians used their control of Gaza to begin firing into Israel, the IDF would be able to easily deal with the situation and even reverse the withdrawal.

But that’s not what happened.

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Gaza became an independent terrorist state in all but name. And it became apparent almost immediately that the cost of going into Gaza to end the terrorist threat—in terms of Israeli and Palestinian casualties, and equally, international support—would be too high for any Israeli government to pay.

And so was born a problem to which there is no answer. For the past 17 years, much like Smotrich, many Israelis have said that the current situation cannot go on. And yet, it does.

In this way, dealing with the terrorists in Gaza has become very much like the conundrum in Judea and Samaria, where much of the world believes that the Palestinians should be allowed to set up yet another independent state, either with or without Gaza.

In the 56 years since Israel unified Jerusalem, and took control of Judea and Samaria, pundits and foreign-policy “experts” have been saying that the status quo cannot go on for much longer. Yet it has.

Despite the talk of doom and gloom for an Israel that continued to “occupy” the heart of the ancient Jewish homeland and guaranteed its security by ensuring that no hostile army could set foot on the western bank of the Jordan River, those predictions were proven wrong.

Rather than being swamped by a demographic problem that (thanks to Jewish population growth and Arab emigration) was nowhere near as serious as many thought or subjected to a South Africa-style isolation campaign that broke its ability to go on, Israel has continued to thrive. It now has a First World economy and is a regional military superpower that counts several formerly hostile Arab and Muslim states as allies and strategic partners—developments that were unimaginable when the “occupation” began.

How was that possible?

For one thing, the perennial belief on the part of the foreign-policy establishment that “solving” the Palestinian problem was the key to dealing with all of America’s problems in the Middle East was completely wrong. Even if the Palestinians got everything they wanted, which basically means Israel ceasing to exist, it wouldn’t do a thing to deal with Islamist terrorism in the region or Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.

First Egypt in 1979, then Jordan in 1994, and in 2020, as a result of the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords, other Arab and Muslim states realized that allowing themselves to continue being held hostage to Palestinian intransigence was madness that did nothing to help their countries.

And as unpleasant as the task of dealing with terrorism in the territories continues to be, it is not so onerous as to prevent Israel from becoming a relatively prosperous and strong nation.

The same is true for having to suffer the existence of a terrorist enclave on Israel’s southern flank. It’s a problem that remains expensive and frustrating. But it’s not so difficult as to inflict anything but superficial damage to Israel’s economy or security.

That’s doubly frustrating for those American governments that have always wrongly viewed the conflict with the Palestinians as a territorial dispute that could be solved by compromise. Even former President Donald Trump, who led the most pro-Israel administration to date, harbored delusions about being able to broker the “deal of the century.”

But that was no more true for the former real estate mogul than it was for Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

They all failed because the conflict is not about real estate or the result of misunderstandings to be overcome with reason and compromise. The Jews have been agreeing to compromises for decades, including the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan and the 1993 Oslo Accords, and subsequent offers of Palestinian statehood made by Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert. But each such effort has failed for one reason: The century-old Palestinian war on Zionism is a zero-sum game. The Palestinian goal isn’t a state alongside Israel of one size or another. It’s the destruction of Israel, period.

Once that becomes clear, then learning to live with the anomalous situations in Judea, Samaria and Gaza isn’t that hard to understand.

In a war in which one side cannot be appeased by anything short of their opponent’s complete destruction, compromise is impossible. Just as important, total war solutions employed to end conflicts in other parts of the world are not available to Israel. The Jewish state has no appetite for unleashing mass devastation on the other side’s population and wouldn’t be permitted by its allies and international opinion to do so.

That doesn’t satisfy Israelis who want an end to the Gaza terrorist nightmare or Americans who cling to myths about “land for peace.”

The conflict will end when the Palestinians finally admit defeat and acknowledge that Israel is the victor in their long struggle. Since Israel can’t do what is necessary to convince them of the futility of their struggle to erase the history of the last century, for the foreseeable future, maintaining the status quo is the best anyone can hope for.

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

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