A New Model Required
The Israeli government has drawn the IDF and the whole country into an unprecedented complicated situation that the country has seen since the disengagement. This is due to a fundamental misunderstanding: the model of Gaza control which was built by Sharon in 2004 has collapsed. The model was based on aerial and marine blockade, closure of above-ground border crossings to the Strip and a below-ground supply of goods via tunnels. Al-Sissi changed the rules of the game by closing the tunnels, as a part of his internal struggle against the Moslem Brothers, pushing the Palestinians to a political re-alignment in a national agreement government. The question that rises is: How will the Israeli diplomacy adapt to the new circumstances?
The model Sharon had built created a relative stability between 2005-2014, despite the heavy cost of violent “rounds”. The model had been built on the ancient principle of “Divide and Rule”. It was a division between Gaza and the West Bank and between Hamas and the PA, Palestinian Authority. Sharon understood that the IDF would neither be able to stop the mortar shelling, nor discover the smuggling tunnels. Moreover, the IDF was suffering unnecessary losses as a result of the daily clashes with population and of the illegitimacy of taking violent actions against civilians. The unilateral withdrawal, from this respect, had therefore been a successful tactic that aimed at cutting down the number of Israeli losses and granting legitimacy to escalating violence against Palestinian citizens, claiming that force is used for “self- defense”.
However, the withdrawal from Gaza had a long-term diplomatic goal: prevention of international pressure to establishing a Palestinian state as promised by President Bush’s road map. Sharon’s adviser Dov Weisglass explained the logic behind the withdrawal to Haaretz (10.6.2004): “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process…and when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state…this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda…all this with authority and permission…with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”
In order to prevent a political process it was necessary to withdraw unilaterally. Otherwise there was a need to negotiate with the PA over basic issues such as security arrangements, opening border crossings and bi-lateral economic agreements. In such case there was a need to connect Gaza with the West Bank in all levels: economic, political and social levels, i.e. the opposite of the original intention to “Divide and Rule”. The army was unpleased with the unilateral exit, which it considered or grasped as damage to its deterrent power. In March, 2004, objection to the unilateral withdrawal was publicly announced by Chief in Staff (Bugi Yaalon), and Head of the GSS (Avi Dichter). They claimed that a unilateral withdrawal would strengthen the terror and consolidate Hamas against the PA. Of course, they were right, however Sharon hadn’t hesitated; he dismissed them and replaced them with Dan Halutz and Yuval Diskin.
Armies dislike unilateral withdrawals, unless these were tied to an agreement which would bring stability ever after. Since the withdrawal, the IDF has been in an undesired condition, to say the least. It has the legitimacy to use increasing power, enjoy international support, but it cannot defeat the enemy despite its power, and it has suffered prestige damage repeatedly: it is damaged in the world because of the number of innocent civilians killed, and among Israelis because of its inability to claim victory. Since Sharon fell ill no one has ever examined the motives and the political logic of his model, and there are only demands to investigate the military perspectives after each “round”. However, the problem is rather political: the collapse of the control model that led to a snow-ball complication, both diplomatically and military- wise.
The collapse of the model generated a dynamic of change. As a result of the tunnel destruction by Al-Sissi, Hamas was forced to build a coalition with the PA and thus challenged the “Divide and Rule” model. In response Netanyahu launched a battle in order to blow the spirit into the dead body of a model that had already collapsed. However, the connection between Hamas and the PA has only strengthened during Operation Protective Edge, both socially among the citizens themselves, and politically, among the leaders, and physically, in the demand of opening the border crossings. The collapse of the model generated dynamics of change because, without the tunnels, residents of Gaza need a new connection to the world. The political challenge in Israel now is how to build a new model of control with the National Unity Palestinian Government.
The IDF elite won’t dare today to say what has been already said by Chief in Staff Dan Shomron in 1987, when the control model of 1967 collapsed (at the breakout of the first Intifada). It won’t dare to say in public today that there is no military solution to the Palestinian resistance rather than a political solution. The problem is that in the current deterioration of Israeli politics, it is unclear who will have the power, the authority and the courage to lead a political process. As long as a new model of relations with the Palestinians isn’t designed, the complicated situation will continue to deteriorate, and the Israeli society will increasingly lose faith in the ability of the military and political elite to deal with reality. Israelis and Palestinians will need international help to compromise and step forward.
Lev Grinberg is professor of political sociology at Ben Gurion University, author of Politics and Violence in Israel/Palestine: Democracy vs. Military Rule (Routledge, 2010)