We can do better

Revisited four years later, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza offers several very important lessons. On the Palestinian side, they involve state-building. On the Israeli side, the lessons touch on demography, resettlement and, perhaps most important, Israel’s failure to come up with an efficient post-disengagement strategy for dealing with the Gaza Strip and Hamas.

Even if we disregard PM Ariel Sharon’s willful and foolish decision not to negotiate the modalities of the withdrawal with the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas, the latter’s failure to capitalize on the withdrawal and the generous international aid offered the PA for Gaza reconstruction and development constitutes a dramatic failure in Palestinian state-building. The only ones who took advantage of the withdrawal successfully were Hamas, who dramatically and violently gained control over the Strip two years later. Now PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad appears to be applying lessons learned from Gaza in developing the West Bank economy and government institutions. But it could be too late for Gaza.

For Israel, the singular success of disengagement from Gaza is demographic. Even those who argue that Israel is still legally the "occupier" of the Strip have to recognize that the removal of the settlers from Gaza is a net demographic gain for Israel as a Jewish state. Whatever the future disposition of the Strip, no longer are Jewish and Arab populations mixed there in a manner that points to a single bi-national state as the solution. It was instructive during last January’s fighting in Gaza to note that, with the possible exception of some of the displaced Gaza settlers, even those Israelis who egged on the Olmert government and the IDF to reoccupy the entire Strip never suggested that settlers be brought back too. It was also instructive to watch wiser heads prevail and decide in favor of avoiding reoccupation.

The Gaza settlers, on the other hand, at least temporarily won a very different battle in making their removal look to Israelis like a failure at the human level. They were aided by incredible government ineptitude to the extent that, four years later, virtually none of them have moved into new permanent dwellings and the fiasco of their resettlement is held up as "proof" that removing them was a mistake.

Removing them was not a mistake. But if we are ever going to remove far larger numbers of settlers from the West Bank, whether under a unilateral initiative or by virtue of agreement with the PLO, lessons have to be learned about dealing with settlers who are ideologically motivated to refuse to cooperate with the authorities. One idea increasingly discussed is for the government to compensate settlers financially with a generous lump sum and to stay out of initiatives to build them new communities.

State-building, demography and resettlement aside, here we sit four years later, surrounding Gaza on three sides (including the sea), without a viable strategy for dealing with it. This is undoubtedly the most telling failure of the withdrawal.

When Sharon implemented the disengagement four years ago, he threatened that any attempt by Gaza militants to attack Israel thereafter would be met by a heavy military response. He undoubtedly understood the damage to its deterrent profile that Israel would sustain by leaving Palestinian territory unilaterally. But when the first post-withdrawal Qassam rockets began to fall in Israeli territory, instead of responding disproportionately with an offensive along the lines of last January’s Cast Lead operation, Sharon retaliated by closing the Gaza crossings and neutralizing all the careful preparations for integrating Gaza economically with its surroundings.

So began the economic warfare strategy against Gaza. It escalated after the Hamas takeover in June 2007 and continues to this day. It has completely failed to bring Hamas to its knees, while inflicting collective punishment on 1.5 million Gazans, alienating what is left of the middle and agrarian classes and enriching Hamas-licensed tunnel-diggers. In the single instance in which it was replaced by a military strategy, in January of this year, the blow inflicted appears to have been at least temporarily effective. But since Hamas’ primary condition for maintaining a ceasefire is removal of the economic blockade and that blockade is clearly counterproductive, the January offensive could probably have been avoided, just as future conflict could possibly still be avoided if we cease the economic warfare now.

Other instances of misconceived strategies for Gaza are also apparent. Egypt doesn’t know how to deal with the Islamized Strip either. Israel’s decision to negotiate with Hamas through Egypt’s good offices is also questionable insofar as it has failed to produce a stable ceasefire or the return of Gilad Shalit. And Israel’s refusal to offer to talk directly with Hamas (which in any case might rebuff the offer, since it won’t recognize Israel) paints us unnecessarily into a rejectionist corner.

On balance, I believe we are better off having withdrawn from Gaza, if only because removal of settlements at least temporarily alleviated one of our most pressing existential threats: demography. But the absence of constructive and creative strategic thinking on our part regarding Gaza ever since then is dispiriting. We can do better.