May 17th 2018
GAZA is a human rubbish-heap that everyone would rather ignore. Neither Israel, nor Egypt, nor even the Palestinian Authority (PA) wants to take responsibility for it. Sometimes the poison gets out—when, say, rockets or other attacks provoke a fully fledged war. And then the world is forced to take note.
Such a moment came on May 14th. Tens of thousands of Palestinians massed near Gaza’s border fence, threatening to “return” to the lands their forefathers lost when Israel was created in 1948. Israeli soldiers killed about 60 protesters—the bloodiest day in Gaza since the war in 2014 (see Briefing). In a surreal split-screen moment, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, was exulting over the opening of America’s embassy in Jerusalem, calling it a “great day for peace”.
Many countries have denounced Israel; a few have recalled diplomats. Some people accuse it of war crimes. Others blame President Donald Trump for causing the clashes by moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It is surely right to hold Israel, the strong side, to high standards. But Palestinian parties, though weak, are also to blame. Seven decades after the creation of Israel as a thriving democracy, there is a better way than endless conflict and bloodshed.
How Much Blood Is Proportionate?
Every state has a right to defend its borders. To judge by the numbers, Israel’s army may well have used excessive force. But any firm conclusion requires an independent assessment of what happened, where and when. The Israelis sometimes used non-lethal means, such as tear-gas dropped from drones. But then snipers went to work with bullets. What changed? Mixed in with protesters, it seems, were an unknown number of Hamas attackers seeking to breach the fence. What threat did they pose? Any fair judgment depends on the details.
Just as important is the broader political question. The fence between Gaza and Israel is no ordinary border. Gaza is a prison, not a state. Measuring 365 square kilometres and home to 2m people, it is one of the most crowded and miserable places on Earth. It is short of medicine, power and other essentials. The tap water is undrinkable; untreated sewage is pumped into the sea. Gaza already has one of the world’s highest jobless rates, at 44%. The scene of three wars between Hamas and Israel since 2007, it is always on the point of eruption.
Many hands are guilty for this tragedy. Israel insists that the strip is not its problem, having withdrawn its forces in 2005. But it still controls Gaza from land, sea and air. Any Palestinian, even a farmer, coming within 300 metres of the fence is liable to be shot. Israel restricts the goods that get in. Only a tiny number of Palestinians can get out for, say, medical treatment. Israeli generals have long warned against letting the economy collapse. Mr Netanyahu usually ignores them.
Egypt also contributes to the misery. The Rafah crossing to Sinai, another escape valve, was open to goods and people for just 17 days in the first four months of this year. And Fatah, which administers the PA and parts of the West Bank, has withheld salaries for civil servants working for the PA in Gaza, limited shipments of necessities, such as drugs and baby milk, and cut payments to Israel for Gaza’s electricity.
Hamas bears much of the blame, too. It all but destroyed the Oslo peace accords through its campaign of suicide-bombings in the 1990s and 2000s. Having driven the Israelis out of Gaza, it won a general election in 2006 and, after a brief civil war, expelled Fatah from the strip in 2007. It has misruled Gaza ever since, proving corrupt, oppressive and incompetent. It stores its weapons in civilian sites, including mosques and schools, making them targets. Cement that might be used for reconstruction is diverted to build underground tunnels to attack Israel. Hamas all but admitted it was not up to governing when it agreed to hand many administrative tasks to the PA last year as part of a reconciliation deal with Fatah. But the pact collapsed because Hamas is not prepared to give up its weapons.
Israel, Egypt and the PA cannot just lock away the Palestinians in Gaza in the hope that Hamas will be overthrown. Only when Gazans live more freely might they think of getting rid of their rulers. Much more can be done to ease Gazans’ plight without endangering Israel’s security. But no lasting solution is possible until the question of Palestine is solved, too. Mr Netanyahu has long resisted the idea of a Palestinian state—and has kept building settlements on occupied land.
It is hard to convince Israelis to change. As Israel marks its 70th birthday, the economy is booming. By “managing” the conflict, rather than trying to end it, Mr Netanyahu has kept Palestinian violence in check while giving nothing away. When violence flares Israel’s image suffers, but not much. The Trump administration supports it. And Arab states seeking an ally against a rising Iran have never had better relations with it.
Israel is wrong to stop seeking a deal. And Mr Trump is wrong to prejudge the status of Jerusalem. But Palestinians have made it easy for Israel to claim that there is “no partner for peace”, divided as they are between a tired nationalist Fatah that cannot deliver peace, and an Islamist Hamas that refuses to do so. Palestinians desperately need new leaders. Fatah must renew itself through long-overdue elections. And Hamas must realise that its rockets damage Palestinian dreams of statehood more than they hurt Israel.
The Only Way to Stop Fighting Is To Stop Fighting
For all their talk of non-violence, Hamas’s leaders have not abandoned the idea of “armed struggle” to destroy Israel. They refuse to give up their guns, or fully embrace a two-state solution; they speak vaguely of a long-term “truce”. With this week’s protests, Hamas’s leaders boasted of freeing a “wild tiger”. They found that Israel can be even more ferocious.
If Hamas gave up its weapons, it would open the way for a rapprochement with Fatah. If it accepted Israel’s right to exist, it would expose Israel’s current unwillingness to allow a Palestinian state. If Palestinians marched peacefully, without guns and explosives, they would take the moral high ground. In short, if Palestinians want Israel to stop throttling them, they must first convince Israelis it is safe to let go.