Refusing to Bite the Bullet:

Yossi Kuperwasser wrote How Israel Can Solve Its Gaza Problem in Middle East Quarterly.

Martin Sherman takes isssue with him.

by Martin Sherman

The only way for Israel to determine how Gaza is ruled—and by whom—is to rule it itself.

Ever since the ill-considered and ill-fated unilateral abandonment of the Gaza Strip by Israel in August 2005—euphemistically dubbed the “disengagement”—Jerusalem has found itself embroiled in a seemingly interminable circle of violence, which the disengagement was supposed to prevent.

But, haplessly moored to the failed notion of eventual Palestinian-Arab self-governance in Gaza, the Israeli establishment has found itself hopelessly mired in a morass of strategic futility. Indeed, shortly after the egregious evacuation of Gaza, the luckless enclave fell to the control of the Islamist terror group Hamas. Whenever Hamas feels strong enough to attack Israel, it launches missile and mortar bombardments at Israeli civilian centers—with ever-improving and ever-increasing range.

The standard, almost knee-jerk, response from Jerusalem, whenever it feels compelled to respond to Palestinian-Arab aggression, is to inflict large-scale damage in Gaza, mostly, but not exclusively, from the air, until it deems that “deterrence was restored.”

This, of course, is a major misuse of the term deterrence, which should refer to an action designed to break the will of an adversary to engage in future aggression—as in the case of Germany and Japan in World War II. To the contrary, after brief interbellum respites, Hamas and its other more radical Islamist cronies emerge spoiling for a fight with its political standing and military capacities typically undiminished—indeed, even enhanced. For Hamas, the devastation inflicted is little more than the “cost of doing business.”

So, despite the depressingly predictable cycle of fighting, the Israeli defense establishment, even with its impressive tactical and technical ingenuity, persists with its strategic sclerosis, never daring to break the mold and raise the possibility of alternative strategic approaches.

Not an Actionable Prescription

In his article, Kuperwasser claims, correctly, that Israel has in recent years been living with a dangerous phenomenon, to which it has wrongly become accustomed, without any real debate as to its advisability.

According to Kuperwasser:

Jerusalem has defined its goals vis-à-vis Gaza as achieving the longest possible intervals of relative calm between major eruptions of violence; in other words, it does not challenge Hamas’s ability to attack Israel.

He deftly points out the detriments of this approach:

The flaws in such an approach are clear: it grants Hamas the ability to develop its offensive capabilities, increase its political power, and condemn Israelis—especially those living within range of the Gaza Strip—to persistent threats from Hamas terrorists.

He then proceeds to enumerate the practical measures that comprise his proposed alternative. And Kuperwasser’s formula does include some incisive insights—such as the detrimental role of the U.N. Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). However, the potential for hawkish civil society advocacy groups to induce positive impact on policy, the need to overcome hypersensitivity to IDF casualties, and the strategic nature of the threat that a Hamas-ruled Gaza poses for Israel—is far-too-little, far-too-late.

Thus, while Kuperwasser’s paper comprises a commendable diagnosis of the Gaza-related malaise, in practical terms, it is more a “nice-to-have” wish-list than an actionable remedy.

There are two major flaws that undercut the value and the validity of Kuperwasser’s policy paper. The one is that it is essentially an overall list of purportedly desirable objectives without much detail on how they should be obtained; the second—and graver defect—is that its underlying rationale is still tethered to the idea of eventual Palestinian-Arab self-rule over Gaza.

The central pillar around which Kuperwasser builds his policy alternative is the disarmament of Hamas—but not necessarily its removal from power. Indeed, there is significant ambivalence as to whether Kuperwasser is proposing merely weakening Hamas or deposing it.

Clearly, these are two very different outcomes, especially given the uncertainty as to who its prospective successor might be. In some places, it is possible to interpret him as proposing to unseat Hamas as a precondition for the disarmament of Gaza, and elsewhere, as imposing disarmament on Hamas as a means of defanging it.

Shimon Peres signs the Oslo accords, September 1993, as President Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat (right) watch. Demilitarizating the Gaza Strip, an accords cornerstone, was immediately flouted by the Palestinians.

The disarming of Hamas (or the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip) is hardly a novel idea. Indeed, it was one of the cornerstones of the 1993 Oslo accords—and was flouted by the Palestinian Arabs right from the get-go, over a decade before Hamas seized control of Gaza.

But quite apart from the manifest difficulty in attaining this goal are the no less acute difficulties that would arise if, in fact, it were achieved. After all, if, as Kuperwasser urges, Jerusalem were “to take harsh steps to force Hamas to disarm and to deny it the capacity to rearm itself,” this would inevitably undermine Hamas’s ability to impose law and order in Gaza, not only on heavily armed criminal elements but on more radical elements such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other Salafist groups—which Kuperwasser himself mentions.

But beyond the day-to-day challenges to law and order, how would a defanged Hamas contend with attempts to overthrow it by more radical opponents both from within the Gaza Strip and from within the adjacent Sinai Peninsula? If a demilitarized Hamas—or any disarmed successor regime—were faced with a significant challenge to its rule, whether from

domestic or foreign sources, would the Israelis be called upon to defend it? Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a more Kafkaesque prospect than one in which IDF forces need to be mobilized to prop up a virulently Judeophobic Islamist regime against even more virulently Judeophobic Islamist adversaries.

According to Kuperwasser, another essential element in facilitating his proposed alternative policy is enhanced intelligence. He reiterates that although Jerusalem already had “quite good” intelligence coverage of Gaza, it must upgrade it “so that it achieves continuous intelligence dominance.”

Of course, the May 2023 Operation Shield and Arrow, which opened with a simultaneous precision assassination of three senior PIJ members by the Israelis, seems to underline that Jerusalem has already achieved a remarkably high level of intelligence penetration of Gaza. This leaves one to ponder over just what levels of intelligence Kuperwasser has in mind for the implementation of his alternative approach, and if these were possible to attain, what is preventing Israeli intelligence from attaining them today. After all, it seems unlikely that Jerusalem is purposefully restraining its intelligence collection capacities merely because Kuperwasser’s proffered alternative has not been adopted—nor is it likely that its adoption will somehow improve those capacities.

Of course, enhanced intelligence is always a desirable objective, and it is something that should be routinely aspired to, but it is not at all clear why this is in any way a distinguishing requisite for Kuperwasser’s preemptive alternative—or how it should be achieved.

Although he does not discount the use of ground operations, Kuperwasser appears to view this as a last resort, writing that “if there is no other option, Jerusalem might launch a ground operation against Hamas.” Instead, Kuperwasser’s principal means of choice for subduing Hamas and imposing its disarmament and displacement is stand-off weapons from land, sea, and air. He writes:

Unseating Hamas would not necessarily require a ground operation. Much of the work can be accomplished via stand-off capabilities.
Indeed, Kuperwasser is very wary as to the prospect of a ground operation. He certainly does not appear to envision it as a prelude to a long-term Israeli presence in Gaza, and certainly not the permanent retaking of the strip. On this, he stipulates that such an “operation could focus on the less populated areas and on the Philadelphi corridor between

Egypt and Gaza” while conceding that “some of it may occur in densely populated neighborhoods.”
This aversion to the prospect of taking over the strip is reflected in Kuperwasser’s approach to the incitement that originates in the Gaza classrooms—particularly in UNRWA schools. He urges that Israel must insist that UNRWA removes from its textbooks any indoctrination and incitement of hate. It should also disengage from and condemn all employees, especially teachers, who are Hamas members or have openly supported attacks against Israel.

Thus, rather than insist that UNRWA schools be abolished, he recommends that they should be restaffed and regulated. But without a permanent presence in Gaza, how can the Israelis ensure that this is implemented, much less sustained over time?

Kuperwasser is rightfully critical of the dominant credo of “mowing the lawn,” wherein each round of escalation [Israel] heavily damages Hamas’s infrastructure but fails to prevent it from rearming rapidly with more sophisticated and capable weaponry.

He calls for a proactive and decisive strategy [to] be formulated and implemented that will eventually force Hamas to accept a new set of rules that will rid Israel of the threat represented by Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The Wrong Historical Analogies

At first blush, this is an eminently plausible view, but it is important not to be misled by inappropriate historical analogies—such as the oft-cited cases of Germany and Japan, whose devastating World War II defeats transformed them from war-like nations into peaceable members of the international community.

Martin Sherman: In the Israeli-Palestinian case, neighboring Islamic states constitute a source of instability and incitement.

In both these cases, the vanquished powers were not surrounded by, or adjacent to, countries with large populations of ethnic kin and co- religionists, who could sustain resistance and incite post-defeat unrest within their borders. Germany was not surrounded by a swathe of

Teutonic nations, nor Japan by a swathe of Nipponic nations, which could provide a constant stream of insurgents and armaments to undermine any arrangement or undercut any resolution the victorious powers wished to implement.

This, however, would definitely be the case in the Israeli-Palestinian situation as was the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, where neighboring Islamic states constituted a virtually unending source of instability and incitement after an initial seemingly “decisive victory.”

In 2017, senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar dismissed the idea of demilitarization in exchange for financial assistance to Gaza.

Accordingly, while it is true that the Gaza predicament is unlikely to be resolved without the use of massive military might by Jerusalem, Kuperwasser’s formula is dogged by two major defects. The first is that it is still tethered to the idea of eventual Palestinian-Arab self-governance in Gaza. The second is that it seems to suggest that, by sufficient beating, a leopard can be induced “to change its spots.”
In this regard, it would be instructive to recall how Hamas rebuffed a suggestion from then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman to demilitarize Gaza in exchange for transforming Gaza into “Singapore”—including the construction of a seaport, an airport, and the creation of an industrial zone that would produce forty thousand jobs. The proposal was scornfully dismissed by Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official, who jeered:

If we wanted to turn Gaza into Singapore, we would have done it ourselves. We do not need favors from anyone.

Explaining why the benign Israeli offer was so brusquely dismissed, Palestinian scholar Bassam Tawil commented:

The dispute is not about improving the living conditions of Palestinians as far as Hamas is concerned. Instead, it is about the very existence of Israel.

Accordingly, the only way for Jerusalem to determine how Gaza is ruled— and by whom—is to rule it itself. The only way for the Israelis to rule Gaza without the blight of having to rule over “another people” is to remove that “other people” from the territory over which it is obligated to rule.

The only “non-kinetic” way to remove large-scale portions of the “other people” from that territory is by financially incentivized emigration.
So, as unpalatable as it might be, Jerusalem will disregard this logic at its grave peril.

Martin Sherman spent seven years in operational capacities in the Israeli defense establishment. He is the founder of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a member of the Habithonistim-Israel Defense & Security Forum (IDSF) research team, and a participant in the Israel Victory Project.

October 24, 2023 | 3 Comments »

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3 Comments / 3 Comments

  1. The land of Israel belongs to Israel because YHVH gave it to the Israeli’s. Not the UN, Nato or any of the axis powers. The children of Israel are married to YHVH, the land is the marriage bed. The Jews must clean the bed, change the sheets and invite their marriage partner back home. The laws of war as told by Moses in Deut. 20 will solve this problem, the Jews must act on them. As far as the UN and the other nations, to hell with them. If Israel does its part, HASHEM WILL DO HIS PART.

  2. @EvRe1: Many thanks for your analysis. There are a couple of flaws that need to be considered:
    Up front: although I mention Palestinians often in the following text, there is no such people. They are an invention of the KGB from 1964.
    “Israel should incentivize emigration”. While emigration is a good idea from the Israeli point of view, it is not from the Palestinian point of view. That Israel should even consider paying for the emigration is ridiculous. The Palestinians get so much financial aid from elsewhere, even though sanctions are in place, that they are actually being incentivized to remain in the Gaza Strip.
    The surrounding Arab countries actually prefer that the Palestinians remain in place because they present an ugly thorn in Israel’s side that causes incessant irritation. That is good!!! At least from the surrounding Arab countries’ point of view. Apart from that, they openly hate Palestinians.
    The only option that may work is if Israel, because no-one else would do it, actually goes in and eliminates any Palestinian who causes trouble. This would cause significant pain from all sides, probably ending in all-out war, with all members of the UN taking part in crushing these unreasonable Israelis.

  3. The Two Delusions

    Even with financially incentivized emigration of the people of Gaza, the Palestinian problem remains: All Palestinians are guided by the belief that the land now called Israel is THEIR LAND. ALL OF IT. They truly believe this.

    In addition, they have no cultural incentives to negotiate with Jews, since they view Jews as subhuman. Their society that they grow up in, glorifies the killing of every Jew. Killing Jews makes someone who otherwise feels like a nobody into a hero in his or her community. Someone everyone looks up to and is inspired by. This is the culture living on Israel’s borders.

    Now some of the Sunni nations in the Middle East and beyond realize that they have much to gain by a peaceful relationship with Israel, and with accepting Israel’s existence as a Jewish state. NOT SO WITH THE PALESTINIAN PEOPLE.

    They see co-existence with Israel as an impossibility. They see co-existence as a defeat of humiliating proportions that is unacceptable to them. They see co-existence with Israel as worse than death. They see their struggle to abolish Israel as the most important struggle of their people, one worth suffering any privation, even death, for.

    These are people who become joyous when innocent Jews are killed. They celebrate with singing, dancing, and passing out candy to children.

    The reason this problem has not been solved up until now is that Jews and the rest of the non-Palestinian world have difficulty comprehending that a whole people or whole society living next to and within their society, would be so motivated to kill them, that it is their dearest and most profound wish to see every Israeli dead. There are Jews in Israel who believe these are innocent people, and these Jews who believe this are influential.

    The sad fact is, much of the world has bought the Palestinian propaganda and myth of “innocence” of the Palestinian people. On that basis, if the people are innocent, it becomes Israel’s responsibility to protect them from harm!

    This is partly why Israel has not started a ground invasion: there is no specific act of war that can solve this problem permanently. Another reason is the concern about war with Iran.

    Part of the problem is that the Palestinian people are not innocent and want death to all Jews. The other part of the problem is that so much of the rest of the world believes these genocidal monsters are completely innocent!

    Try fighting World War II if the whole world thought the German people and the Japanese people were all completely innocent. There were some pacifists in Germany and Japan. But enough pacifists to make sure in every battle that there was no collateral damage done during the fighting?

    Maybe there are a few pacifists in the West Bank and Gaza. But enough to require Israel to second guess every move in their attempts to defeat Hamas?

    Defeating Hamas militarily if it can be accomplished, will still not solve the problem of the belief on the part of all Palestinians that the land we call Israel belongs completely to them.

    And they are as unlikely to agree to move elsewhere as Israelis are.

    These two core problems remain: the Palestinian delusion that the land belongs only to them, and the world’s delusion that the Palestinian people are innocent.