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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