Gaza has been an unhappy place for a long time but the situation is now reportedly growing desperate. Jobs are scarce, electricity is intermittent, drinking water is unsafe, and raw sewage released into the Mediterranean is washing up on Gaza’s white sandy beaches.
How did this happen? A one-paragraph history: Ruled by the Ottomans for centuries, then ruled by the British for decades, in 1948 the territory was taken over by Egypt. The Israelis seized it in 1967, the outcome of a defensive war in which Israel also took the West Bank from Jordan. In 2005, the Israelis withdrew from Gaza, thinking that might pave the way to a resolution of their conflict with the Palestinians. Instead, the two dominant Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, went to war with one another. After two years, Hamas emerged on top.
A front-page takeout in The New York Times this month gives voice to Gaza’s suffering masses. Accompanying photos, artfully composed, show a woman begging, shopkeepers behind bars for not paying their debts and patients in a hospital looking grim.
Jerusalem bureau chief David M. Halbfinger concludes that Hamas has “few options.” He adds: “The one it has resorted to three times — going to war with Israel, in hopes of generating international sympathy and relief in the aftermath — suddenly seems least attractive.”
Did you get that? The New York Times sees nothing alarming, certainly nothing to criticize, about Palestinians contemplating “going to war” against Israelis to improve their economic situation. Would the newspaper take the same attitude toward any other peoples anywhere else in the world?
Also notice what was not mentioned: that Hamas might contemplate giving up its goal of destroying Israel; that it might, as the saying goes, “Give peace a chance!” Not only did that option not occur to Mr. Halbfinger, it also apparently didn’t cross the minds of other “Gaza experts” to whom he turned. Nathan Thrall, an analyst for International Crisis Group, tells him simply: “Hamas itself has few ways to alleviate the crisis.”
Just for grins, imagine this: Hamas stops spending hundreds of millions of dollars (mostly drawn from foreign aid) building missiles to fire at Israeli cities, and digging tunnels to infiltrate terrorists into Israeli villages where they are to spray bullets at men, women and children, and drag others, as hostages, into the holes leading back to Gaza.
Further imagine: In response to such a suspension of hostilities, Israel stops building an underground anti-tunnel system with a price tag of roughly $1 billion. Israel offers to spend those funds to assist the people of Gaza instead.
And were another war between Hamas and Israel to be seen as unlikely rather than inevitable, do you not think Gaza would become much more attractive to job-creating investors? I wonder if there are Syrians and Yemenis who wish they had such an alternative available to them as a way to relieve their (much more intense) deprivation.
OK, enough imagining. Most “Gaza experts” no doubt do regard such ideas as crazy or at least unrealistic. The “disarmament of Hamas appears to be nonnegotiable” write David Makovsky and Lia Weiner of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a report published last month on Gaza’s “humanitarian situation.”
I could end this column here but there’s one more layer that ought to be peeled from the onion. Mahmoud Abbas is the Palestinian Authority president but he does not rule Gaza’s two million residents. He dares not even set foot in the territory. But rest assured he is doing everything he can — to make the crisis there worse.
Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and currently Israel’s deputy public diplomacy minister, wrote last week: “Abbas recently cut the salaries of Palestinian Authority officials in the Gaza Strip by 50 percent, and fired thousands more.
He has suspended welfare benefits to families in Gaza, generally cut budgets to the coastal enclave, and is again trying to limit the power supply, despite the winter cold, thus exacerbating Gazans’ suffering. Perhaps in his cruelest move yet, he has also suspended the delivery of vital medicines to Gaza, including for infants and children, and significantly reduced the funding for medical care for Gazans in Israel.”
Why would he do such things? Because, Mr. Oren explains, he wants Hamas to start another war with Israel — one that would end with Israel soundly defeating Hamas and expelling it from Gaza once and for all.
In the aftermath, Israel would “be accused of war crimes and Abbas himself would lead the charge, in an attempt to benefit twice: He would be hailed for having dealt Hamas a final blow, and would be revered for defending the Palestinians from the Zionists.”
To prevent this scenario from playing out, and to avoid letting Mr. Abbas “fight Hamas down to the very last Israeli soldier,” Mr. Oren argues that Israel should take significant steps to alleviate the crisis in Gaza — expecting nothing in return.
Less than a decade after Israel’s founding, Golda Meir, who would go onto to become Israel’s fourth prime minister, was famously quoted as saying: “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” Hamas‘ parental affections have not evolved. As for the immiserated people of Gaza, perhaps they lack the courage to challenge Hamas. That would be the hopeful explanation.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for the Washington Times.
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