Let me be clear. Israel is not at fault for this situation, but our image on the international stage is being compromised by the situation and the periodic eruption of violence.
In just the past decade, Israel has fought three armed conflicts in Gaza, and cities in southern and central Israel have come under Gazan rocket fire repeatedly. That is not a normal situation.
Some commentators hold that Israel can live with and manage such a dynamic in the long run. But accepting this unstable status quo is not the only option. We must consider new solutions.
Not doing so would beget a reality in which Israelis constantly have to wonder when the next round in Gaza will take place. That is not to say that Israel must needlessly expose itself to a bad plan, but that wisdom and morality require us always to weigh the alternatives to war.
In mainstream Israeli discourse, two options are discussed: 1) Managing the situation, or 2) toppling Hamas and reconquering Gaza.
As a former commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, I understand why Israel is reluctant to move back into Gaza. Unlike the current generation of IDF commanders operating along the Gazan border, I commanded soldiers deep inside Gaza.
We patrolled refugee camps such as Jabaliya and Khan Younis, and had to deal with violence ranging from rock throwing youths, to masked gunmen, to terrorists planting explosives against troops and civilians. But my interaction with Gazans went beyond the military dimension, and included a frank dialogue with civilians, giving me a glimpse into their lives.
And what I learned is that living in Gaza is a disaster. Raising a family in such a place, where sewage flows between homes, where the blood of slaughtered animals runs down streets, where there is no economic development, is a study in hopelessness.
Gaza is in essence a hermit state, with unemployment today at 44%, soaring to 61% among youth. According to the World Bank, 34% of Gazans live in poverty, surviving on less than two dollars a day. There are 5,555 Palestinians living on every square kilometer of Gaza. 95% percent of underground water reserves are polluted, and 97% of Gazan families buy their water from private vendors, at high prices.
The time has come to put forth a new initiative: the establishment of a Palestinian state in Gaza and an adjoining section of the northern Sinai Peninsula. Such a state would enable economic growth along an expanded coastline and offer Gazans new hope, acting as a modern-day Marshall Plan. With the assistance of regional states and the international community, the Gazan powder keg can be made less explosive.
A Gaza-Sinai state could only develop, however, with Egyptian support. Egypt would gain much—including regional stature and significant momentum to stamp out the threat it faces from ISIS, through the jobs and hope which development of the area would deliver, as well as through much needed international economic and military aid.
Hamas could be tempted to go along with this initiative as well, since it would address a major pressure point on its rule, the failure to deliver economic solutions for the Gazan population.
I have brought this plan before political leaders in the US and witnessed their receptiveness, providing an indication of its potential. The right policy makers are open to the idea.
A Gaza-Sinai state stands a better chance of success than the current model of seeking to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank; a proposal that has drifted out of reach for many reasons, not the least of which is the Middle East’s chronic instability. With the risk of a West Bank state falling under the control of armed Islamists who would use it to fire on Israel’s population centers, it is not something I can endorse. Should it come to armed conflict in the south however, a state in Gaza-Sinai can be more easily defended against.
It is possible to find a realistic solution to the desperation of the people of Gaza. This desperation is not of Israel’s making, but it is our problem nonetheless. We must try to find a long-term arrangement that yields a better future for the people of Gaza, the region, and the people of Israel.
Brigadier-General Shmuel Tzuker (Res.) is a former commander of the Gaza Division, the Lebanon Division and the Judea & Samaria Division. He was designated Deputy Director General of Production and Procurement for the Israeli Ministry of Defense. He is a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.