Before the problems of the West Bank are resolved, the issue of Gaza must first be addressed.
Gaza represents everything that Israel fears the West Bank can become if they were to withdraw – an enemy state with no prospects of peace and a predetermined time frame for war that you can schedule on iCloud. After all, that is exactly what’s happened in Gaza.
After Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, leaving the Palestinian Authority to govern the strip, and within two years, the militant political party Hamas won regional elections, a blood civil war ensued, and a military Junta deposed the ruling “moderate” Palestinian party replacing it with a government with no interest in compromise and an unwavering goal of fighting Israel until death or victory. Since that time, you can almost set your calendar based on a calculation when there will be a war between Israel and the de facto enemy state to it’s southwest. Take the amount of time it takes Hamas’ to deplete it’s military arsenal (rockets, IEDs, rocket launchers, tunnels and underground bunkers) and then add the amount of time it takes for them to replenish that arsenal. The one variable is the amount of pressure the international community places on Israel to allow into the strip materials that can be used in order to replenish it’s weaponry. Gaza does not need to win the wars they start. They know they cannot win a conventional war with Israel. They function more like a startup in an established industry. They only need to disrupt Israel long enough to create both domestic and international pressure. This is far more effective for them than military victory and a strategy that has worked all too well for them in the last ten years. Domestically, the Israel public grows frustrated that the government does not do enough to stop Hamas’ rocket fire and provocations. Internationally, pressure mounts as Hamas, efficient at using human shields and launching attacks from populated hospitals and schools, has been successful at controlling the media narrative.
There is no reason to believe that the quagmire in Gaza that started in 2005 and continues through the present, will not be duplicated in the West Bank if Israel withdraws unilaterally. In fact, Israel knows that it is exactly what will happen. And Israel has a good point, whether the majority of the world wants to accept it or not. Israel is between a rock and a hard place. If Israel withdraws unilaterally, the unpopular Palestinian Authority will almost surely be replaced with Hamas, or some other militant group, which will ensure an unending cycle of conflict like in Gaza, but on a much larger scale and with even more international pressure. If Israel maintains the status quo in the West Bank, which seems like the only viable option at the moment, Israel will continue to have to play defense on the international stage, slowly eroding is standing. It’s a case of do you let the pot boil over quickly or slowly. Either way, it’s going to boil over.
The only way to prevent a duplication of Gaza in the West bank is to first resolve the issue of Gaza and have that be the model for what peace will look like long term. Gaza remains the infection in the body that must be resolved before a surgery can take place.
How do you resolve the situation in Gaza? The first step is to stop thinking of Gaza and the West Bank as a single unit.
The idea that the West Bank – an area historically known as Judea and Samaria – and Gaza are the same entity is a modern construct, created in the 20th century by the European victors that divided up the spoils of the middle east after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
In ancient times, the West Bank was part of the Kingdom of Israel and Judea, while Gaza was the stronghold of the Philistines, a sea faring people with no connection to the modern day Palestinian Arabs except for similarities in name.
During Ottoman occupation, a period lasting over 500 years and just prior to the British Mandate, Gaza had it’s own Sanjak (administrative region) with it’s administrative office in Gaza City and was separate from the Sanjak of Nablus in the West Bank and the Sanjak of Akka in the north.1 They were all part of the greater Damascus (Syria) Eyalet, but that also included the areas of Syria, Lebanon, and modern day Jordan.
After the Arabs rejected the UN partition in 1947 and after Israel’s victory in the war of independence, when the 1949 Armistice Lines were drawn, control of Gaza went to Egypt and the West Bank to Jordan. The Arabs in the West Bank became Jordanian citizens until 1967, when that was revoke.
Only after Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank after the 1967 war did the Arabs begin to lump the two into a single political entity, aside from both being part of a pan-Arab region. It has no basis in history or logic. By lumping the two together, it makes it exponentially more difficult to resolve the conflict. Israel is expected to negotiate with one entity to resolve the issue of two separated areas controlled by two different groups with completely different agendas. Once thing is for certain. Before resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, the conflict with Gaza must first be resolved, and that does not include direct negotiations with the Palestinians in Ramallah only, but a collective effort of Israel, the Arab League, and the international community at large to redefine what Gaza is and what it will be after a peace agreement.
First of all, as it has historically been, Gaza should be considered separate from the West Bank. To combine the two makes peace that much more difficult because you now add the logistics of connecting the two regions artificially, a security concern for Israel that could become tinder for future conflicts between the two. By separating the two, Israel can maintain border control and integrity within it’s own territory and a more realistic solution can be pursued to allow travel between the two territories.
Second, Gaza must become demilitarized, as a precursor to a demilitarized Palestinian state in the West Bank. Israel, only 9 miles wide at it’s narrowest, which corresponds to the nexus of the majority of it’s population, will never be able to accept a Palestinian state that is militarized. More importantly, there is no reason for them to believe that even if a demilitarized Palestinian state is accepted and created, that it will remain so. That is where Gaza becomes a model that can eventually be extended to the larger West Bank region. Gaza is manageable enough that if it does militarize, as it currently is, Israel will be in a position to rectify the problem without a much larger war. Once Gaza shows that it can function as an independent, demilitarized region with interest in cooperation, rather than war, with Israel, it will give the Israelis more confidence in allowing a larger seaport, an airport, and eventually to resolve the issue with the Palestinians in the West Bank.
Third, Gaza must be under the administration or protectorate of a larger, established country that can be held accountable if Gaza break any of it’s obligations. The natural option is Egypt, which once controlled Gaza. But other options exists, including having a demilitarized Gaza be administered by the Arab League with responsibility resting in the hands of the Arab League member states. If having Gaza as an administrative region or a protectorate sounds far fetched, it’s not. Think of Hong Kong, Macau, or even US territories like Puerto Rico and Guam, whose are run independently but are protected by larger countries. There is no reason why Gaza can not become another Hong Kong or Singapore. To ensure that the Arabs maintain their end of the bargain, Israel should be allowed to enter into regional treaties to help ensure it’s protection, such as NATO.
If Gaza is treated as a separate, demilitarized entity it can then be used as a model to show what peace with the Arabs in the West Bank might look like. If Israel can resolve the issues with Gaza, on a regionally level, vis-a-vis with involvement of the Arab nations at large, and if a new normal can be established for a period long enough to convince Israel that peace is possible (say 10 years), then there is no reason that the model can’t be applied to the West Bank and a lasting peace established.
But, it all begins with separating Gaza from the West Bank politically and mentally, and beginning to treat them as two completely separate regions.
1 In 1872, near the end of Ottoman rule, the Turks created the Mutasarrifate of Kudus (Jerusalem), which encompassed Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nazareth, Jaffa, Beersheba, and Gaza, but not the majority of the West Bank to the North. Gaza still remained it’s own separate administrative district within the Mutasarrifate.