Israel's Dilemma in Gaza

A preferred outcome in Gaza would be an Egyptian role in Gaza, providing Israel with a real government with whom it could negotiate.

Prof. Shmuel Sandler


One of Israel’s main goals in Operation Pillar of Defense was to reestablish deterrence, which in accordance with Israel’s strategic doctrine can only be accomplished by inflicting a decisive defeat. The absence of an unequivocal victory reflects a strategic dilemma regarding the preferred future arrangement in the Gaza Strip. Past experience sheds light on three possible futures for Gaza, which would involve returning to the situation of one of two earlier periods, 1948-1967 or 1967-2005, or maintaining the current post-2007 situation.

Israel’s Approaches to Gaza

During the period from 1948-1967, the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control and had almost no interaction with Judea and Samaria. Gaza served as a base for terrorist acts against Israel, but as result of Israeli military action (specifically during the 1956 Sinai campaign) the Egyptians halted terror activity originating from there.

After the 1967 war, Gaza, Judea and Samaria were occupied by Israel, allowing for increased interactions between the Palestinian Arab populations of those areas despite the physical separation. This interaction, as well as the Israeli presence in those territories, helped contribute to the emergence of a unified Palestinian identity, which became a force to be reckoned with on the international scene. T

he linkage between Gaza and Judea and Samaria was strengthened following the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which left Gaza under Israeli control. The Oslo peace process, which created the Palestinian Authority (PA), further solidified the links between the areas.

Those links were weakened after the 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Hamas won the 2006 PA elections and in June 2007 took over Gaza in a military coup, creating a semi-independent entity that challenged the PA rule in the West Bank, weakened the Palestinian Arab national movement, and questioned the viability of the largely accepted two-state solution.

The failure of the linkage between non-contiguous territories is not surprising as other experiences, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan or Germany and East Prussia, indicate. Unions between non-contiguous territories display chronic instability and end up in partition.

Operation Pillar of Defense

Since taking over the Strip in 2007, Hamas has imported large amounts of weapons and has fired thousands of long-range rockets at Israel’s southern towns and cities. Following a variety of small-scale responses that proved ineffective, Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. W

hile relative calm lasted for around two years, sporadic shelling of southern Israel subsequently resumed and intensified until Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government ordered Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012.

Netanyahu’s operation could have been modeled after one of two recent Israeli military operations: March 2002’s Defensive Shield or Cast Lead.

In 2002, the IDF sought a decisive victory by temporarily taking over PA-controlled cities in Judea and Samaria, the hotbeds of Palestinian terrorism.

In 2008 the government refrained from implementing this strategy and instead conducted a ground operation designed to weaken the Hamas terror infrastructure.

In 2012 the government chose an even more limited operation, one that did not include a ground operation of any kind. This limited operation achieved two major political accomplishments: securing support from the newly re-elected Obama administration, and the brokering of a ceasefire agreement negotiated by new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Egypt’s involvement indicated that the new regime did not renounce itself from the peace agreement with Israel. Moreover, Cairo continued its involvement in the affairs of the Gaza Strip. Expanding the scope of the operation could have endangered these accomplishments.

Future Options for Gaza –Encouraging Egyptian Involvement

Netanyahu’s main reason for rejecting an operation similar to Defensive Shield was that Israel did not aspire to return to the situation of 1967-2005. Israel would have preferred to make peace with its Palestinian Arab neighbors years ago, but by 2012 was skeptical about the prospects of the PA living peacefully next door. The PA’s refusal to accept offers, like those of former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008, indicated Palestinian aspirations that no responsible Israeli government could accept. Despite a 10 month settlement freeze mandated by Netanyahu in 2010, Ramallah refused to renew negotiations with Jerusalem.

The PA’s weak President Mahmoud Abbas cannot lead the Palestinian national movement toward a historic compromise with Israel, and it makes no strategic sense to hand him Gaza.

The unlikely alternative to Abbas, in light of the weakness of the PA leadership, would be a state incorporating two non-contiguous territories controlled by Hamas. Israel cannot accept Hamas control in Judea and Samaria given its strategic proximity to Israel’s major metropolitan area. These same considerations limited the scope of the Israeli operation.

Under these conditions Jerusalem sees an Egyptian association with Gaza as the least of all evils. By taking limited responsibility over Gaza’s affairs, Egypt provides an address with whom to negotiate. Instead of a terrorist organization such as Hamas that is dedicated to Israel’s destruction, Israel prefers to encounter a government, even a hostile one, with whom it can conduct dialogue. Deterrence is more effective with states than with sub-state organizations.

The Netanyahu government’s strategic preference thus seems to be a blend of the pre-1967 framework and the post-2005 reality, namely, a semi-independent Gaza linked with Egypt. A

ssuming that this will be Israel’s preferred choice, Egypt’s involvement must be restrained; an Egyptian return to Gaza may end the demilitarization of the Sinai on Israel’s southern border. Rearmament of Gaza with the Egyptian military would put an end to Israel’s strategic depth that was achieved in 1967 and legitimized in the 1979 peace treaty.

Egyptian involvement must come under close scrutiny and weighed against the option of reconquering Gaza and linking it back with Judea and Samaria. This alternative could lead to a two-winged radical revisionist Palestinian state.

In a utopian world, Gaza would turn into Singapore. This option is not realistic, however, as the “Arab Spring” turns into an “Islamic Winter.”

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 191. BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family