Netherworld by Ari Shavit

Al-Aqsa TV building, Gaza City, following an Israeli air strike, November 2018

Can Gaza ever be more than an insoluble problem?

The Gaza Strip is 25 miles long and between four and eight miles wide, encompassing some 141 square miles. With a population of nearly two million, it is one of the most densely populated regions in the world: over 14,000 inhabitants per square miles. Gaza’s GDP per capita is less than $2,000, its overall unemployment rate (44 per cent) is one of the highest in the world, and unemployment among the young is almost 60 per cent. The average monthly expenditure of a family of five is just above $500, and 57 per cent of households do not have nutrition security. While the demand for electricity is modest (450 megawatts), the local network can supply less than half that amount (only 208 megawatts), so that most homes are without power for many hours every day. Pollution of the coastal aquifer, over-pumping and an acute waste-water management problem mean that 96 per cent of the water is undrinkable.

But Gaza is more than the sum of these dismal statistics. A hell on earth for its residents, it is the capsule in which the deadly poisons of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict have been distilled. It is also the playing field on which the forces that are tearing apart the Middle East square off. The humanitarian tragedy of this narrow strip of land on the shore of the Mediterranean demonstrates the depth of the Promised Land conflict, the political dysfunction of the Arab world, and the inability of the international community to grapple with both.

The Hebrew for Gaza, Aza, is phonetically similar to the Hebrew word for the netherworld, Azazel. When I was a five-year-old, I did not see Gaza as a a region of land populated by human beings like myself, but as the Sheol. For me and my generation, it was a dark and dangerous pit at the southern tip of Israel, from which guerrillas periodically rose, stealing into Israeli homes in the dead of night and murdering their inhabitants as they slept. When I was ten, I travelled with my family on a journey after the Six Day War to witness the defeat of this infernal region. What I especially remember about the trip is a visit to a local school. Its classroom walls still displayed brightly coloured drawings by both teachers and pupils, in which Israelis are trampled under boot, slain with knives, their nation subsumed by the sea. Only when I was fifteen did I hear the first discordant note in this narrative: my elder brother’s best friend had returned from combat duty as a paratrooper in Gaza. He described with great shame and sorrow the deeds he had been ordered to carry out as Ariel Sharon, then the head of the Israeli army’s Southern Command, crushed a local Palestinian uprising. When I was twenty, and again at the age of thirty and thirty-three, I had similar experiences. The scenes I saw – and the voices I heard – during my military service in Gaza shook me to my core. They made me fear Gaza. And they made me pity it. They led me to believe that the conflict between Israel and Gaza is fundamentally insoluble. They also made it viscerally clear that the miserable existence of millions of Gazans cannot be ignored or tolerated. And it is therefore necessary to separate the political question of how to achieve a lasting two-state solution from the moral imperative of ensuring that the residents of Gaza can live with dignity as soon as possible.

The government of Israel, the Palestinian leadership, the Arab world and the international community have never found this conclusion. For decades, their attitude towards Gaza was based either on the illusion of peace-at-hand, or the callous disregard of the hardships and suffering of Gaza. They have never formulated a comprehensive Gaza strategy that is both humane and realistic, generous and tough-minded. In consequence, Gaza’s situation has gone from bad to worse to unbearable. A UN report published in 2017 warns that if a dramatic change does not occur soon, a humanitarian disaster will engulf the Strip by 2020.

Gaza’s Year Zero was 1948. In the cataclysmic war, catalysed by the founding of Israel and the Arab rejection of its right to exist, almost all Palestinians living in the south of the country fled their homes. Some were driven out by fear, others expelled by force. More than 200,000 people whose villages had been destroyed walked or sailed south and found shelter in the refugee camps surrounding the port city of Gaza. Over the course of a few months the population of this coastal strip grew threefold. The challenge facing the region was similar to that simultaneously facing the young Israel: how to absorb an immigrating population markedly larger than the existing one. But Gaza did not have what Israel had: sovereignty, a functioning central government, a reasonable geographic expanse, human and financial capital, a hopeful can-do ethos built on a national spirit of solidarity, technological and scientific know-how, and international support. The Egyptian rulers of Gaza were not interested in solving the Palestinian refugee problem but in perpetuating it. A constructive and able Palestinian leadership did not materialize. And so, while Israel built itself, grew and prospered, Gaza became an unbearable human pressure cooker – and an abiding crisis.

Israel’s victory in the war of 1967 made things even worse. Thousands of Jewish settlers took control of a quarter of the territory of the Gaza Strip, while the IDF and Israeli security forces maintained hermetic military control of a poor, dense and hostile population that felt besieged and humiliated. The Palestinian response – both before and after the war – was violent. In the early 1950s there were infiltrators who looted the agricultural settlements of the western Negev Desert; later that decade came the murderous fedayeen of my childhood nightmares. They were followed, in the late 1960s, by terrorists who laid landmines in the fields of Israeli kibbutzim and villages. In the late 1980s came the popular uprising of the First Intifada, followed in 1992–3 by Palestinians who knifed Israeli farmers and passers-by. In the mid-90s came the suicide bombers who blew up passenger buses, killing dozens of commuters at a time. The first half of the 2000s saw the macabre terror campaign of the Second Intifada that shook the entire country. In the passing decade, Gaza has brought forth rockets, terror tunnels, mass border demonstrations and incendiary kites designed to set fire to Israeli crops.

Throughout the years, Israel responded with brutal retaliatory operations: wars, occupation, settlements, sieges, blockades, heavy artillery shelling, aerial strikes and ground incursions. The impact of its military operations escalated dramatically. While in 1955 the Middle East was horrified by a Gaza raid that took the lives of thirty-seven people, in Operation Cast Lead (2008) the number of Palestinian fatalities was over 1,300, and in Operation Protective Edge (2014) it reached 2,200. Thousands of homes were destroyed in these two latter campaigns, causing widespread devastation (estimated in the billions of dollars), and leaving behind mountains of rubble and terrible human pain. Thus was created a pathological situation in which the Palestinians of Gaza now feel dispossessed, oppressed and choked, while the Israelis who live near by feel menaced and assaulted. Continuing Palestinian hostility leads to the use of heavy Israeli force, which compounds Palestinian hostility. On and on, for over seventy years.

Only two serious attempts have been made to break this vicious cycle: the Oslo Accord of 1993 and the disengagement of 2005. Both failed. The Rabin–Peres–Arafat peace agreement did not turn Gaza into Singapore, but into a corrupt, dysfunctional and terror-minded entity that neither answered the prayers of Palestinians nor inspired the trust of Israelis. The unilateral withdrawal, initiated by Sharon in 2005 when he was Prime Minister, did not create a calm coexistence, but rather led to the rise of totalitarian Hamas rule, which denigrates women, persecutes Christians, tyrannizes homosexuals – and periodically attacks Israel.

But the consequences of these two failures were not symmetrical. Israel’s might allowed it to withstand both the decade of terror that followed Oslo and the decade of rockets that followed the disengagement. It quelled the Second Intifada, overcame suicide bombers and endured the rockets and mortars that rained down from Gaza. Israel launched periodic offensives, demonstrating its military supremacy, and developed advanced defensive systems that gradually provided strategic answers to most Hamas threats (Iron Dome, David’s Sling and a new anti-tunnel technology). Simultaneously, it grew stronger economically, becoming a hi-tech powerhouse and a proud member of the OECD. Even the rural areas of the western Negev that border Gaza are flourishing. Since 2008 house prices in Sderot have almost tripled.

Not so in Gaza. In 1992 all that separated the Strip from Israel was a military police checkpoint and a rope. Today it is closed off with an electric fence and a naval barricade. In 1992 tens of thousands of Gazans worked in Israel, acquiring marketable skills and bringing home valuable Israeli shekels. Today, not one Gazan works in Israel on a permanent basis. The problem is not only external. In September 2005, after the evacuation of the Israeli settlers, the Gaza Strip became the first ever Palestinian territory not under complete foreign control (Ottomans, Britons, Egyptians, Jordanians, Israelis). Although its borders were still controlled by Israel and Egypt, there were no longer checkpoints, settlers, or a visible occupying army, and the Palestinians were at last in charge. Sadly, Gaza made little of this historic opportunity. When the international community’s envoy, James Wolfensohn, raised $14 million to transfer the Israeli settlers’ agricultural greenhouses to Gaza’s farmers, many of them were looted and destroyed. Then came the Hamas coup and the resulting international backlash. Israel, Egypt and others attempted to strengthen the rule of the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, and to bring down the radical rule of Hamas by developing the West Bank and simultaneously exerting an economic stranglehold on Gaza. Though it remained unspoken, the rationale was to spread despair by stunting economic growth, so that it would usher regime change, while avoiding a full-scale humanitarian crisis. Gaza would be bogged down, yet still able to keep its head above the mud. But this policy – like the Oslo experiment and disengagement – has also failed: it did not succeed in dislodging Hamas, and the torment of Gaza’s residents has brought the region close to catastrophe.

As head of the Independent’s Jerusalem bureau, Donald Macintyre followed Gaza at a critical time, as he recounts in his highly impressive book Gaza: Preparing for dawn (2017). Macintyre was there when Israel dismantled the settlements, when Hamas won the democratic elections of 2006, and when it took full control in a coup a year later. He was also there when Hamas fired rockets into neighbouring Sderot, and when Israel retaliated with repeated incursions. His first-hand account of the tragedy is even-handed, balanced and devastating. But beyond the heart-rending description of the absurdity and inhumanity of the Gaza condition, Macintyre’s timely reportage makes the reader wonder, how and why does Hamas survive?

Its political success is indeed extraordinary. In recent years, quite a few entrenched Arab regimes have fallen, yet the fledgling Hamas one has endured. Neither the Israeli blockade, nor Egyptian pressure, nor international isolation, nor the devastation wrought by three Israeli military campaigns has convinced Gazans to rise up against the rule of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The power of the Islamic idea, the political sophistication of Hamas, its tyrannical rule and strategic flexibility have endowed it with surprising resilience. This unforeseen achievement has far-reaching consequences: over the past decade the Gaza Strip has de facto become the first and only mini-republic of political Sunni Islam. If this lilliputian theocracy survives and thrives, it will prove that the Muslim Brotherhood’s way is the right way, and thus threaten all of the pragmatic Arab regimes. This is the reason that Turkey, Qatar and (occasionally) Iran (a theocracy, albeit a Shiite one) support Hamas. And this is also the reason that Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states so fear it. For them, for Israel and for the West, the only way to rebuild Gaza is to bring Hamas under Abbas’s thumb.

There is a problem: Abbas’s rule is weak and vulnerable. His regime in the West Bank is propped up by Israel (with Western and Arab aid). There is no real chance Abbas can defeat Hamas and replace it. Quite the opposite: if truly democratic elections were held today in the Palestinian territories, Hamas and its allies could conceivably challenge Abbas’s corrupt and sclerotic Fatah. So the policy of strangling Gaza, in order to replace Hamas with Abbas, is not only cruel, but futile and dangerous.

In the Middle East nothing is as it seems. Declarations and deeds are often contradictory. The international community continues to speak in a language of political correctness that is completely detached from reality. The local players – Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians – are often engaged in doublespeak as a means to conceal reality. But the truth is simple. Quietly, over the past few years, Israel and Hamas have developed profound common interests. Despite the immense disparities of power between the Jewish state and the Islamist firebrands, Israel cannot vanquish Hamas, and Hamas cannot annihilate Israel. The Israeli government understands that Hamas is probably the only entity that can bring order to the Gazan chaos and create a political entity with which it can (even if antagonistically) coexist. And Hamas understands that Israel is the only authority that can allow Palestinian political Islam to establish an unfailing state. And because Hamas’s deep ideology is based on long-term thinking and strategic patience, it may be possible to arrive at a suspension-of-hostilities agreement (formal or informal) that will finally allow the reconstruction and development of Gaza. This will not be peace. Israel does not want to – and cannot – recognize Hamas. Hamas does not want to – and cannot – recognize Israel. But both sides may be able to reach an arrangement that will give Israel security, Hamas stability, and the inhabitants of Gaza a glimmer of hope.

Essentially, Gaza is a problem without a solution. The combination of siege, poverty, population density, hatred and fanaticism creates a horrific political and humanitarian situation. But, it is nevertheless possible to think of a number of ideas whose implementation will turn the unbearable to bad and the bad – it is to be hoped – to reasonable. The most ambitious idea is the Eiland Plan (named after the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, General Giora Eiland). Along with a programme of strategic and economic aid, it calls for doubling and even tripling the territory of Gaza through an agreement with Egypt, which would transfer to Palestinian hands some 600 km² in the northern Sinai Desert in exchange for Israeli territorial concessions along the Israeli–Egyptian border. If a formal agreement with Egypt cannot be reached, it may be possible to create a new reality on the ground, inspired by the Eiland Plan, by developing a number of economic enterprises in the northern Sinai (a seaport, an airport, industrial areas) that will better the lives of the people of Gaza.

Kobi Michael, of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, offers a different approach: establishing non-combat sanctuary zones along the borders of Israel and Egypt with the Gaza Strip, where electricity, water treatment and desalination facilities will be built, which would dramatically improve living conditions. A third idea is to establish a government of experts (headed by the former Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, or someone of his stature) that could work with Hamas and engage with Israel, Egypt and the international community. Each of these ideas will only work if it includes an international Marshall-style Plan for the Gaza Strip, financed by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, led by the United States and the European Union and supported by Israel and Egypt. Such a $10 billion-plan would underwrite the construction of major seawater desalinisation facilities and power plants, as well as a seaport on an artificial island across from the Gaza Strip, the development of Gaza’s offshore natural gas field, and the construction of hundreds of thousands of residential units, leading to a dramatic – and sustained – humanitarian and economic turn. Because Gaza’s population is young (51 per cent are under the age of seventeen) and educated (there are hundreds of schools, five universities and minimal illiteracy), there is no reason it should be a failed state. A combination of creative diplomatic measures and intense economic development could restart what Wolfensohn tried to usher in thirteen years ago.

Had the Trump administration used its clout with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt and Israel, it could have promoted a Gaza First rehabilitation project that would extricate both Israelis and Palestinians from the present quagmire.

Clearly, the bottleneck is political. The Israeli government fears telling its public the truth about Hamas, or showing any kind of generosity towards Gaza. Hamas’s new leader, Yaya Sinwar, who seems to possess a pragmatic world view, has not yet found a way to demonstrate his moderation. The Arab nations fear an Islamic success story. Abbas has chosen his political survival over his duty to his people. Meanwhile, the current American administration is putting extraordinary pressure on Palestinian moderates, but doesn’t seem to have the guts to strike an indirect deal with the Gazan leadership. But the accelerating deterioration of Gaza brings closer a nightmare scenario that will force everyone to reconsider their positions. In September 2018, a possible escalation seemed so imminent that some assistance was agreed in order to improve Gaza’s miserable electricity situation, while the Hamas leadership made it clear: non-belligerency, or war. In November 2018, Gaza received a critical cash infusion from Qatar, with the approval of Israel. But days later, an undercover intelligence foray into Gaza by an elite Israeli military squad went awry, leading to yet another eruption of violence. In the two-day conflagration, a senior Israeli officer and a dozen Palestinian residents of Gaza were killed, as well as another Palestinian, a resident of the West Bank, who was killed in southern Israel by Hamas fire. Hundreds were wounded, thousands suffered from anxiety, and hundreds of thousands endured yet another traumatic experience. Hamas surprised with its ability to set off a barrage of some 470 rockets into Israeli territory, while Prime Minister Netanyahu surprised by showing impressive restraint, eschewing a crushing retaliatory strike – and thus preventing another full-scale war. And yet, as a result of this latest, brutal chain of events, the Islamist organization was seen to have achieved a significant strategic success, while Israel was plunged into a political crisis, undermining the stability of its government. So that towards the end of 2018, there emerged in Gaza a rare confluence of high risks and unprecedented opportunities. On the one hand, the new truce is fragile and Israel and Hamas are still on the cusp of yet another round of assaults, whose repercussions may be catastrophic. On the other hand, behind the scenes they are engaged in a diplomatic pas-de-deux, advised by the Egyptians. Meanwhile, a growing number of Americans, Europeans, Arabs and Israelis comprehend that the present pathological status quo has run its course – and become untenable.

Many children have died in Gaza in over seventy years of conflict, occupation and terror. Still, the death of five-year-old Mohammed al-Sayis in the summer of 2017 stands out as particularly harrowing, because it foretells the future. Al-Sayis did not die from the shell of an Israeli tank, the precise bomb of an Israeli aircraft, or the misfiring of a Hamas weapon. He died after swimming in the sewage-polluted seawater off Gaza’s beach. This is where we are heading. Hunger, thirst, contamination and deadly epidemics. This is the Sheol that lurks around the corner. And this catastrophe is already beginning to happen. A raging humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip that may lead to a ravaging war of despair is writ large. Can the world come together to prevent it?

This article was first published in the Times Literary Supplement Nov 20th 2018 and is reprinted with permission