For Israel, the Silver Lining in Gaza: Shifting the Strip to Egypt

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Egypt’s decision to officially re-open its border to the Gaza Strip may be officially tut-tutted over by Israel, which in Hosni Mubarak had a willing partner for besieging the Palestinian enclave controlled by Hamas.  But as a practical matter, the siege effectively ended a year ago Tuesday when Israeli commandos killed nine civilians on an embargo-busting Turkish ferry, and Mubarak abruptly ordered the Rafah crossing opened so as not to get swept up in the global outrage that ensued.

The fanfare over this weekend was occasioned by the “official” opening of the Rafah crossing by Mubarak’s successors, who have indeed opened the doors much wider, impeding the passage only of men of military age.  But if it was a cause of celebration for Gazans long confined in “the world’s largest outdoor prison,”  the reaction in official Israeli circles surely includes “quiet satisfaction.”  For in Jerusalem the feeling is: If the Egyptians want to take responsibility for 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, more power to them.  Cairo after all had control of the coastal enclave from 1948 to 1967, when Gaza was among the vast territory Israel conquered in the Six Day War. And though it remains technically under Israeli occupation, Israel Defense Forces pulled out in 2005 when Israel abandoned efforts to plant a Jewish population in coastal settlements. It’s been nothing but trouble since.

“Israel made a move when Israel evacuated but unfortunately Israel failed to get rid of responsibility for what’s going on in Gaza,” observed Giora Eiland, a retired major general, in an interview almost a year go. “No one knows what to do with Gaza.”

A former national security advisor now at a Tel Aviv think tank, Eiland remains a significant figure in Israel’s defense establishment. What he saw in the aftermath of the flotilla fiasco was an opportunity to shuck off an albatross.  Never mind that Israel has its own state-of-the-art border crossing at the northern tip of the strip. Palestinians who once commuted into Israel to do work Israelis would not are not going to be allowed back. Israel instead ramped up a guest worker program to take up the slack; now Thais work the fields and Chinese work construction.  Not even Gaza’s vegetables are welcome in Israel.

“No, no, no,” Eiland said. “We don’t need any kind of economic relationship with Gaza whatsoever.”

Worse, Gaza has no economy of its own, and by many accounts scant prospect of gaining one.  “1.5 million people and they double themselves every fifteen years,”  Eiland sighed. “Even a serious seaport cannot be built in Gaza. It would have a significant impact on the Israeli coast from an environmental point of view.”

This was not the plan under Oslo, which foresaw a port in Gaza. Nor, for that matter, was it the assumption of the peace talks between former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who mapped out a tunnel between Gaza and the West Bank. But few in Israel are talking peace any more. And as a practical matter, Israel’s defense establishment has operated for decades under the principle of divide and rule — splitting Gaza from the West Bank by requiring Palestinians to obtain permission before traveling from one to the other since 1991, long before the enclaves were divided between Hamas and Fatah, the political faction that controls the West Bank.

“It is not in Israel’s interest to see Gaza and the West Bank as one entity,” Eiland observed.

That’s a view shared not by Palestinians — whose strong sense of nationalism takes in both enclaves, and overwhelmingly welcome the announced reunification of Hamas and Fatah —  but it’s endorsed by Israel’s settlers, as determined and implacable a group as you can find in the modern world.  They want to hold onto the West Bank, an area rich in Biblical sites and significance to the observant Jews who are the most “hard core” of Jews living on West Bank hilltops, notes Naftali Bennett, director general of the Yesha Council, which represents settlers. Gaza has nothing of consequence to religious Jews, which is one reason to be rid of it.

Another reason:  Without the Strip, Israel can make a better case for annexing the West Bank. As Bennett explained the other day to a room of foreign journalists, the case against annexation has always been the assumption that Palestinians would soon outnumber Jews, making Israel a defacto apartheid state, with the minority governing the majority.  Few Israelis want to be in that position. But, Bennett maintains, “the myth that demography is against us is wrong. Demography is not against us.”

His math is instructive in more ways than one.

Within its borders, Israel has some six million Jewish residents and 1.1 million Arabs, descendants of Palestinians who did not leave in 1948. How many Palestinians reside on the West Bank is a matter of dispute, but Bennett thinks 1.8 million is about right.  Combine them, and you have a nation of six million Jews and about three million Palestinians, a comfortable Jewish majority, Bennett says, given the declining birth rate among Israeli Arabs.

And Gaza? What about the 1.5 million Palestinians there?

“Gaza we don’t count,” Bennett says. “Because that’s gradually becoming Egypt’s problem.”