A Golden Bridge for Gaza

Israel’s repeated wars against Hezbollah and Hamas have had two simple goals: constraint and deterrence. Israel wants to constraint their ability to make war and deter them from doing so in the future. The common term for this is “mowing the grass.”

It is a horrible term, reflecting the hopelessness of resolving anything.

Hamas has goals of their own. The shortest-term goal is to remain accepted as the leaders of the Palestinian people by demonstrating their dedication to resistance. Their longer-term goal is to work away at Israel’s territorial peace until they and their allies are in a position – through military might or public relations – to remove Israel entirely. The creation of a Palestinian state would emplace Hamas rockets within 20 miles of every Israeli population center but Eilat. Even Iron Dome could not resist that. It would be a major coup in their policy of ethnic cleansing. This policy pre-dates Hamas. 99% of Jews were ethnically cleaned from Muslim-governed lands in the years following 1948. Hamas simply wants to finish the job.

Israel recognizes they can’t defeat Hamas. After all, they are widely supported by their civilian population. Removing the Hamas government and occupying Gaza once again would only lead to an endless guerrilla war. And Hamas recognizes that they must continue to fight, periodically – even if their goals seems hopelessly out of reach today. They believe, eventually, that they will win.

Historically, Hamas is right. Muslims pushed out the Crusaders. Muslims pushed out the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. Muslims forced the French out of Algeria. Muslims even pushed out the Mongols, after the massacre of almost all Muslims in Baghdad in 1258. Israel, in the long term, can’t be that different. Right?

I know of only three other Muslim-governed lands from which Muslim rulers were successfully replaced by non-Muslim rulers. These lands include Spain, India and parts of Western China.

Spain carried out a total ethnic cleansing of all non-Christians (Jews included). China appears to be following in Spanish footsteps, with Communist Party ideology replacing Christianity as the orthodox religion of the conquerors.

India remains the other example. Like Israel it has a significant Muslim population (somewhat reduced by a massive population transfer at the founding of the state in 1948). Like Israel it has internal sectarian conflicts with a Muslim population and external wars with a Muslim country (Pakistan). And, like Israel, it has resolved next to nothing.

By my reckoning, the Indian or Israeli festering wound of sectarian conflict is morally preferable to the one-time ethnic cleansing of the Spanish or Chinese examples.

“Mowing the grass” is preferable to paving over it.

But what if there was another path?

Sun Tzu, writing about conflicts between ethnically related kingdoms thousands of years ago, laid out many famous keys to conflict. One was to build your enemy a golden bridge, offering them a way out so they never fought like they were trapped. People in Gaza feel trapped – whether by Israel or Hamas. Another was to lure the enemy population away from their dedication to conflict. This is the basis of the modern COIN warfare practiced by the US in the latter stages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For all the problems of the past week, Israel has had far fewer problems with its Arab citizens than it has had with the Palestinian population not under its control. Put another way: Gaza has been far more difficult to deal with than Lod. One of the key reasons for this difference is that people in Gaza have no connection to Israel. The lines in the sand are total – there are Palestinians and then there are Jews. There is nothing in between.

I’ve always supported fracturing those lines. In the past, I’ve floated the idea of making peace with a single Palestinian city – recognizing passports, opening trade, providing security support and so on. This is possible because “Palestine” is not a single entity. Palestine was never a country and until recently there has never been a Palestinian Arab national identity (there was a Palestinian Jewish national identity before 1948). Because of this, allegiances to local power structures still remain. Thus, the population in Hebron could be quite distinct from that of Bethlehem or Jenin. The goal of this program would have been an eventual confederation of peaceful Palestinian cantons, and the isolation of hard-core Palestinian rejectionists.

In the current atmosphere it can be hard to imagine a single Palestinian city accepting this concept. The problem is not that an individual city would not be attracted by such an opportunity, it is that that city would face terribly violence from other Palestinian groups dead-set against any further fracturing of sectarian lines. The UAE made peace with Israel, Egypt is officially warming up, Morocco has broken with Arab lines, Sudan recognizes Israel, the Israeli-Islamist Ra’am party is willing to work with Israeli nationalists – and so no Palestinian city can be allowed to do the same.

Peace has to stop somewhere.

Strangely, this sort of city-based approach was more likely to work prior to the Abraham Accords.

What about stepping back from the ‘city’ level though?

When Israel was treating wounded Syrians, the world discovered that Syrians were stunned by Israel. They’d been taught Jews were some sort of monster people. They were surprised to discover that Israelis were a people willing to help even their enemies. They were further surprised to learn that Arabs in Israel held prominent jobs, including as the doctors who saved their lives.

Those who recall the interviews of those patients will also remember that their faces were blurred. They didn’t want to be endangered when they returned to Syria; and they didn’t want their families to be endangered either. A bridge to peace was built, and then partially burned upon their repatriation.

In my last editorial, I had a throw-away line about enabling Gazan families to acquire temporary residency with Arab Israeli families. But why not learn from the Syrian experience and make that into a major program? Slowly, at first, Israel could allow Gazan families to escape. All those families would need is a background check by Israeli authorities and the sponsorship of an Israeli family (Arab or otherwise) who would bear partial responsibility for any terrorist activity. They would then be issued Israeli work and temporary residency permits.

These families could form the basis of a major change. Instead of seeing Jews as some sort of monster people, they could see a realistic picture of who Israelis and Jews are. Over 40% of Israelis are descended from refugees expelled from Arab lands. There is more in common than some might imagine. These families could also see what Israelis have built. The concept of Israel as some temporary, evil and alien aberration would be largely erased.

As a major additional benefit, these families could shift from depending on international aid to being able to work and earn an income of their own. Nothing reduces radical activity like the opportunity for fulfilling work. This opportunity, due to Hamas’ policies, is almost entirely lacking in Gaza.

Some of these people may seek to carry out terror attacks. But punishment would be severe (including expulsion back to Gaza for entire families or even sponsors). It could also lead to termination of the entire program. Social pressure to not commit these attacks would be substantial – and social pressure is critical in a socially integrated society like Israel’s or Gaza’s. Indeed, I believe that while some might seek to attack, many others would seek some form of co-existence. We’ve seen it even with the riots. The morning after nighttime mobs in cities like Lod there have been daytime cleanups in which Arabs and Jews join together to pick up the pieces. Arabs have been distributing flowers to Jewish motorists in Haifa.

There is still a significant population, on both sides, dedicated to making something work.

That population could be extended to include Palestinians. Put another way, Gazan Palestinians could be more like Arab Israelis – instead of the other way around.

Critically, from Israel’s perspective, these people would remain Palestinian citizens. The international community already considers Israel responsible for Gaza so little would be lost by having Gazans under Israeli governance. Because these people would not be Israeli citizens, there would be no political threat here. On the contrary, Israel would actively facilitate these families’ participation in what exists of Palestinian democracy. When there are elections (they’ve been suspended for 15 years now) the competition between authoritarian parties more or less dedicated to Israel’s destruction would be leavened by a third and more productive perspective.

This approach would represent both the Golden Bridge and the luring of an enemy population. The US, of course, tried COIN in both Afghanistan and Iraq. This method of warfare worked well in Iraq – until the US withdrew. The US failure was founded on a critical reality. It is the same truth that emboldened Islamic resistance in French Algeria, Mongol Baghdad and Crusader Israel: Iraq and Afghanistan were never American territory.

This limitation does not apply to us. Israel is the homeland of the Jews.

Like Hindu Indians, the Jews of Israel are not going anywhere.

We Israelis face a choice. Do we choose Spanish or Chinese-style ethnic cleansing? Do we choose a horribly festering open wound of conflict? Or do we try to fracture the sectarian lines of conflict?

I believe the third choice is a viable one.

I believe that ropes lashing people to war can be overwhelmed by threads connecting them to their erstwhile enemies.

For a fictional exploration of a related concept check out my book The City on the Heights. It is loaded with danger, terrorism, sectarian conflict and, yes, urban wastewater treatment technology.
  1. Susan R Quinn says:

    At this point, I’m willing to see Israel try anything. Since there are requirements to follow and consequences if people violate the rules, I hope someone in the Knesset will step forward and try out your plan, in some form or other. Thanks for continuing to fight for resolution, Joseph.

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