Gaza has long been one of those geopolitical problems that everyone wishes would just disappear. Israel, certainly, would prefer to seal off the Palestinian enclave – both from its own territory and from its collective mind. And notwithstanding occasional utterances to the contrary, Egypt tends to feel the same way. Whenever there is renewed talk of pursuing peace in the region, Gaza is almost always the issue that is left on the back burner.
True, humanitarian and relief agencies regularly issue detailed reports about the dire conditions facing Gaza’s two million inhabitants; they are trapped in one of the most densely populated, under-resourced places on Earth. Still, the audience for this accounting of deprivation and despair tends to dwindle whenever some new humanitarian crisis emerges elsewhere and commands the world’s attention. A lasting solution to Gaza’s misery thus remains forever out of sight.
The current outbreak of violence is following a familiar pattern: Hamas and its allies are firing barrages of rockets into Israel, which is responding with waves of air strikes. After each such conflict – the last major one was in 2014 – the situation returns to the broken status quo. The international community soon returns to business as usual, the humanitarian situation in Gaza deteriorates ever further, and the cycle eventually repeats.
When I visited Gaza in early 2009, one of these spasms of violence had just ended. Militant extremists and innocent civilians alike had been killed in Gaza, and innocent civilians had been under attack in Israel. While there, I saw the devastation in the hardest-hit parts of the northern Gaza Strip and spoke with Palestinian business leaders who had been trying to offer Gazans hope by building bridges with their partners in Israel. The futility of these cyclical conflicts was as clear then as it is now.
My hope this time is that after the rockets and the air strikes have ceased, there will be courageous peacemakers who do not shy away from taking the steps needed to break the pattern of hopelessness. That will require much more than another ceasefire. There needs to be a process for working toward peace and a viable political settlement.
Israel has imposed a tight land, air, and sea blockade on Gaza since 2007, with the goal of ending Hamas’s rule there. The objective is laudable, but the methods have been counterproductive, and the policy overall has obviously failed. Hamas still rules, and it has still managed to procure thousands of rockets. Gaza is now a breeding ground for terrorists, many of whom may see no other option.
Devising a viable solution will not be easy, of course; but I believe it is possible with a long-term process based on four principles. The aim should be an agreement that both stops the rocketing, bombing, tunneling, and killing and establishes a foundation for a more comprehensive peace agreement in the future.
To that end, the first principle is that the blockade must end. This policy has destroyed Gaza’s economy. With foreign trade all but impossible, the territory has become dependent on smuggling, and those operations are naturally controlled by Hamas. Smuggling has both filled Hamas’s coffers and allowed it to obtain most of the items that Israel has been trying to block – not least rockets and components for building its own.
Second, Israel’s legitimate security concerns must be addressed. After all, no country can tolerate being subjected to indiscriminate rocket attacks. But Israel also must recognize that its policy of unyielding defense has failed. It will need to become more open to efforts by the international community – namely, the United Nations, the European Union, and the United States – to create a better arrangement for addressing its legitimate security interests.
Third, Gaza must become a part of the internationally recognized Palestinian administration. Any package of aid and reconstruction funds after the fighting is over must be made conditional on free and fair elections in Gaza and the West Bank.
Lastly, the viability of a long-term solution requires affirming the future State of Palestine’s use of Gaza for access to the Mediterranean, which will be its primary gateway to the world. Accordingly, Gaza will need its own port and airport, as well as a connection to the West Bank (arranged in such a way as not to threaten Israeli security).
Much of the debate right now is focused on assigning blame for the latest wave of violence and suffering. A more constructive, albeit difficult, approach would be to acknowledge that both sides are right in important respects. That would allow everyone to start focusing on the goal of a long-term agreement based on the four principles outlined above.
With that, Gaza’s latest unnecessary war could finally lead to a necessary peace. My hope is that I will return to Gaza one day and see entrepreneurs building businesses and bridges to the world economy, and bringing jobs to young people who might otherwise see no alternative to extremism. Palestinians – and Israelis – deserve no less.
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