Now that the guns have fallen silent, leaders of Israel and Hamas are busy trying to convince their respective peoples that they emerged victorious from this 50-day war.
On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of Staff of the IDF Gen. Benny Ganz held a press conference in which they claimed that Hamas suffered great blows while gaining nothing. In Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told an ecstatic crowd that Israel has been humiliated.
This battle for the minds of the people is understandable. Leaders have to give their followers a reason for their suffering and sacrifices. However, the real results of wars only become apparent with the passage of time. For example, pundits were quick to criticize the “poor” performance of the IDF in the Second Lebanon War (2006). On the other hand, some of us already thought at the time that Hezbollah had been beaten and that its freedom of action to harass Israel has been greatly impaired. Eight years have passed since, with an unusual calm on the Israel-Lebanon border, and with Hassan Nasrallah, secretary of Hezbollah, still hiding in his bunker.
Time, then, will tell us who won and who lost militarily, in the recent round. However, what is obvious is that the 1.8 million Gazans, who, even before the war, were living in bad conditions, have been thrown by their Hamas leaders into a much worse situation. This is a time-bomb sure to explode again if a great reconstruction plan is not put in place soon. If and when such a plan is devised, Israel, for its own best interests, should play a leading role.
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Let's borrow a page from the European history book. Following the First World War, the victorious allies were debating what to do with defeated Germany. At the same time, Winston Churchill, the newly appointed secretary of war, started to get intelligence reports warning that the German economy was collapsing and that the Germans were suffering from “cruel privations,” (as quoted by his biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert). He warned against a total collapse in Germany and pleaded that “the most vital step we ought to take immediately to secure victory is to feed Germany.”
The wise advice of Churchill was not heeded, and instead, in the Treaty of Versailles, the harsh line of French leaders Georges Clemenceau and Raymond Poincaré prevailed. Germany was to be severely punished for its aggression and the Germans were to pay huge reparations to the victors.
The rest is history. The Weimar Republic struggled in vain to sustain a democratic and economically viable Germany, and eventually fell prey to the Nazis, who had promised the Germans simple answers to their difficult problems. In an interesting closing of the historical cycle, it was the same Winston Churchill who later had to fight to uproot Nazism. And finally, talking about the need for time to evaluate long term trends, take a look at the country popularity poll the BBC is conducting every year all around the world. Who is the most popular country in the world? Germany!
The analogy between post-First World War Germany and Gaza today is not without its problems. Ismail Haniyeh and Haled Mashal are no Hitlers, although one can easily play with some interesting parallels — for example, in regard to the Jews presumably being responsible for the First World War. Hitler, in his notorious speech in the Reichstag (Jan. 30, 1939), warned what will happen if “the international finance-Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations into a world war yet again.”
The Hamas Charter, for its part, states as a matter of fact that “(a)s regards local and world wars, it has come to pass and no one objects, that [the Jews] stood behind World War I, so as to wipe out the Islamic Caliphate.”
This nonsense aside, the analogy is still valid because poor socio-economic conditions and lack of hope for the young generation are fertile grounds for extremism. What makes the analogy complex is that in Gaza the extremists — Hamas — have already taken over, and therefore we are not in the same privileged position of Churchill in 1919, where humanitarian and economic assistance to the vanquished enemy could have decided which turn it would take.
The Gaza challenge, then, is more difficult, because you need to find a way to help the people of Gaza directly and at the same time not reward the Hamas extremists who rule them. Nevertheless, I think that this is possible, because reconstructing Gaza would cost a fortune, and once money is strictly funneled into building apartments and creating jobs, not into digging tunnels and rearmament, Hamas will gradually be weakened, with Gazans starting to realize that salvation will come from elsewhere.
Having said that, it shouldn't be left to the good will of Hamas only to agree or disagree to the way Gaza is reconstructed. Egypt and Israel should set conditions (disarmament of Hamas as a start) and keep a watchful eye; officers and bureaucrats of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas must be involved; and donor countries — fed up with having seen their aid money going down the Palestinian corruption tube before — need to set strict conditions and supervision. Last but not least, beside the carrot should always wait the stick, ready to clobber Hamas if it revives its terrorist aggression.
Churchill, in 1919, appealed to his British fellowmen “to disarm Germany, to feed Germany, and to make peace with Germany.” Can we, today, undertake upon ourselves “to disarm Gaza, to feed Gaza, and to make peace with Gaza?”
I think we can. I definitely think we should try.