While the U.S. media and American liberals have been swift to blame the bloodshed at Israel’s border with Gaza on President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and the global Left has pounced on the story as part of its continuing hostility to Israel, it is clear that the story is less about Jerusalem than about Gaza. Tensions and violence on that border had been running hot for months before Trump’s announcement. After a bombing in February that wounded four Israeli soldiers, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces made clear Israel’s view of the situation:
[Col. Jonathan Conricus] said the episode showed that Israel was right to treat protests at the Gaza fence as a military threat.
“We’ve been speaking about these staged riots for a long time,” Colonel Conricus said. “When Hamas organizes these riots and pushes people towards the fence, what we’re saying is, this isn’t a peaceful demonstration, these people aren’t unarmed, they’re rioters — and among the rioters are actual terrorist operatives who have other things in mind.”
A Hamas spokesman has confirmed that 50 of the 62 people killed when Israeli forces opened fire Monday were members of Hamas, many of them publicly identified as Hamas military.
No similar protests erupted in the West Bank, whose Palestinian population has a much more direct interest in Jerusalem. Partly that reflects the shifting plate tectonics of the region. The Fatah-run Government of Palestine, which runs the West Bank and nominally Gaza as well, is aligned with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, many of which have been pursuing a cautious détente with Israel, signalling both rhetorical and de facto willingness to accept the existence of Israel.
Palestine’s leader, Mahmoud Abbas, remains a Holocaust denier and has withdrawn his envoy to the U.S. over the Jerusalem move, so it’s premature to pop the champagne corks, but the reaction on the West Bank has been comparatively restrained, and Abbas still claims to be moving towards “the two-state solution and an agreement that will bring about the establishment of a Palestinian state next to the State of Israel.” There’s no sign that the embassy move will change the long-term dynamics; leaders like Abbas know how to score propaganda points, but also when to recognize a fait accompli. Gaza, governed by Hamas and aligned with Iran and Syria, is another story, and the calls for “days of rage” in protest were joined by the Iranian and Syrian leadership singing from the same hymnal. The reaction in Gaza should properly be seen partly as a result of Gaza’s own situation, and partly as an extension of the broader tensions between the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States (on the one hand) and Iran, Syria, and Russia (on the other), reflected in the termination of the Iran Deal and the simultaneous escalation of rocket war between Israel and Syria.
The core problem is the nature of Gaza itself. Ideally, since it is cut off physically from the West Bank, Gaza would become an independent, self-sufficient nation-state of its own — a goal that Hamas claims to desire. But its small size, poverty, dysfunction, and radicalized population all make that a dim prospect for the foreseeable future, and Gaza’s inability to steer its own course makes it ripe to be used as a troublemaking proxy by ruthless power players such as the Iranian mullahs. As the World Bank grimly summarizes the conditions:
The lack of progress towards peace and reconciliation creates an unsustainable economic situation. Donor support has significantly declined, and a financing gap persists despite the PA’s fiscal performance having improved in 2017. The Palestinian internal polity remains divided between Gaza and the West Bank, with grave uncertainty about the reconciliation process.
Initial recovery from the 2014 war in Gaza has ended a short-lived growth spurt resulting in the deterioration of economic conditions. A recent liquidity squeeze in Gaza has led to a rapid collapse in humanitarian conditions, including access to medical treatment, electricity, and clean water. Unemployment is at high at 27 percent. Only 41 percent of those ages 15 to 29 are active in the labor market. Despite a low participation rate, unemployment amongst this category reached a staggering 60 percent in Gaza. The West Bank and Gaza ranked 114th out of 190 economies in the 2018 Doing Business report — 26 spots better from the 2017 ranking (140th).
The New York Times reported in February fears that “an explosion is coming” in Gaza, due in part to financial stresses from its simultaneous alienation from Fatah, Egypt, and Israel:
United Nations officials warn that Gaza is nearing total collapse, with medical supplies dwindling, clinics closing and 12-hour power failures threatening hospitals. The water is almost entirely undrinkable, and raw sewage is befouling beaches and fishing grounds. Israeli officials and aid workers are bracing for a cholera outbreak any day. . . . For years, Hamas sidestepped the Israeli siege and generated revenue by taxing goods smuggled in through tunnels from Sinai. But President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, after taking power in 2013, choked off Hamas — an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Mr. Sisi sees as a threat — by shutting the main border crossing at Rafah for long stretches. Egypt, which has no interest in becoming Gaza’s de facto administrator, used that pressure to force Hamas to close the Sinai tunnels. . . . Last year, the Palestinian Authority’s president, Mahmoud Abbas, ratcheted up the pressure on Hamas, stopping its payments for fuel for Gaza’s power station and to Israel for electrical transmission into the Gaza Strip. It slashed the salaries of thousands of its workers who remained on its payroll in Gaza, even though they no longer had jobs to do after Hamas took power.
A pro-Gazan source is perhaps more alarmist, claiming in October “80% of the population is below the poverty line. 50% unemployment rate….The average income is down to $2 a day per person.” Gaza has over 1.8 million people, packed into “139 square miles, it’s about the same size as Detroit (138.8 square miles), Philadelphia (134.1), Las Vegas (135.8), or Portland, Oregon (133.4),” a population density comparable to Boston and exceeded among independent, sovereign states only by Monaco and Singapore. (Hong Kong, Macau, and Gibraltar are higher as well, but none of those is a state all to itself.)
But if Gaza can’t govern itself, what other options remain? One is political union with a viable state. Hamas, of course, dreams of effectively swallowing up Israel to expand the Gazan population out of its concentrated ghetto. The Gazan people maintain an identity as exiles, and as Haaretz noted in March, that too is what fuels violence at the border:
The Marches of Return are already sending chills down Israel’s spine. The marches will commence on March 30, Land Day, through May 15, Nakba Day, as thousands of Palestinians will gather in Gaza and the West Bank, pitch refugee tents, and march along the Israeli border in peaceful demonstrations. They embody what Israel has always feared since its creation seven decades ago: The marching of uprooted Palestinian refugees on Israel. Nowhere was Israel’s fear of “marching refugees” more deeply grounded than in the Gaza Strip.
But that remains far from reality, and likely requires genocide of Israel’s Jewish majority before it could happen. The West Bank, geographically detached from Gaza, is only barely able to stand up on its own, and the collapse of relations between the two suggests that (like Pakistan and Bangladesh) their estrangement was inevitable from the outset. And Egypt, Gaza’s only other neighbor, sees Gaza as a liability and a threat to a nation with an ancient identity of its own and a surplus of its own political, economic, and demographic problems.
Another is some sort of international protectorate — but Gaza was formed in 1948 as effectively a United Nations refugee camp (we might call it a “concentration” camp, if the pre-Nazi use of the term was still current, but the connotations of extermination camps for Jews have permanently changed its meaning); its population before 1947 was just 80,000 people. The UNRWA’s ruinous management of Gaza contributed mightily to its inability to get beyond the mindset and conditions of 1948, and the agency itself now faces budget cuts resulting from the Trump administration’s fatigue with American taxpayers effectively funding Hamas. Keeping Gaza as a pawn of Iran and Syria works out well for them, but leaves the Gazan people as cannon fodder for the mullahs’ ambitions.
That leaves only one other solution: The Gazan people should go somewhere else. But that, too, is unworkable. Nobody is lining up to take in over a million Gazan refugees. And the history of forced population transfers is that they don’t always work out for the people doing the forcing, they have only a sporadic record of working out over the very long term for the population being moved, and they have always been accompanied in the short and intermediate term by violence and suffering for the people being uprooted (the most relevant parallel being the partition of India and Pakistan, one of the broadest and longest-lasting of the 20th century’s many humanitarian catastrophes). Andrew Jackson may have solved Georgia’s and Alabama’s problems by relocating the Cherokee tribe, but both the “Trail of Tears” and their new home in Oklahoma were even worse outcomes for the Cherokee people than the border wars that had spurred Jackson’s decision. Even if moving the Gazans somewhere else would solve Israel’s problem — even if the Gazan people themselves would be better off nearly anywhere else on Earth than where they are — there’s no practical way to relocate them.
In the Tower of London in the late 16th century, prisoners were sometimes confined to the much-feared “Cell of Little Ease,” so confining that they could neither stand, nor sit, nor lie down. Uncomfortable at the outset, confinement in the cell over time became torture, driving its occupant to madness and despair. The Gaza Strip today is a kind of Cell of Little Ease for nearly 2 million people, who can neither govern themselves, nor be governed by others, nor leave. We should expect more madness, and more despair.