Reimagining Gaza while recognizing reality
Op-ed: While Hamas may wish to cynically cling to resistance against the State of Israel, some Israelis are ready, willing and able to dramatically improve the lot of the Gazan people by way of the New State Solution. Whether implemented in a top down or bottom up fashion, it's time to present, and to begin implementing, a vision to which the Gazan people can attach themselves—with or without their leadership.
Those who dream of peace must always reckon with reality. As a former IDF Division Commander who was stationed within Gaza, I know something of that reality, both inside the Strip, and among our own citizens, particularly those living near the Gaza border.
I also believe that we must always scan the horizon for a solution to our conflict with the Palestinians, and at any point be prepared to consider new opportunities which may emerge—with the understanding that anything which creates the conditions for an improvement in the situation is worth considering, so long as it meets Israel’s strategic, humanitarian, and security goals.
We, who pride ourselves on being a creative “Start-Up Nation” must not shy away from outside-the-box thinking. The New State Solution, is an initiative I therefore endorse. It seeks to establish 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. It would be akin to a modern-day Marshall Plan.
The reality of Gaza today is one of total stagnation. It has been that way for decades, but the Gazan people’s sense of hopelessness is being made more acute by the current economic hardship brought about by the Hamas rule of the area.
I recognize that many obstacles stand in the way to success for any plan to transform Gaza, including the likely resistance of Hamas toward prioritizing improvement of the lives of Gazans over seeking to bring about Israel's destruction.
The outlook and goals of Hamas are certainly a problem, but if a plan has merit that plan should at least be put on the table, regardless of Hamas' resistance. Thereafter, we can discuss the "why nots." We should move beyond the stagnation stagnation, toward the implementation of a reality where Gazans can improve their lives, and even flourish. Let Hamas be made to respond. Beyond Hamas, let us even communicate with the people of Gaza themselves. Let us not write off Gaza until we have made our position, and the benefits of this approach, clear to both the leadership and the people, distinct form one another as they are.
Hamas's stoking of tensions on the border may have helped to thrust the Gazan issue back in to the gaze of the world, but in reality, neither Hamas, nor the people they purport to represent, have gained much. Hamas is failing to alleviate poverty in the Strip and they are thus in a weakened position among its own constituents, a situation they attempt to manage by creating further violent confrontation with Israel, ultimately holding themselves in a cycle that leads nobody anywhere.
In the configuration of the New State Solution, there is no need to think in terms of a win-lose deal. There is ample opportunity for all parties to gain. To set up factories, build new neighborhoods, improve education, and to bring benefit to the people of Gaza does not require any party to lose out.
If the plan can be communicated directly to the people of Gaza, there is a chance that they will independently press Hamas to finally improve their dysfunctional and corrupt economy, to create educational opportunities, and to build them a better life. When Gazans come to see that their recent campaign to launch incendiary kites into Israel has accomplished little to improve their lot, they may yet reach a point where they will press their leaders to improve their lives. While it is not certain that authoritarian leadership as harsh as Hamas would be moved by popular sentiment, given how demonstrations against poverty have led to revolution throughout the Middle East, a clearly presented plan for economic betterment may indeed affect the discourse within Gaza.
Toppling Hamas in a military campaign, an often-discussed alternative, is possible. It should be a last resort. Although we possess the military ability to do so, we cannot say with certainty who will fill the vacuum of power left by a Hamas departure, nor can we say with certainty what the will of the Palestinian people of Gaza would be if Hamas was removed, whether for Palestinian Authority governance, or something else. The use of force to eliminate Hamas would also likely result in high casualties and a public outcry which could only be placated if there were no better options.
It is therefore preferable to present a plan from which even the Hamas government can gain. Hamas is interested in receiving substantial funds—they just want to redirect it to their goals. When pressed however, they should not be opposed to the idea of investment which lifts the burden from the lives of their people. If they are, let them respond to a formal offer from an international coalition with massive funding for infrastructure projects. Let them tell the world and their own people that they are not interested. Let them explain their rejection of a better future.
I urge the readers to consider the New State plan. Imagine transforming just one of the cramped and unnecessarily squalid refugee camps of Gaza. Let us build a new neighborhood in the adjacent open sands of Sinai, where there is no threat to Israel’s population, and the land is not assigned to any pre-existing dispute.
There is no lack of international goodwill and funding for the creation of a modern suburb in place of a 'refugee camp,' a place that can be a shining example to the world of urban planning, sustainability, improved quality of life, and beauty. In a phased approach, we can build a better future for Gazans, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Since 1948, and despite the existence of UNWRA, a billion dollar a year branch of the UN dedicated only to the Palestinian refugees and their descendants—and with all the years of UNWRA budget allocations that have come and gone—next to nothing has progressed in these camps. Can that be viewed as reasonable?
Why, for example, in the Bureij Refugee Camp, now a de facto neighborhood of Gaza, must 35,000 people still live without a sewage system, so that waste accumulates freely in the Wadi Gaza stream, poisoning the local environment? Surely we can break the status quo of such extreme impoverishment, born of extremism, and alter this equation entirely.
Let us present a plan, a budget, and begin by rebuilding just one of these camps, within an implementation timeframe of five to ten years. With funds earmarked strictly and carefully to ensure they reach their intended purpose, the unemployed majority in Gaza will see an economic boon, through jobs created at a massive scale in the construction sector.
Before we say it is not possible, let us first put such a proposal on the table. Let us start conveying the plan to Hamas and to the Gazan people. Let us find the benefit for our regional neighbors. At minimum, let us uncover for the world who Hamas really is by way of their rejectionism. At maximum, let us transform the situation. Gaza need not remain this way as it is. We can build a better future for all.
Brigadier-General Shmuel Tzuker (Res.) is a former commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, the Lebanon Division, and the Judea & Samaria Division. He was designated Deputy Director General of Production and Procurement for the Israel Ministry of Defense. He is a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University.