Free Gaza? What on Earth Does That Even Mean?

July 30, 2014
June 30, 2016
Middle East

The recent Israeli military campaign in Gaza is simultaneously regrettable but not particularly noteworthy in international affairs. As tragic as the loss of life on both sides is, the basic contours of Israeli actions, the response of Hamas, and even the frantic posturings of John Kerry are so predictable that most Foreign Ministries could save time and money by reissuing their statements on Israel's 2006 intervention in Lebanon with some judicious use of ctrl+f.

The key players know the score. Israel understands that its campaign is symbolic rather substantive, and it will wage a few weeks of war against Hamas, reminding that group that there is a limit to Israeli tolerance that it must keep its "liberation struggle" below, a limit Hamas came dangerously near to passing last month. Hamas in turn will use the opportunity of the Israeli military campaign to help establish itself as the indispensable party to any short-term settlement in the eyes of foreign governments, further discrediting Fatah while allowing it to shakedown Qatar and others for funds. Once that objective is achieved, Hamas will acknowledge Israel's limits, and both sides will withdraw having achieved a victory; Israel the pacification of Gaza for 18 months or so, Hamas,  Swiss Bank accounts full of cash and a further sidelining of its rivals . The losers are the residents of Gaza and southern Israel.

As Israel and Hamas know exactly what they expect to achieve, the actions of the remaining outside actors are irrelevant. It is clear that John Kerry has been frantically floating ideas for cease-fires, either because he or Obama earnestly wants one, or because they seek the appearance of trying. In either case, however, the effort is futile. Much as in the past, a cease-fire will arise when the combatants are ready and not before. Past US policy-makers, most prominently Henry Kissinger understood this. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Kissinger waited until both Cairo and Jerusalem sought his intervention, at which point he was able to take credit for mediating a settlement. 

Europe, is if anything, even more irrelevant, which makes the divisive conflict on its streets even more perplexing. The militancy of anti-Israel protesters has led to a widespread debate about whether their words and actions are antisemitic. Undoubtedly many of their actions have crossed that line, especially attacks on Synagogues in Paris which have provoked Newsweek's provocative cover story asking "Why Jews are again fleeing Europe." This is not to say that anyone screaming "Free Palestine!" is indeed antisemitic. Many are simply deluded, and some even are Jewish themselves.

Regarding the conflict in Gaza, the slogan of "Free Palestine" is evidence of ignorance, not antisemitism or ill-intent. The simple truth is that Israel is not the major obstacle to "freeing Gaza" and has not been since 2003. Nor is Israel particularly attached to the region. Contrary to absurd rants about non-existent settlement ambitions in Gaza, Israel has tried to unload the region on both Egypt and Jordan with no success. Neither finds the prospect of ruling an economically worthless urban territory filled to the brim with heavy weaponry. Not only would attempting to "rule" Gaza be economically ruinous; it would also be politically catastrophic as the sort of military campaign that would be required would result in enormous civilian casualties to little gain. Israel would hardly reject a genuine offer by Britain or France to take Gaza off its hands if one were forthcoming. Rather than being a prize, Gaza is probably the least desirable territory on the planet, with if anything negative economic and strategic value, and Israel and Hamas are fighting to force responsibility for it in the eyes of the world onto the other.

It is also a vast oversimplification to claim that Israel is somehow keeping Gaza's residents "trapped" in the territory. Ignoring for a moment that the blockade is deadlier if not tighter on the Egyptian side, Israel would likely be overjoyed if a foreign government expressed a desire to take in Gazan refugees. But as of yet none of the governments that have so loudly called for a "political settlement" or for "Israeli restraint" have displayed much interest in offering the Palestinians visas. No nation seems to willing to accept even 10,000 Palestinian refugees, much less hundreds of thousands. Gazans are trapped not because Israel will not let them leave but because they have nowhere to go.

There may be a disturbing parallel here with the plight of Jewish refugees in Europe during the 1930s here, but it is a different one, with different villains, than the Pro-Palestinian side generally asserts. The villains today are as much the countries that refuse to help resolve the Palestinian refugee crisis while demanding Israel do so alone, as they are the Israelis, who even in the event they granted full and immediate independence to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, would not in anyway resolve the situation in Gaza. It would still be as poor, overpopulated, and well-armed as it is at present, and as long this would be the case, Egypt and Israel would both seek to quarantine it. At the same time, the rest of the World, satisfied its work there was done, would be only too eager to wash its hands of even the limited aid it is currently providing.

"Free Gaza" is therefore a meaningless slogan. In the absence of anyone else willing to take responsibility for Gaza, Israel as the predominant regional power and de facto international authority, as well as the country most affected by the chaos, has had no choice but to take on the role. Few Israelis think that the current military campaign will accomplish much in the sphere of security; only the delusional expect a political dividend. Rather they have launched the campaign due to the absence of any other option. Without a viable partner to negotiate with, Israel's only option is to try and keep as much of a lid on the violence in Gaza as possible.

As for the lack of viable partner, that is not by itself due to the refusal of Israel to negotiate with Hamas. Rather it is due to the fact that no one, including Hamas, actually governs Gaza except in the negative sense of wielding limited authority over some streets, and therefore its far from clear that Hamas could negotiate an agreement even if it wanted to. As I noted last week in the Times of Israel, any genuine settlement would require political concessions that the Palestinian population is not able to accept. It is far easier for Palestinian organizations, both Hamas and Fatah, to operate through temporary cease-fires which carry none of the political baggage of a genuine agreement that would only serve to paint a political target on their backs.

As such, there is not much to be optimistic about in the region. But to the extent outsiders look at the conflict, they should be under an obligation to offer potential solutions and not slogans. This does not mean Israel's actions are wise or beyond reproach, or that the decision to rule out any talks with Hams is entirely wise. Rather it means that those who chant "Free Palestine" or "Solidarity with Gaza" should have to substantiate what precisely it is they want Israel to do rather than ranting from the smug heights of moral condescension. Because right now they are making very clear what they don't want to happen, but have left it a mystery as to what they actually hope to have occur.


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