November 4, 2006
by David A. Harris
November 2, 2006 – New York – American Jewish Committee Executive Director writes about the challenges Israel faces in Gaza in an op-ed published in the International Herald Tribune. The full article is pasted below.
Israel cannot stand on the sidelines
Just over a year ago, Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza. To be sure, a negotiated withdrawal would have been preferable to a unilateral decision, but absent a credible Palestinian partner, Israel chose to act alone rather than to wait.
As a result of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bold decision, the Palestinian residents of Gaza were given self-rule for the first time in their history over the entire Strip. Not even under Egyptian control, from 1948 to 1967, until Israel entered Gaza in a war of self- defense, did Gazans enjoy a modicum of autonomy. To the contrary, the Egyptians imposed military rule on the narrow corridor, restricted travel, and devoted pitifully few resources to improving living conditions.
Thus, in the fall of 2005, Gazans had a unique opportunity to begin charting their own future. What path would they choose? Social and economic development, benefiting from generous international aid? Or an arms buildup aimed at creating a launching pad for new waves of terror and violence against neighboring Israel, now separated by an internationally recognized border?
Tragically, they chose the latter. Every day, under the Hamas leadership, rockets are fired from Gaza into southern Israel, a situation that no sovereign country would accept. Evidence abounds of the smuggling of weapons from Egypt into Gaza, often through elaborate tunnels, including antitank missiles and other sophisticated equipment. Indeed, in recent days alone the Israeli military discovered 15 tunnels along the so-called Philadelphi corridor, the name given to the Egyptian-Gaza border.
Why is all this happening? After all, Israelis are out of Gaza and have repeatedly confirmed that they have no territorial claims there. It would seem to make more sense for the Palestinians to work toward a peaceful and developing society that, among other things, would demonstrate that Israelis have nothing to fear from a Palestinian state.
The answer is inescapably simple. The current Palestinian government is controlled by Hamas, which seeks the destruction of Israel. It is the terror group’s primary reason for existence. As the Hamas Charter declares, “Israel will rise and remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.”
Reinforcing the point, Dr. Mahmud Al-Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, stated last year, “Neither the liberation of the Gaza Strip nor the liberation of the West Bank or even Jerusalem will suffice us. Hamas will pursue the armed struggle until the liberation of all our lands. We don’t recognize the State of Israel or its right to hold onto one inch of Palestine.”
For those who naively hoped that once in power, Hamas would change its tune, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, Ismail Haniya, said last month, “I tell you with all honesty, we will not recognize Israel, we will not recognize Israel, we will not recognize Israel.”
There are those who argue that Israel should negotiate unconditionally with Hamas, asserting that it is necessary to talk to one’s enemy.
But what would they discuss? The terms for Israel’s dismemberment? The Quartet (the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia), supported by Israel, has imposed three conditions on Hamas – recognition of Israel, abandonment of terror and acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian accords. These continue to make eminently good sense as baselines for engagement.
What is Israel to do given such a seemingly intractable and untenable situation? It faces an implacable enemy that not only seeks its destruction, but also is linked to Hezbollah and Iran, who share that goal.
Sadly, Gaza is by any definition a failed state that suffers from chronic humanitarian crises, rampant corruption, armed groups challenging one another for power and wealth and a growing accumulation of weapons destined for use against Israeli targets.
Can Israel simply stand on the sidelines? Should it wait – as it did regarding Lebanon, while Hezbollah spent six years acquiring missiles, courtesy of Iran and Syria, and building elaborate command-and- control centers, all destined for use against Israel at the right moment?
If there is any hope, it lies with those Gazans who understand that Hamas rule is only leading them down a blind alley, and who grasp the essential fact that Israel is there to stay as a neighbor.
Difficult as it may be under present circumstances, these Gazans must assert themselves, assume civic responsibility, and strengthen the hand of those who, like President Mahmoud Abbas, speak about a negotiated settlement rather than an apocalyptic war.
David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee