The Gaza problem is a temperamental litmus test

August 23, 2016

The launch of a rocket at the town of Sderot, by a Palestinian terrorist group, came out of nowhere. This summer, Hamas seems preoccupied with political shenanigans – wanting to score a victory in as many elections as possible both in Gaza and, more importantly, in the West Bank – so a reasonable assumption was made that the time for another round of violence has not yet come. Still, the rocket was launched, and the IDF was prompted to respond.

Its response was on a scale much larger than the usual tit for tat. Why? Three reasons: 1. Because it can – under the assumption that this is not a good time for Hamas to turn a response into a large scale conflict. 2. Because there’s a new Minister of Defense in town, and Avigdor Lieberman, who promised a much more aggressive policy against Hamas, needs to show that he was serious. 3. Because (as Amos Harel reported) the IDF was looking to “seize a tactical opportunity to deprive Hamas of operational assets.”

Casualties were few, as the IDF was careful not to attack in populated areas. The response from the world community – Turkey was the notable exception, and its critical statement was countered with a no less critical Israeli statement – was meager. It is August, the world is on vacation, or busy electing new leaders, or worrying about domestic terrorism. It has little time and patience to turn its attention to Gaza.

The Gaza problem, though, does not go away, and what to do about it is more a question of temperament and general worldview than one of policy. Of course, there are also many questions of policy involved, concerning military tactics, border control, dealing with rogue regimes, and so on and so forth. But no less than policy (what would be an efficient way to give Gaza a sea port without it using it for smuggling even more ammunition into the Strip?), the temperamental state of mind of Israel’s leaders (and other leaders) determines their approach to the Gaza problem.

There are those who want Israel to be more aggressive and set the ambitious goal of uprooting Hamas. No doubt, if Hamas were out of power – assuming that a more reasonable force replaced it – Israel would be in a better place. On the other hand, Israel’s record as a regional kingmaker is not very impressive. The neighbors prefer their own messy process – and its often catastrophic result – over Israel’s meddling.

And yet, the uprooting Hamas camp is wide – it includes right-wingers whose tendency is to be aggressive against all enemies and left-wingers whose hope is that Hamas will be replaced by the Palestinian Authority with which Israel can then make peace. What is the common characteristic feature that all of these people share? It is an activist approach to Middle East problems. There is not much difference between Peace Now, and Disengagement Now, and Uproot Hamas Now – these are all a call for immediate action with the belief that Israel has it within its own power to make things better. But mostly because of a temperament: there are people – I’m sure you know such people – who cannot sit idly by, as they are waiting for something to happen.

Then there are those whose tendency is caution and pessimism. They look at Gaza and see a problem that Israel cannot solve. They look at Gaza and see a situation that is far from ideal, yet worry that immediate action of any sort is likely to either make things worse or – best case scenario – to leave things unchanged. These people have a much harder time explaining their position – playing for time is as unpopular in politics as it is in sports. Yet sometimes playing for time is the wise move, and some people (and leaders) are also more inclined to play for time by their nature.

In the case of Gaza, these leaders accept a reality that is far from perfect: every now and then a small eruption of violence. Every now and then a larger-scale eruption of violence. All this to maintain a currently acceptable status quo. Until when? Until there’s an opportunity to seize. Not just action for the sake of acting (because sitting on our hands is frustrating). Action with a realistic hope of achieving a breakthrough. Is this position logical? It is in many ways. But the people who opt for it do it mostly because of a temperament: there are people – I’m sure you know such people – who prefer waiting for something to happen over risking unsafe action.

The third school of thought – again, I believe it is no less a matter of temperament than of of thought – is the school of no action, not now, not ever. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and hence Gaza is not Israel’s problem. Israel ought to act to defend itself when Gaza is a threat to its security but other than that it will just have to wait for the Palestinians\Arab world\International community\Gazans themselves to solve the Gaza problem.

When will this happen? It is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The Middle East is in the middle of an identity crisis, and Gaza has been pushed to the end of the line. When Syria is solved, and Libya, and Yemen and all other problems, then Gaza might be solved too. Until then, all efforts are futile, and all spreading of false hopes is damaging. So what’s in stock for Israel? The status quo, with ups and downs for a very long time. And what’s in stock for Gaza? The status quo, with ups and downs for a very long time. That is to say: It is still much better to be in Israel’s position than the other way around. But the Israelis who opt for this option do it mostly not because it is better for Israel, but rather because of a temperament: there are people – I’m sure you know such people – who always hope that if they wait long enough then someone else will do the job they don’t like doing.

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