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December 17, 2014

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Despair is not an option in Gaza

Once again, Israelis and Palestinians have been plunged into another round of violence, which only brings bloodshed and destruction, breeds more hatred and plants the seeds of the next round.

Israel sent its army to Gaza only after exhausting all other options. By accepting the Egyptian and the UN proposals for a cease-fire, Israel demonstrated its restraint. At the same time, Hamas rejected the Egyptian offer and violated the UN one, thus exposing its true vicious face.

The Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukri, blamed Hamas for the Israeli incursion. “Had Hamas accepted the Egyptian proposal, it could have saved the lives of at least 40 Palestinians,” he said.

However, playing the blame game successfully and winning points in the world public-opinion arena are not enough. There is growing awareness in Israel that pounding Gaza and even combing its tunnels network will not by themselves guarantee long-term calm; a new, out-of-the-box way of thinking is desperately needed. This, unsurprisingly, has come not from Israel’s political or military circles but from its economic ones.

The Israeli economist Yaacov Sheinin, writing in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, made an interesting comparison between Gaza and — hold your laughter — Singapore. Gaza is considered to be one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with 5,000 people per square kilometer, but Singapore is denser, with 8,000 people per square kilometer. Yet, while the people of Singapore produce an average GDP per capita of around $60,000 per year, the Gazans make just $1,000.

Sheinin is proposing a bold economic answer to the rockets. Once again, he reasons, it is clear that the Gazans are not gaining anything by their actions. If we are neither complacent nor vengeful but after every round we offer them economic prosperity, eventually they will get it. “We should present to the people of Gaza an offer they can’t reject, with no time limit,” he wrote. “For a non-belligerence agreement, Israel should initiate economic aid for building apartments for the refugees, for transportation infrastructure, for natural gas, and so on.”

According to this plan, the financial burden – $1 billion a year – will be shouldered equally by Israel, the western countries and the Gulf states, but Israel should be the most active partner. The reason, according to Sheinin, is simple: “It is cheaper to assist the Gazans economically than to fight them militarily.”

This win-win deal, which gives each party what it wants most – calm for the Israelis and a future for the children of Gaza – seems reasonable and logical. So why, then, do I have the feeling that its chances of materialising are slim?

It is because, unlike the Israelis, the people of Gaza are not able to express their opinions on this matter freely. Under the repressive Hamas regime, being used as human shields, they have no say in decisions about their future.

Despair, however, is not an option. Israel should fight Hamas vigorously until it thinks twice before harassing our cities again (see the Hezbollah precedent following the second Lebanon war in 2006). Alongside this military stick, we should always offer an economic carrot.

Arab forces should also be engaged in curbing the ability of Hamas to deny the Gazans a future. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Mahmoud Abbas — they all fear radical Islam no less than we do. For, in the final analysis, the success of Hamas extremism and others like it would result in their own downfall.

Israel, then, is not alone in this region. And Europe is a potential partner, too. According to Reuters, “Nine European Union countries (have) agreed to share intelligence and seek to fight radical Islam on the internet to counter the risk of European citizens going to fight in Syria or Iraq bringing violence back home.”

Israel now fights a just war to defend its citizens from indiscriminate terror attacks. The aim of war is to gain a better peace. The best way to achieve that is to offer the people of Gaza an economic hope beyond the present gloom.

Uri Dromi, an occasional contributor to the New Statesman, was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments from 1992-96.

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