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Gaza, largest prison on Earth but key to Israel’s future

Editor's ChoiceGaza, largest prison on Earth but key to Israel’s future

Imagine living with 2.3 million people on a patch of land just 26 miles long and 8 miles wide, surrounded by an impenetrable fence with sensors every few metres. Now imagine that you can only leave through a single point with permission from your jailers. Finally, imagine that for the past five weeks the land has been pummelling from land, sea and air by rockets, bombs and missiles, flattening almost every building, including hospitals and killing or maiming thousands of your fellow brethren. Welcome to Gaza 2023.

Last July I looked through that fence—from a distance of about half a mile—as being any closer would have been dangerous according to our hosts. I was a member of a small delegation of journalists sent to Israel courtesy of ELNET, a non-profit organisation dedicated to strengthening relations between Europe and Israel. On the day we were driven down the edge of the Gaza Strip to visit an Iron Dome air defence installation, the Kerem Shalom goods-checking border crossing into Gaza, and the town of Sderot where we had lunch with some locals, we had little idea that only a few weeks later that same area would be infiltrated and attacked by a large group of highly armed Hamas terrorists, shooting, killing and taking captive innocent civilians. More than 1400 people were brutally murdered by the terrorists on that day, mostly Israelis, but also citizens from 17 countries including 10 from Nepal. The terrorists also seized 242 hostages, including women, children and elderly people, all now incarcerated in unspeakable conditions in the labyrinth of tunnels under Gaza.

How is it that such a small strip of land as Gaza, about a third the area of New Delhi, has become so critical in the conflict between Israel and Palestine and even the politics of the entire region? Why is it that Israel’s heritage minister, Amichai Eliyahu, supports the view that “Gaza should be blown up and flattened”, and that Galit Distal Atbaryan, a Likud MP and until two weeks ago Israel’s minister for public diplomacy, demanded the “erasing of Gaza”, adding “revengeful and cruel Israeli Defence Forces are needed here—anything less is immoral”?

The answer lies in the tortured history of Gaza, which goes back in excess of 4000 years. In more modern times it was part of the Palestine region controlled by the Ottoman Empire until the defeat of the Central Powers in World War One. Gaza’s recent significance began in 1948 when the state of Israel was declared and tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees went to the Gaza Strip for sanctuary during the Arab-Israeli war that followed. The Israeli Armistice Agreement in February 1949 set what became the present boundaries between the Gaza Strip, Israel and Egypt and those Palestinians living there were given All-Palestinian passports. Israel first occupied Gaza in 1956, but withdrew a year later when forced by Washington after the Suez crisis.

It was as a result of the “six-day war” in June 1967 that Israel took up long-term occupation of Gaza and began to use carrot-and-stick measures to compel Palestinians to leave Gaza for the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan and even the Americas.

Successive Israeli governments also moved their own citizens into illegal settlements in Gaza. However, in order to improve Israel’s security and international status following major disturbances (Intifadas), Ariel Sharon’s government withdrew all 21 Israeli settlements in 2005. But Israel retained control over the Strip’s land, sea and air borders, eventually building the notorious fence.

As Palestinians became disenchanted with the moderate Palestinian Authority and the ineffectual leadership of Yasser Arafat, the more aggressive Hamas gained prominence over Arafat’s Fatah party, eventually winning the 2006 parliamentary elections in Gaza. Hamas is an acronym for “Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamya”, or “Islamic Resistance Movement”, the largest and most capable military group and political party in the Palestine territories. In a direct response, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza, supported by Egypt, which resulted in the people being hemmed into a tiny stretch of land, with a dying economy and no access to the outer world. Since then, Palestinians in Gaza have faced continuous violence with particularly intensive Israeli bombing campaigns in 2008-9, 2012, 2014 and 2021. But none of these came anywhere near the current war and bloodshed which started on 7 October.

Hamas has prepared for a long, drawn-out war in the Gaza Strip and its leaders believe that it can hold up Israel’s advance long enough to force its arch-enemy to agree to a ceasefire. It has stockpiled huge amounts of weapons, missiles, food and medical supplies, confident that its thousands of fighters can survive for months in a city of tunnels, known as the “Gaza Metro” carved deep beneath the Palestinian enclave, and frustrate Israeli forces with urban guerrilla tactics. Ultimately, Hamas believes that as civilian casualties mount, international pressure for Israel to end the siege could force a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement that would see the militant group emerge with tangible concessions, including the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli hostages.

But Hamas, vastly outnumbered, cannot win this war and its leadership must have known that its action would cause much pain and suffering to its people. Pummelled by Israeli air strikes, large parts of Gaza now lie in ruins as Israel seeks to dismantle Hamas’ war machine. More than a million people have been told to move from their homes in Northern Gaza, which they are doing reluctantly fearing that they will never be allowed to return to their homes. The word “Nakba” or “Catastrophe” is being heard again, echoes of earlier ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians following the war of 1948. According to the Hamas-run health ministry, as of Friday, 11,078 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since 7 October, of whom 4,506 were children. More than 50 percent of all Palestinian homes have also been destroyed.So what is the solution? Israel’s stated objective is to decimate Hamas so that it can never attack Israel in this way again. But as civilians cannot be protected in the densely populated region, Netanyahu’s coalition is being accused of war crimes. Israel is wanting Egypt to take in all the displaced Palestinians, but this will never be agreed because of concerns by both the Egyptian and Palestinians that it would become permanent, completing the ethnic cleansing of Gaza so desired by the ultra-right members of the coalition. There are good grounds for these fears. Some 700,000 Jewish settlers have already set up home in 279 illegal settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, and something similar would quickly happen in a vacated Gaza.
The war in Gaza has already aroused some of the more violent groups of settlers in the West Bank, where in the past five weeks 183 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers. Some settlers are out for revenge for Hamas’ atrocities on 7 October, others are simply taking advantage of the situation to cause mayhem among the Palestinians in the West Bank while the Israeli army is busy both in Gaza and the north of Israel, fronting the powerful Hezbollah army. The ultimate nightmare for Jerusalem would be a war on three fronts, a real possibility which could then draw Iran and possibly Syria into the conflict.Giving his vision of Gaza after the destruction of Hamas, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in Japan last week that “Israel cannot occupy Gaza. There may be a need for some transition period after the conflict, but we don’t see a re-occupation. From what I’ve heard from Israeli leaders is that they have no intent to reoccupy Gaza”. In words designed to match Blinken, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said that “power should be transferred eventually to a peace-loving Palestinian leadership”. Neither put a time frame on this transfer or the conditions that would need to be met before Israel would withdraw, but this wishful thinking is more likely to be a matter of years rather than months, if ever. On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said that his country would be responsible for security in Gaza indefinitely.None of this will lead to lasting peace in Gaza or anywhere else in Israel. The current situation is a simple case of ethnic borders not coinciding with geographic boundaries, common in many parts of the world. The Palestinians claim that they are descendants of Canaanites and have lived in the land for 4,000 years. Religious Jews claim to be descendants of Abraham and have also lived there for 4000 years.

The late Israeli writer and peace activist Amos Oz, a child of European Jewry who lived in a Kibbutz for 30 years, was never wiser than when he described the endless Israel/Palestine conflict as the “tragedy of the clash of right v right”. Oz was the self-declared enemy of the orthodox and fundamentalists, scorning Hamas for wanting to remove Jews from their land and the ultra-orthodox Jews who wanted to remove Palestinians from Israel. “Why can’t we just divorce like the Czechs and Slovaks—without blood”, he said in his proclaimed 2004 book “Help Us to Divorce: Israel and Palestine, Between Right and Right”.Oz strongly supported the Oslo Accords “two state solution”, which all fair-minded people see as the only hope for peace in the region. Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s coalition is far more interested in revenge for the 7 October massacre and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the West Bank and northern Gaza, than it is in a two state solution. They appear blind to the fact that this will only guarantee death and destruction in the country for decades to come.

John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.

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