PM wants Gaza demilitarized, and the world agrees — but how?

Even Kerry now says disarmament is needed to resolve the current crisis ‘in a lasting and meaningful way.’ Easier said than done

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on July 28, 2014. Photo credit: Haim Zach / GPO/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on July 28, 2014. Photo credit: Haim Zach / GPO/Flash90)

In the early days of Operation Protective Edge, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defined the campaign’s objective as “the restoration of quiet to Israel’s citizens while inflicting a severe blow to terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.” He deliberately formulated his goals vaguely to be able to declare victory and stop the operation at any given moment.

But since the start of the ground operation, as the extent of the terror tunnels became apparent and more and more Israeli soldiers were being killed, he has modified his goal in a way that makes it much harder for Israel to actually meet the operation’s evolved objective: the demilitarization of Gaza.

Aware of the anticipated international backlash, and guided by his cautious and unadventurous nature, Netanyahu does not seek to reoccupy the strip or topple Hamas. It is hard, therefore, to see how Israel can succeed in the new goal. For how else, short of ousting Hamas, do you go about demilitarizing a highly militarized territory ruled by a ruthless, well-entrenched, Iranian-backed terrorist organization whose very raison d’etre is armed struggle to destroy the Jewish state?

Netanyahu spoke explicitly about the goal of partial demilitarization for the first time on July 15. “We agreed to the Egyptian [ceasefire] proposal in order to give an opportunity for the demilitarization of the [Gaza] Strip — from missiles, from rockets and from tunnels — through diplomatic means,” he said in a statement.

Addressing the Israeli public on Monday evening, July 28, he reiterated his call: “The process of preventing the arming of the terrorist organization and demilitarizing the Gaza Strip must be part of any solution,” he said.

Earlier during the day, in a phone conversation with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Netanyahu mentioned that Israel’s security needs include Gaza’s demilitarization — “according to the principle laid down in the interim agreements with the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu was referring to “Oslo II,” the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Article XIV states that except for the arms of the Palestinian police and those of the Israel Defense Forces, “no organization, group or individual in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip shall manufacture, sell, acquire, possess, import or otherwise introduce into the West Bank or the Gaza Strip any firearms, ammunition, weapons, explosives, gunpowder or any related equipment.”

Over the last week, Netanyahu has repeated his call for the demilitarization of Gaza in interviews and meetings with world leaders. He has had some success: the international community has generally endorsed his demand. Canadian Ambassador to the UN Guillermo Rishchynski, for instance, on Thursday called for the complete “disarmament of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups operating in Gaza, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

The Palestinian Authority must follow through on its commitment to remove “existing stockpiles of thousands of largely Iranian-supplied missiles nestled and shielded amidst the homes, grocers and schools of Palestinians,” Rishchynski told the UN Security Council. “It means that Hamas fighters put down their arms and embrace the peace process.”

A laudable goal, but not very realistic.

Even US Secretary of State John Kerry, after being harshly criticized by Israelis for his recent efforts to broker a ceasefire, on Monday declared that demilitarizing Hamas needs to be part of any framework that ends the current conflict. “We also believe that any process to resolve the crisis in Gaza in a lasting and meaningful way must lead to the disarmament of Hamas and all terrorist groups. And we will work closely with Israel and regional partners and the international community in support of this goal,” he said in Washington.

US Secretary of State John Kerry steps out from his plane at Ben Gurion airport as he arrives in Israel on July 23, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/STR)
US Secretary of State John Kerry as he arrives in Israel on July 23, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/STR)

Kerry’s statement signaled a significant concession to Jerusalem. The ceasefire proposal — or draft, as the State Department later described it — that he submitted to the Israeli cabinet on Friday did not even hint at demilitarizing Hamas. Kerry’s boss — President Barack Obama — had not gone as far as calling for Hamas to be stripped of its weapons in the framework of a solution to the current crisis. On Sunday, in a phone call to Netanyahu during which he called for an immediate and unconditional humanitarian ceasefire, Obama merely said that, “ultimately, any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza.”

Now that everyone (bar Hamas and Islamic Jihad) agrees that Gaza needs to be demilitarized, the question is how? Netanyahu seems thoroughly disinclined to choose the military route. Too many Israeli soldiers have already died in Gaza, and to “finish the job” would cost many more lives. Israel will not end Operation Protective Edge “without neutralizing the tunnels,” he said Monday. Demilitarizing Gaza “must be part of any solution,” he asserted, but hinted that this was the world’s duty more than Israel’s. “The international community needs to demand this explicitly.”

The prime minister repeatedly alluded to diplomatic efforts to demilitarize Gaza, but so far has failed to explain how exactly this might work. There is no diplomatic mechanism that would convince Hamas and Islamic Jihad to simply “put down their arms and embrace the peace process,” as the Canadian ambassador to the UN desired.

MK Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister, actually proposed an interesting approach. In a working paper published earlier this month, he argues that just as Syria was forced to give up its arsenal of chemical weapons, so should the international community impel Hamas into giving up its arms. The plan calls for a $50 billion investment in Gaza in return for Hamas’s compliance and seeks to involve a host of regional and global leaders.

In the paper, entitled “The Demilitarization of the Gaza Strip: The Proper Endpoint for Israel of Operation Protective Edge,” Mofaz, also an ex-IDF chief of staff, writes that months of diplomatic legwork would be required to rally the likes of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the US to the framework of the deal. PA President Mahmoud Abbas, he wrote, would likely “want to lend a hand to this sort of move and he should be involved in the process.”

Mofaz has presented his plan to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen. But so far neither the prime minister nor any other leader has publicly adopted the plan. But nor have they offered any other concrete proposal for how the demilitarization of Gaza could be achieved in the near future.

Trying to take away Hamas’s massive arsenal of guns and drones, Kassam, Grad, Fajr-3, Fajr-5, M-75 and M302 rockets, is not going to be a walk in the park, whether you choose the military or the diplomatic approach. “We say for the millionth time,” Hamas official Izzat Al-Rishq warned Monday, responding to Obama’s call for the demilitarization of Gaza, “those who try to take our weapons, we will take their life.”

Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.

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