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Rebuilding a Demilitarized Gaza Is the Road to Peace

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, 
Old Time is still a-flying; 
And this same flower that smiles today 
Tomorrow will be dying.

Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” 

Here is an idea whose time has come: the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip in return for demilitarization of Hamas.

Britain, France, and Germany have now proposed a plan. Gazans would not just get emergency humanitarian assistance, but long-term and large-scale economic development, as well as much greater freedom to trade and travel. Hamas, on the other hand, would get disarmed. The Israeli government and opposition are in favor of the idea, so too the United States, and the policy would likely attract support from regional Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Crucially, it also offers a framework to re-establish the authority of those Palestinians who oppose terror, recognize Israel, and want to negotiate a two-state solution—the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas.

I interviewed six Israeli and American policy experts this week—Matthew Levitt, Michael Herzog, Gershon Baskin, Jonathan Spyer, Jonathan Rynhold, and Asher Susser—about the viability of “reconstruction for demilitarization.” Could it be a political solution to the Gazan tragedy? As I sat and edited the transcripts, I identified these ten rules for success.

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1. Only this policy paradigm can avoid the next round of violence. “If you want to stabilize Gaza over the long run and prevent the repetition of violent rounds of conflict, you have to support this,” said Michael Herzog, a former adviser to several Israeli defense ministers. The periodic restoration of deterrence over Hamas by airstrikes and ground invasions is simply “not a tenable plan anymore,” Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute told me. Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People at Bar-Ilan University, argued that it is vital to show that “Israel’s war is against Hamas, not against the Palestinian people.” The policy “puts the onus on Hamas to explain why they are unprepared to give up their rockets in exchange for reconstruction.“

2. Demilitarization can only succeed if it is supported by a global coalition. Israel, Europe, and America are already committed. But to marginalize Hamas, Egypt is the key—blocking the smuggling of arms. Gershon Baskin, who played a role in the negotiations that led to the release of Gilad Shalit, told me that “we have an opportunity to create a political process with allies in the region who view the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas like we do, as an enemy.” Be bold, was his advice. “We should create a new quartet of Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and the PA led by the PLO of Mahmoud Abbas” and take seriously the Arab League Peace Initiative. Herzog is confident that “if there is a strong enough regional and international alliance that wants to go down that road, then the US may be inclined to lead it.”

3. Be realistic about what we can achieve at this point. Uniformly, the experts said the short-term goal must be to reach a cessation of hostilities, coupled with the opening of Gaza to reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. Yes, the longer-term goal should be the demilitarization of Gaza, but only the IDF could secure that. It would take a long occupation, and Israel has no interest in that. So the experts urged a more modest goal: the non-remilitarization of Hamas. Levitt added, “If militants in Gaza end up holding onto their AKs, that is not a huge problem. However, they cannot [replenish] their strategic infrastructure and terror tunnels, rockets and rocket launchers.”

4. Don’t imagine you can simply buy demilitarization. Baskin warned that the answer is only one-third about economic development funded by Europe and America. The other two-thirds are a security plan with Egyptian backing and, most importantly, a political plan that boosts Abbas.

5. Accept that different actors will play different roles in this process. Herzog pointed out that Egypt “will do its part in preventing the re-armament of Gaza but prefers to support the idea of demilitarizing Gaza if others will do the job.” Right now, the PA is a weak actor under pressure internally so it “cannot present itself openly as leading a move to demilitarize Gaza,” warned Herzog. “It would prefer to lead the rehabilitation and reconstruction of Gaza.”

It will be important to boost Abbas and the PA by taking several measures. First, marginalize those “diplomatic initiatives” that are sympathetic to Hamas, such as those coming from Qatar and Turkey. The US in particular must “get” that. Second, ensure the gains that are achieved in negotiations—the relaxation of border controls, expanding the area for fishing off the Gaza coast, and so on—are credited to the PA. Third, when it comes to the opening of the Rafah crossing and the supervision of the borders, the PA’s military forces should be incorporated into that supervision. Egypt, because it is on the other side, can do the “heavy lifting” in terms of what goes in and what doesn’t go in. Fourth, the PA, not Hamas, should be funded to pay the salaries of the civil servants in Gaza.

Rynhold pointed out that reconstruction for demilitarization will only work if the moderate Palestinians are comfortable with it. They fear that an interim step—a “Marshal Plan” in return for demilitarization—would be a guise under which Israeli would quell Palestinian ambitions for political self-rule with offerings of more economic opportunity. That fear must be addressed.

6. Don’t forget the UN. Several of the experts felt a new UN resolution would be helpful. It was noted that while Security Council Resolution 1701—regarding Hezbollah’s arsenal in Lebanon after the 2006 war—failed there because there was no one to patrol the borders, a “1701 solution” would be very effective for the Gaza Strip, where Israel and Egypt (and the PA) can monitor. More ideas were discussed: UN sanctions against those who violate the terms of “reconstruction for demilitarization” by supplying arms to Hamas in Gaza, an international force to patrol some parts of Gaza so that Israel would not need to claim a security strip, a UN role in meeting the Palestinian demands for greater fishing rights (as well as Israeli concerns about smuggling and terrorist operations via the sea).

7. Be aware of the spoilers. Let’s not be naive. The members of the so called “resistance axis” have closed ranks, and Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, has called for violent resistance to any attempt to demilitarize Gaza.

As for Hamas, Jonathan Spyer warned that the group will never “consign its Gaza authority to oblivion and become a junior partner to Abu Mazen [Abbas] of its own free will.” He worried that the “reconstruction for demilitarization” policy could amount to concessions to Hamas in return for nothing and pointed out the danger of Hamas taking the incentives but refusing to disarm. Then, “all that will happen is that there will be a veneer of normality and respectability and underneath that, Hamas will still be an armed group and it will be able to build up its forces again.”

That outcome must be avoided at all costs.

8. We can defeat the spoilers, especially if our coalition includes the Gazan people. Herzog emphasized the need for a “firm cease-fire arrangement, which comes with security guarantees to make sure that what goes into Gaza is not used to smuggle weapons, and that building materials are not used to build tunnels.” “If NATO, [the] US, Egypt, and the Arab League come together,” argued Rynhold, “then they can do a pretty good job of stopping the longer-range rockets.” Asher Susser thought a coalition of Israel and Egypt, together with the international community, would be fully capable of “opening border crossings while preventing the reintroduction of rockets.” For example, “cement and other building materials can go in for specific objectives, but [its use] can be monitored.”

We have several advantages at this time. First, Susser pointed out that “the present government in Egypt is, as we know, very hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and therefore there can be an effective prevention of remilitarization.” Second, while “Hezbollah is going to yell platitudes, it is extremely distracted by its investment in Syria, not to mention the fact that it has been significantly deterred by Israel since the July 2006 war.” Third, “Hamas may not like it, but they’re not going to have any other choice.” Baskin was bullish about the prospects of undermining Hamas. “Think of the position Hamas would be in if it opposed disarmament against the wishes of the Arab League. That would be a completely different to Hamas objecting to an Israeli wish. If the Palestinian people, in Gaza in particular, knew that this plan would finally lead to the end of the occupation and Palestinian independence, they would get rid of Hamas from within.” Levitt noted that polls taken just before the conflict began indicated that “as many as 80 percent of Palestinians in Gaza wanted Hamas out. They see that their fellow Palestinians are living better lives in Israel and the West Bank and they feel left behind.” Finally, as Levitt observed, “Countries like Qatar—which are very sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and to Hamas—are going to have a very hard time, because of their relations with Europe and the US, if they don’t get behind something which ends a bloody conflict and rebuilds the Gaza Strip.”

9. The success of “non-remilitarization for reconstruction” can be leveraged to lead us back to peace talks. If we can achieve “non-remilitarization for reconstruction” formula, Baskin told me, “we should also be thinking constructively and creatively about where we go from there. I think that means making use of the increased authority of the PA and Mahmoud Abbas to make progress on the West Bank issue.” In other words, the road back to serious peace talks aimed at the “two states for two peoples” runs through the success of “non-remilitarization for reconstruction.”

10. It is time for Zionism to rediscover its mojo. “Israel,” Baskin complained, “is based on the Zionist idea of taking our fate into our own hands and not waiting for others to determine who and what we are.” Clearly exasperated, he continued, “We are a ‘start-up nation’ which invents new patents in the world of high-tech. And our military certainly knows how to take the initiative. I just can’t fathom why the government of Israel is always waiting for someone else to take the political initiative.”

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