A fiery Knesset committee hearing on Wednesday punctuated with outbursts by politicians and bereaved parents served as a reminder of the battlegrounds and scorched earth remaining nearly three years after the 2014 Gaza war. Through the emotions and highly charged atmosphere, one crucial fact appeared clear: Israel has no idea what to do with the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared before the parliament’s State Control Committee on Wednesday morning, ostensibly to answer questions concerning a highly critical state comptroller report about his government’s management of the war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
But no substantive discussion on Israel’s strategic vision for the Gaza Strip and its two million inhabitants was held in the three-and-a-half hour session, and the possibility of such a conversation in the future seemed slim.
Attempts to debate the issue rapidly devolved into partisan bickering and pedantic discussions of IDF tactics, and nonmilitary alternatives for the Strip were dismissed outright as naive dreams of bleeding-heart leftists, with the only options deemed realistic being war — or making sure Gazans know that another war would not be in their best interest.
The coastal enclave has long been an odd duck, geopolitically speaking.
Occupied by Egypt following Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, the inhabitants of the Strip largely ruled themselves under the “All-Palestine Government,” until 1959 when Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser dissolved the local government and enforced a more classic military rule, complete with a governor.
In 1967, Israel took control of Gaza, setting up a handful of settlements inside and placing the Palestinians under the thumb of the IDF. The Oslo Accords and unilateral Israeli disengagement left the Palestinian Authority in charge after 2005, but the equation quickly changed as the Hamas terror group seized power in 2007.
Hamas’s expansion in the Strip and its eventual complete takeover in 2007 instilled among Israelis an intense aversion to one-sided moves and a great suspicion of territorial concessions.
Today, the Gaza Strip is on the verge of a full humanitarian crisis. The coastal enclave’s electricity is inconsistent on good days and nonexistent otherwise, due to a fight between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over fuel payments. The unemployment rate is past 40 percent, and the economy is based mostly on foreign aid. The Strip’s water is expected to be undrinkable by 2020.
The building materials meant for Gaza’s reconstruction are mostly diverted by Hamas and are instead used to create the terrorist group’s underground infrastructure and bunkers, according to Israeli officials.
And despite Israel’s having ostensibly disengaged from the Strip over a decade ago, three wars, a blockade and occasional rocket fire and border tensions keep the fate of the enclave inextricably in Israeli hands.
Yet Wednesday’s discussion in the Knesset about the Strip broke down repeatedly and ended almost exactly where it started, nowhere.
Likud MKs David Bitan and Miki Zohar shocked the room — and much of the country — by arguing with the parents of soldiers who died in the conflict. At one point, Bitan called the father of a fallen soldier “a liar.” And Zohar accused the mother of a soldier whose body is being held by Hamas in Gaza of “exaggerating.” (One need not be an expert on Israeli society — and the sacred status of bereaved families in it — to understand why this was roundly considered a monstrous breach of common decency.)
Members of the government coalition squabbled with members of the opposition about everything from public broadcasting to a recently declared hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners.
Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, a former military correspondent, argued minutiae with Netanyahu’s military secretary, Brig. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, about when exactly the IDF prepared its plans for destroying tunnels. Their argument, which continued into the halls of the Knesset, went into nomenclatural issues of what constitutes an “order” versus a “directive.”
Attempts by some left-wing politicians, like Meretz leader Zehava Galon, to discuss the possibility of a diplomatic resolution in the Gaza Strip were shot down out of hand by Netanyahu as “ludicrous.”
To the prime minister, there does not seem to exist a comprehensive solution for the Gaza Strip, only a maintaining of the status quo.
Israel can’t say explicitly that it enjoys having Hamas rule the Strip, both for the obvious reason that the terror group has the destruction of the Jewish state as its raison d’etre and because such an admission would embolden Hamas, sure that its sovereignty over Gaza is not seriously at risk.
Israel wants Hamas scared for its life, keeping the more radical terrorist groups in the Strip in check in order to stave off punishing, retaliatory blows by the Israel Defense Forces.
Since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip a decade ago, Israel has entered an approximately biennial cycle of conflicts with the Sunni terror group. (Last summer broke that trend, or at least delayed it.)
Today, Hamas in Gaza is controlled by Yahya Sinwar, who is seen as a hard-liner even within the terrorist organization.
But during Wednesday’s Knesset hearing, Netanyahu gave no indication that the overall dynamic of the Gaza Strip is bound to change anytime soon.
Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz’s proposal for a seaport in Gaza seems like a pipe dream and was only mentioned in passing at the meeting.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s suggestion of allowing residents of the Strip to work in Israel was dismissed by Netanyahu, who cited an incident from earlier in the day in which a Palestinian cancer patient and her sister were stopped by the Shin Bet on their way into Israel, carrying explosive materials on behalf of Hamas.
Dismissing the possibility of a “political alternative,” Netanyahu said the only way to keep Hamas in line is through force.
And militarily, he said, Israel has two options: One, conduct a campaign like those in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014, to “restore deterrence” and keep the status quo; or two, reoccupy the Gaza Strip.
The problem with the latter, the prime minister said, is that once the coastal enclave is reoccupied, it would eventually have to be handed back over to someone. The obvious followup question being: “And whom exactly would that be?”
The salafist extremists? The Islamic Jihad? The powerless PA?
The status of Hamas in Gaza then falls into a binary possibility: either it’s deterred from aggression or it needs to be deterred.
For now, the military believes that Hamas is in the “deterred” position.
Should the terror group flip to “needing to be deterred,” Netanyahu assured the Knesset committee that the IDF has new tools that will allow it to do the job again and again and again.