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Israel needs a new strategy in Gaza

Ariel Sharon’s strategy in Gaza of “Divide and Rule” failed, and we are yet to see a successful military solution for the Strip. Is there anyone in the Israeli leadership with the courage and power to lead a political solution?

By Lev Grinberg

The Israeli government has drawn the IDF and the entire country into a deeply complex situation, one that the country has not experienced since the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. It is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding: The model of control in Gaza built by Ariel Sharon in 2004 has collapsed. That framework was based on land and sea blockades, and the closure of border crossings into the Strip, resulting in a network of smuggling tunnels. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi changed the rules of the game by shutting access to the tunnels as a part of his domestic struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood, pushing the Palestinians to politically realign in a national unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah. The question is how Israeli diplomacy will adapt to these new circumstances?

A soldier stands next to a Hamas-built tunnel outside Gaza. (photo: IDF Spokesperson/ CC BY-NC 2.0)

A soldier stands next to a Hamas-built tunnel outside Gaza. (photo: IDF Spokesperson/ CC BY-NC 2.0)

The model Sharon built led to relative stability between 2005-14, despite the heavy cost of rounds of violence every few years. The model was built on the colonial principle of “Divide and Rule.” It was a division between Gaza and the West Bank, and between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Sharon understood that the IDF would neither be able to stop the mortars and rockets, nor discover the smuggling tunnels. Moreover, the IDF was suffering unnecessary physical losses as a result of daily clashes with Gazan militants, as well as losses in international public opinion as it took violent action against a civilian population. From this point of view, the unilateral withdrawal of 2005 was thus a successful tactic aimed at cutting down the number of Israeli losses, and granting legitimacy to the use of force against Palestinian citizens, claiming that violence was used in self-defense.

However, the withdrawal from Gaza actually had a long-term diplomatic goal: Prevent international pressure to establish a Palestinian state, as promised by former U.S. President Bush’s road map. Sharon’s adviser, Dov Weisglass, explained the logic behind the withdrawal to Haaretz back in 2004: “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process…and when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state…this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda…all this with authority and permission…with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

In order to prevent a political process resulting in a Palestinian state it was necessary to withdraw unilaterally; otherwise there would have been a need to negotiate with the PA over basic issues such as security arrangements, opening of border crossings and bi-lateral economic agreements. The outcome of those negotiations would have been a reconnection between Gaza and the West Bank on all levels – economically, politically and socially, i.e. the opposite of the original intention to “divide and rule.”

The army was not pleased with the unilateral exit from Gaza, which it considered damaging to its power to deter Palestinian violence. In March 2004, objection to the unilateral withdrawal was publicly announced by then Chief of Staff Moshe “Boogie” Yaalon and Head of the Shin Bet Avi Dichter. They claimed that a unilateral withdrawal would strengthen terrorist infrastructure and consolidate Hamas against the PA. They were right, of course; yet Sharon didn’t hesitate in dismissing them and replacing them with Dan Halutz and Yuval Diskin, respectively.

Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon (photo: Moshe Milner / Government Press Office)

Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon (photo: Moshe Milner / Government Press Office)

Armies dislike unilateral withdrawals, unless they are tied to an agreement that can bring permanent stability. Since the 2005  Gaza withdrawal, the IDF has been in an undesirable position, to say the least. It has the legitimacy to use increasing power and enjoy international support, but it cannot defeat the enemy despite its power. It has repeatedly suffered damage to its image abroad due to the vast number of innocent Palestinian civilians killed, and it has lost standing among Israelis because of its inability to claim victory. Since Sharon fell ill no one has ever examined the motives and political logic of his strategy; there are only demands to investigate the military strategies after each round of fighting. However, the problem is, in fact, political, and stems from the collapse of the model of control that led things to snowball both diplomatically and militarily.

The collapse of Sharon’s model generated significant change. As a result of Sisi’s tunnel destruction, Hamas was forced to build a coalition with the PA, and by doing so it challenged Israel’s “Divide and Rule” strategy. In response, Netanyahu launched a battle to reinstate a broken model that had already collapsed. However, the connection between Hamas and the PA has only strengthened during Operation Protective Edge – socially among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, politically among their leaders, and physically in the demand for lifting of the blockade and opening the border crossings. The collapse of Sharon’s strategy generated change because without the tunnels residents of Gaza need a new connection to the outside world. The political challenge in Israel now is how to build a new model of control in light of the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement.

The IDF elite won’t dare say today what was said by Chief of Staff Dan Shomron in 1987, when the 1967 model of control collapsed (at the start of the First Intifada). It won’t dare say publicly that there is no military solution to Palestinian resistance. The problem is that in the current deterioration of Israeli politics it is unclear who will have the power, authority and courage to lead the political process. As long as a new model of relations with the Palestinians isn’t designed, the current situation will continue to deteriorate, and Israeli society will increasingly lose faith in the ability of its military and political elite to shift the status quo and deal with reality. Israelis and Palestinians will need international help to compromise and step forward.

Lev Grinberg is  professor of political sociology at Ben Gurion University, author of Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine: Democracy vs. Military Rule (Routledge, 2010)

This article was originally published in Hebrew on Ynet.

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    1. Kolumn8

      The only problem with this analysis is that it is built on complete bullshit. Israel did not “separate” Gaza from the West Bank in 2005 when it withdrew. Israel did not leave in place the PA in the WB and Hamas in Gaza.

      When Israel left Gaza in 2005, the power that was in charge of Gaza was the Palestinian Authority. Hamas won the elections in 2006 and took power in 2007. That is also when a blockade was imposed on Gaza. So, the author’s analysis/theory is based on either ignorance or worse.

      There is, at present, no great alternative model available to Israel. Short of extreme measures, until the Palestinians come around to accepting that they will not destroy Israel (not militarily – Hamas, and not diplomatically – Abbas) there is nothing for Israel to do but to continue defending itself against attacks. When Abbas (or his replacement) starts talking about living in peace next to a Jewish State of Israel then there will be something to talk about. In the meantime the “moderate” Palestinians are desperately looking for a way to formulate a position that allows them to continue a war against Israel while achieving a state for themselves.

      Alternatively, Israel can pursue a policy of trying to expel as many Palestinians as possible. That would indeed be an alternative model for its power relations with the Palestinians, so be careful what you wish for.

      Reply to Comment
      • Eliza

        You say ‘There is, at present, no great alternative model available to Israel. Short of extreme measures…’

        Which is what I understand Grinberg to be also saying. It is possible that the old Sharon strategy is starting to collapse. What then?

        Given that the only rational reason Netanyahu unleashed Protective Edge was to hinder Fatah/Hamas unity, (OK, maybe some domestic party political issues as well), I would say that Protective Edge is a symptom of this collapse.
        It goes without saying that Israel can militarily defeat Hamas and inflict great damage to infrastructure and people in Gaza, but what has that achieved. Quiet for a year or so? But at what cost to Israel?

        The Palestinians are internationalising their cause. They are garnering increasing support amongst Jewish Americans and from people who would have formerly, if casually, automatically supported Israel. It takes time, but eventually this will put pressure on Governments to respond more justly to the I/P conflict. Just how is maintaining the status quo within Gaza/WB going to affect this internationalisation?

        The ground rules are changing. Israel appears to have no strategy for countering this.

        I know that many would support a forced or bribed transfer of Palestinians from Gaza/WB/EJ to, well, anywhere, but so far Israel has not been able to achieve this. Given the greater international scrutiny now upon Zionism, why do you think Israel would try a transfer now?

        I know that you can dismiss international support for Palestinians as merely latent anti-Semitism (don’t some Zionists believe it is the DNA on the lowly Gentile) but so what.

        Support for human civil rights for Palestinians is not anti-Semitic. It is not anti-Semitic to question whether or not Israel can continue to exist as the Nation State of all Jews. Right now, who gives a toss if they are described as anti-Semitic – the term has lost all value.

        So, the question remains, where to now for Israel? Of course, a 2SS along the Green Line with EJ as a Palestinian capital and just resolution of the ROR issue, is probably one measure you find too extreme.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn8

          There is no old Sharon model. That part in Grinberg’s analysis is bullshit as I pointed it out. Sharon left the PA in charge of Gaza with the same connection to the WB it had previously.

          The rational reason why Netanyahu launched Protective Edge is because there were rockets being shot at our fucking cities. To people like you this shit is symbolic. We need to run to bomb shelters when the alarms go off and our government is expected to deal with it. It dealt with it by inflicting what might be sufficient damage to give Hamas second thoughts about launching rockets again. The damage was sufficient to force Hamas to back off all of its demands and accept quiet in Gaza while its operatives in the West Bank have been thoroughly rounded up.

          The Palestinians have been trying to “internationalize” their cause for the entire time there has been a cause. In fact, up until collapse of the Soviet Union the conflict was very much “internationalized” with the Palestinians enjoying massive support among the “enlightened forces” of the “progressive” “socialist” world. When the Soviet Union collapsed the Palestinians ran out of money and realized that there is no other game in town and turned to the Americans for mediation. Their attempt to “internationalize” this conflict now is a reflection of their inability to push Israel into making suicidal concessions in negotiations and their inability to accept anything short thereof. I would presume it is also a reflection of the Palestinians’ view that they will find alternative diplomatic/financial patrons. This seems rather foolish, but the Palestinians are welcome to start a diplomatic war with the United States by abandoning the American-mediated diplomatic process and instead going to the UN or wherever. The US is rather unlikely to play nice. The Palestinians will find themselves broke and even more powerless because they are literally going to be biting the hand that feeds them. Israel does not need a strategy when its opponent insists on shooting itself in the foot.

          I don’t think Israel would try transfer now, but the Palestinians and their supporters who call Israel committing suicide a “just solution” are pushing Israelis in the direction of radical measures such as forced or bribed transfer. We no longer believe the Palestinians when they talk about peace. We can look around the region and listen to their words and understand that once we are weaker and they are stronger they will massacre us or expel us. Their “extremists” that win elections say so explicitly. Their “moderates” who survive thanks to our protection continue to insist that we accept being flooded by Arabs as a condition for an “agreement”, though they are entirely unwilling to actually end the conflict meaning they plan to restart the violence once they get a state and they are stronger. In other words, neither the “extremists” and the “moderates” suggest that there is any likelihood of actual peace with the Palestinians and a Palestinian State would just be a launching pad for more demands and more attacks against us. Were they to do so the “world” would show up again with another list of demands. So, it is up to us to ensure our survival one way or another without an agreement. I had two conversations with people that generally vote Meretz within the past month where transfer came up as a legitimate option as long as the Palestinians continue to refuse to come to terms with our existence here. I did not bring it up. The reason why it is more likely to happen now rather than before is because the overwhelming majority of Israelis do not believe that a permanent peace is possible with the Palestinians and that giving them more control over territory translates directly into more violence against Israelis. This was not the case until recently and previously most Israelis believed that a permanent peace can be achieved either through an agreement with Jordan or with the Palestinians. So, unless the Palestinians establish a working relationship with sanity and choose peace with Israel, yes, Israel is going to have to transfer them out, ideally through bribery. That would be the most humane way to decrease the tensions between the two populations given that the Palestinians continue to cling to the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of the Jews as their goal while adopting various tactics to try to test our resolve and nothing Israel can do will be sufficient to dissuade them.

          It is also true that anti-Semitism is once again fashionable. So much so that people can hate Jews in polite liberal secular company and have no problem being called anti-Semitic. I am well aware of the return of old conversations of, “no, I don’t hate all Jews, just those that” … [in this case] believe that the homeland of the Jewish people is in Israel and believe Jews have the right to live in their own homeland and defend themselves. So, yes, I dismiss the vast majority of both concern for and support of the Palestinians by people who otherwise have no dog in the game as being driven by latent anti-Semitism. There is literally no other rational explanation for why this conflict gets the attention that it does and why Israel is held to a higher standard than other countries. Obviously people like that are likely to have other opinions, but frankly I don’t give a shit about their opinion on the matter. As far as I am concerned they are the modern equivalents of the “progressive” Christians that, out of love and concern for them, chided the Jews for not abandoning their dream of a return to Jerusalem and for not accepting Jesus as Messiah. Can’t you see, they would say, how many hate you for not abandoning what you believe in? Can’t you see how many more would love you for believing as they do?

          Where to now for Israel? Right here. We will continue building our homeland and we will continue to defend ourselves. We will continue to ignore pesky outsiders that jet in to try to get us to sell out pieces of our homeland in return for pieces of paper and we will be as brutal as we need to be in order to keep our people safe.

          Reply to Comment
    2. bor

      What political process? Did the author not read what Hamas leaders have said in recent days? What they have said in the past? In what fantasy world does he live?

      And as for a military solution, he is wrong about this as well. The only reason Israel doesn’t have a solution is that it fights like no army in the world fights. How many more Hamasniks would be killed if Israel didn’t warn in advance? If Israel truly used its arsenal without concern for collateral damage? If Israel stopped fighting according to supposed “international” laws of war that nobody else respects, that nobody else fights with and that Hamas violates with complete impunity (in fact, with such impunity that the UN ends up investigating Israel)?

      The author should stop kidding himself. Here’s the question that destroys his theory: what happens if Hamas, an extremist Islamist movement sworn to the eradication of Israel, the murder of Jews and the advancement of a caliphate (all in their charter) takes over the PA, either by force or even by election?

      And if the answer is, “talk to them,” somebody deserves to fail Israel and the Arab Israel Conflict 101.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Pedro X

      “So, the author’s analysis/theory is based on either ignorance or worse.”


      BGU and Grinberg have a long history of publication of anti-Israel screed. BGU is home to radically anti-Israel academics.

      Grinberg attacked Sharon in articles in the 2000s and in 2004 called the targeted killing of Shiek Yassin a “symbolic genocide” of the Palestinian people. Grinberg called for an economic embargo on Israel.

      Dan Leon, now deceased, collected articles by Israel’s most vociferous far-leftists. Grinberg showed up in this anthology of the hard left and wrote “Post-Mortem for the Ashkenazi Left” attacking the left for not adopting extremist actions. Middle East Quarterly reviewed the book:

      “Leon, former editor of New Outlook, has collected articles by Israel’s most vociferous far-leftists to show that, despite the enormous discrediting of leftist ideas over the past fifteen years, “peace” is still possible if Israel adopts an uncompromising anti-Zionist, Marxist agenda… Who’s Left in Israel? has value as a guide to the mindset of Israel’s hard Left today and perhaps the harder Left tomorrow.”

      Reply to Comment
    4. Richard

      Give it back to Egypt. Pay them them if you have to. The world doesn’t seem to mind violent pacification of the MB in Cairo so let Egyptian troops bring peace to Gaza.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Average American

      Why doesn’t Israel simply occupy Gaza, like they occupy the West bank, like they occupy the Golan Heights? No more rockets, no more tunnels, no more Hamas. It would take 15 minutes. Israel prolongs both side’s suffering for mere political strategy like this article suggests. It’s part of Israel’s Zionist charter. It’s not about humans.

      Reply to Comment