January 16, 2019

Lessons of Gaza: 10 years later

Anniversaries always present us with an opportunity to reflect on the past and to try to learn from history.

British military thinker and historian B.H. Liddell Hart wote a book titled “Why Don’t We Learn From History?” In that book, Liddell Hart teaches us that “those who read history tend to look for what proves them right and confirms their personal opinions.” Armed with this wise caution, let’s look at some of the anniversaries commemorated recently and try to draw some lessons.

Waterloo immediately comes to mind, the battle in 1815 that brought Napoleon’s empire to its end. Never mind the fact that in a ludicrous re-enactment of the Battle of Waterloo recently, Frenchmen dressed as Napoleonic soldiers “defeated” their English enemy. And dismiss the fact that in popular memory, Napoleon is the hero and the man who defeated him, Wellington, is almost unknown.

The truth is that Waterloo symbolizes the victory of reason and stability, which Europe yearned for after so much bloodshed, over the megalomaniac ambitions of Napoleon. Hitler should have learned the same lesson, but he didn’t. So, in May, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of his fall.

Next, Vietnam comes to mind. Forty years after the hasty withdrawal from Saigon, and with more than 58,000 names engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, one wonders what kind of lesson can be learned. Having Liddell Hart’s caveat in mind, then, those who opposed the war at the time will undoubtedly argue that they were right, and that it was a terrible waste of human lives and national resources. Those who have supported the war (and perhaps still support the use of American military power as a means of diplomacy) will probably say that it was the weakness of the politicians that betrayed the heroic soldiers.

A more balanced reflection might put the Vietnam War in the broader context of the Cold War, a war between capitalism and communism. Capitalism eventually won the war, and one wonders whether the American resilience in Vietnam didn’t have something to do with it. History moved on, and then, 20 years ago, the United States and Vietnam normalized relations. Today, they are promoting bilateral trade and — believe it or not — forging strategic cooperation, which involves keeping a watchful eye on the South China Sea, where China, once Vietnam’s staunch supporter, has ambitions.

Which brings me closer to home. Two anniversaries brought Gaza back to the Israeli discourse recently: This year marks 10 years since the Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip and a year since Operation Protective Edge. 

In Israel, the uprooting of Israeli settlements from Gaza, the brainchild of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is called in Hebrew “hitnatkut” — cutting off, or severance. The idea was that pulling the Israelis out of there and closing the gate behind us was supposed to rid us once and for all of Gaza and its troubles. 

The third lesson is that Gaza will not go away. Whether we like it or not, it will always dwell on our doorstep, and, like a bad neighbor, will keep bothering us.

Needless to say, nothing of the sort ever happened. In pulling our brothers and sisters out of there, we didn’t cut ourselves off from Gaza. On the contrary, Gaza chased us into Israel proper. The launching of rockets at our cities coerced us into pounding Gaza in three operations: Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012) and last year’s Protective Edge. Furthermore, having to fight Hamas terrorism in a densely populated area produced wrenching scenes that have turned us into a pariah in world media and public opinion.

So, what is the first lesson we can draw from the hitnatkut? That it was a huge mistake, and that whenever Israel makes concessions, it is rewarded not only with more security problems, but also with ingratitude and even scorn?

Gershon Hacohen thinks so. Looking back, the retired Israel Defense Forces general, who commanded the hitnatkut a decade ago, wrote this week in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot that, contrary to the common wisdom of that time — that pulling out would improve Israel’s strategic position — he believes there were military advantages to keeping Israeli settlements inside the Gaza Strip. Hacohen equated the settlements to the first kibbutzim, which, in the 1930s, helped carve out the borders of the future Jewish state. On another level, Hacohen wrote, Israelis should never give away pieces of their beloved land.

I beg to differ. While I share Hacohen’s love for our Promised Land, I look at the people who populate it, and I wonder how we can keep all the land without ending up in a terrible dilemma: With millions of Palestinians among us, either we lose the Jewish character of Israel or its democracy. These scenarios are worse than any security threats, which — painful as they may be — we can handle.

The second lesson is that the way in which we carried out the hitnatkut was wrong. Sharon, who hated the Palestinians and would do no business with them, preferred to carry out the pullout unilaterally, rather than deliver Gaza into the hands of Mahmoud Abbas in a negotiated settlement. I don’t know whether Gaza would have fallen into the hands of Hamas anyway, but the unilateral hitnatkut definitely weakened Abbas, while making Hamas, in the eyes of the Palestinians, the hero capable of extracting land from Israel by force. 

The third lesson is that Gaza will not go away. Whether we like it or not, it will always dwell on our doorstep, and, like a bad neighbor, it will keep bothering us. The ideas voiced in Israel during and after Operation Protective Edge, namely that we should have “finished the job,” meaning toppling Hamas, are unrealistic. They remind me of the ill-advised Israeli plot in 1982 (by the same Ariel Sharon, by the way) to make the minority Maronite Christians kings of predominantly Shiite Lebanon. 

Giving up such futile presumptions of engineering the Middle East doesn’t mean that Israel should sit idly by vis-à-vis the Gaza problem. Together with other regional forces, which are deeply concerned at the prospect of a nuclear Iran on the one hand and the advent of radical Islam on the other, Israel should initiate a plan not only to rehabilitate Gaza, but also to open new horizons for the younger generation of Gazans. 

Top Israeli military officials told the government recently that Hamas, badly beaten last summer, is looking for a truce with Israel. They advised the government to remove some restrictions on the movement of Gazans, and even to allow the building of a port, which will open Gaza to the world. 

This is the fourth lesson, maybe the most important of them all. For too long we have used the stick on the people of Gaza and gained little in return. We should always be carrying the stick, but it’s time to give the carrot a chance. 

A version of this article appeared in the Miami Herald.