Israel and Hamas are in the middle of an Egyptian-proposed 72 hour cease-fire that started at 8am on August 5. Israel has withdrawn the last of its forces and has said it demolished all of Hamas’ known tunnels, large numbers of which crossed into Israel.
Attention is now focused on how a long-term solution can be reached to prevent a repeat of this Israel-Gaza conflict as well as the ones that had been played out before in 2012 and 2009. An Israeli and Palestinian delegation, including representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are currently in Cairo for talks mediated by Egypt.
Israel believes that the answer is the demilitarisation of the Gaza Strip through diplomatic means in exchange for significant investment in reconstruction and the easing of border restrictions. “For Israel the most important issue is the issue of demilitarisation. We must prevent Hamas from rearming, we must demilitarise the Gaza Strip,” Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev told Reuters television.
The demilitarisation of Gaza is also supported by the EU, US, Canada and many Arab states. The EU released a statement that said:
“The EU calls on Hamas to immediately put an end to these acts and renounce violence” adding, “All terrorist groups in Gaza must disarm.”
US President Barack Obama reportedly told Netanyahu that, “ultimately, any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry also said:
“We also believe that any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups. And we will work closely with Israel and regional partners and the international community in support of this goal.”
And Canadian Ambassador to the UN Guillermo Rishchynski has called for the complete “disarmament of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups operating in Gaza, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”
But even more important than Western support for the demilitarisation of the Strip, is the support that has come from the Arab world including the Palestinian Authority (PA), Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – who all dislike Hamas and view radical Islamism as a real threat. Explaining the new strategic alliances in the region, Matthew Kalman wrote in Haaretz:
“Sissi’s Egypt has clearly sided with Israel, destroying tunnels under Rafah and cutting off the flow of arms and cash to Hamas. Saudi Arabia is quietly backing the Egyptians. On Friday, King Abdullah condemned Israeli actions but also denounced the ‘shameful and disgraceful terrorists … trying to hijack Islam and present it to the world as a religion of extremism, hatred, and terrorism.’
The acquiescence of the moderate Arab world, which sees in Hamas an extension of Iranian influence that threatens them as much as it threatens Israel, could create the conditions for a historic diplomatic reboot.
The tacit approval for the destruction of Hamas extends to the Palestinian Authority, where President Mahmoud Abbas has insisted that the unity agreement signed earlier this year must involve the dismantling of the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas. Abbas’s frustration with the Hamas militia boiled over in public as the Israeli air attacks began, when he blamed Hamas, not Israel, for the rising tensions.”
The principle of demilitarising the Gaza Strip was also reflected in Oslo II, Article XIV which states that except for the arms of the Palestinian police and those of the Israel Defense Forces, “no organization, group or individual in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip shall manufacture, sell, acquire, possess, import or otherwise introduce into the West Bank or the Gaza Strip any firearms, ammunition, weapons, explosives, gunpowder or any related equipment.”
Hamas and other jihadist groups will almost certainly refuse any attempts to disarm and to demilitarise Gaza. Hamas official Izzat Al-Rishq has already warned, “those who try to take our weapons, we will take their life.”
So how can the Strip be demilitarised outside of a military takeover?
The Times of Israel discusses one theory:
“‘It’s very clear that he’s [Netanyahu] talking about some kind of clandestine arrangement involving coordination with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE,’ said Joshua Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. Netanyahu probably seeks to install a mechanism to rehabilitate the utterly devastated Gaza Strip with Saudi funds and have the Egyptians monitor the process to make sure Hamas doesn’t abuse the aid to rearm, added Teitelbaum, whose research focuses on Persian Gulf countries and political and social development in the Arab world.”
According to reports, Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni would like Israel to seek support for the reconstruction of Gaza in return for a gradual demilitarisation through stricter controls over smuggling. She is said to favour an Egyptian effort to give PA President Mahmoud Abbas and the PA control over the Rafah crossing on the Gaza side. Livni has said that Operation Protective Edge presents opportunities to reform the region, which can come “through international agreements discussing disarmament, [and] placing Abu Mazen [Abbas] in the Strip.”
Even if Hamas refuses to disarm, its ability to rearm will be much more difficult, since under Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt has closed its border with Gaza and destroyed smuggling tunnels. These tunnels were allowed to function under former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood goverment, as Hamas was considered an ally, and winked at under the previous Mubarak government, possibly because of the opportunies for making money via corruption they provided for the Egyptian military. As a senior Israeli official reportedly said:
“The big difference this time is that you have an Egyptian leader who understands that Hamas is not just a problem for Israel, but for Egypt, too… So the ability of Hamas to bring stuff in is much, much more limited. And because the Gaza tunnels are mostly shut down, the Egyptians have leverage with reopening Rafah. So it is possible to deal far more effectively with illicit transfers, which could make an end game more stable.”
Other options are also being considered. Israeli MK Shaul Mofaz, a former defence minister has also proposed an approach in his working paper earlier this month titled, “The Demilitarization of the Gaza Strip: The Proper Endpoint for Israel of Operation Protective Edge”. Mofaz argued that just as Syria was forced to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons, the international community should impel Hamas into giving up its arms. His plan calls for a $50 billion investment in Gaza in return for Hamas’ compliance and seeks to involve a host of regional and global leaders. It also calls for diplomatic support from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the US and the PA.
Another plan was put forward last week by Maj. Gen. (ret.) Israel Ziv, former head of the IDF Operations Directorate. Kalman described Ziv’s plan in Haaretz:
“The first step would be to place Gaza under the protection of an international peacekeeping force led by Egypt to prepare for new elections. According to all the polls before Operation Protective Edge began, Hamas’ popularity in Gaza has been plummeting. Their increasing weakness was a key factor in their decision to accept the unity agreement with Fatah earlier this year that foresaw the end of Hamas rule in Gaza. The election will pave the way for the return of PA control to Gaza and political reunification with the West Bank without the threat of Hamas and other radicals undermining the calm.
Egypt’s reward will be the opportunity to rebuild its economy with backing from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia – who see the suppression of Hamas as a key element in pushing back the tide of radical jihadism now sweeping the Arab world. Israel has always opposed the introduction of international forces, but in the current climate it just might work to the advantage of everyone – except Hamas.”
Clearly different options are on the table and it seems that with the support of the international community, especially Arab states, there could be effective ways to demilitarise Gaza through diplomacy.
Of course, a demilitarised Gaza Strip is not only in the interests of Israel, but also in the interests of anyone who seeks a two-state outcome.
Since Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, not only has there been an escalation of rockets fired at Israel that led Israel to impose a security blockade, but Hamas’ control of the Strip has been perhaps the biggest impediment to a two-state solution.
Hamas has remained committed to Israel’s violent destruction and dependent for it finances on funds from other rejectionist elements in the Middle East, such as Iran and Syria. Apart from its own ideology, sabotaging any two-state peace was something Hamas’ funders expected it to do in exchange for the money and arms it was given.
Meanwhile, Israel has been negotiating a two-state deal with PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Yet Abbas has no authority over Hamas or the Gaza Strip. It is difficult to see how Israel could be expected to make the difficult concessions it needs to make for peace, as long as it knew Hamas would not abide by any peace deal that agrees to end the conflict, and would very likely try to sabotage it.
If Gaza was demilitarised not only would it improve the prospects for negotiations between Israel the Palestinians for a two-state outcome, but it would also improve the welfare of Gazans who have for too long been held hostage by Hamas. Given the new strategic alliances in the region amongst Arab states, and with support from the international community, a demilitarised Gaza Strip may not be merely a pipe dream but a very real possibility that would improve prospects for peace.