The best-known story in Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) about Gaza is the story of Samson. One can read the story of Samson either as an allegory of the futility of strength & power, or of the futility of weakness & powerlessness. (I think of that line from the Peter, Paul and Mary 1960s-era song about Samson: “If I had my way in this wicked world, I would tear this building down.”) And not much has changed.
Of all the insoluble problems of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Gaza is perhaps the most intractable. The problem with the West Bank is that everyone wants to live there. The problem with Gaza is that no one wants to live there, least of all most of its residents, most of whom are descended from Palestinian refugees from 1948, and who have been trapped in Gaza for many years. I don’t know how, precisely, the occupation of the West Bank will be resolved, but it will no doubt be some sort of partition and shared sovereignty. I have no idea how the problem of Gaza will be resolved.
Israel’s slow but steady effort to control the West Bank ever more completely has gone, for the last forty-seven years, more or less according to plan, implicit or explicit. Let more and more settlers in, maintain the ubiquitous presence or threat of a presence of IDF troops, and grind down Palestinian autonomy to its barest minimum. Very little in Gaza has gone according to plan. Israel allowed an Islamic organization to flourish in the early 1980s that became Hamas, as a supposedly less political organization than Fatah. That didn’t work out very well. And since Jews really didn’t want to live in Gaza, efforts to turn it into a settler state, like the West Bank, failed as well.
Sharon faced facts in 2005 when he pulled out the 8,000 settlers, so he would no longer need about twice as many IDF forces on the ground to protect them. But he was counting on Fatah strongmen to keep Hamas in line and in check, and that hasn’t worked out either. When right-wing Israelis unfold their scheme for annexing the West Bank, they always leave Gaza out. Nobody wants Gaza.
And so we are currently in the third of what Juan Cole has called the Gaza “groundhog day” wars, all more or less the same, and none of them resolving anything at all, and they get to repeat it all over again in a year or so. And this current crisis started with another Israeli miscalculation, using the horrible murder of the yeshivah students to try to break Hamas in the West Bank, the horrible revenge murder, and then the utterly predictable response by Hamas to re-light the fires of the smoldering Hamas-Israeli war. Perhaps Israel thought that with the new government in Egypt and Hamas bereft of allies, it would refrain from upping the ante, but this goes against the past history of the organization, which has always traded provocation for provocation, and there is the logic of Samson––when you are trapped in Gaza, you might as well try to pull the building down, regardless of the damage to yourself, just to show you still have some fight in you.
So the usual claims and counter-claims fly like the rockets and the bombs, making life miserable for everyone on both sides. And now Israel has put itself in a position where, once again, things don’t seem to be going according to plan. A prolonged reoccupation of Gaza will become (after an initial burst of enthusiasm) unpopular at home, condemned abroad, and likely very bloody on both sides. The alternative, letting Hamas stay in power, will seem to many in Israel as wimping out. The one safe prediction is that, whatever happens, both sides will be losers.
What can be done in the long term? I have no new ideas. People speak of a Palestinian “right of return” but perhaps a more basic right is the “right to leave,” the right that any person should have to be able to exit a country when life there becomes intolerable. Eventually, the borders of Gaza will have to open, whether Israel wants it or not. And I hope Hamas can find a different (and non-violent) way of fighting Israel, other than these futile but scary bombardments. I also hope that the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation government is not destroyed by this war (which may well have been Israel’s intention). It is a thin reed, perhaps, but all those who want peace can do nowadays is grasp at straws.
Meanwhile, Gaza’s Hamas government has succeeded in making life more miserable for the Gazans, and Israel has managed to further damage the popularity and credibility of Fatah and Abbas, and only strengthening Hamas and its will to resist Israel. And we can set our clocks for the next Gaza War, sometime in 2016. Groundhog Day indeed.