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Opinion: A program for civilians in the Gaza strip is a strategic necessity for Israel




In order to succeed in defeating Hamas, Israel must take the initiative to renew the stocks of international legitimacy that have been depleted due to the acute humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. The main blame lies with Hamas, which is not concerned about the situation of the citizens of Gaza, but Israel bears the public responsibility - even in the eyes of the US - for not doing enough to transfer aid. In the short term, the crisis exhausted the legitimacy needed to continue the military maneuver, including the planning for a land entry into Rafah. More than increasing the pressure on Hamas in the negotiations for the release of the abductees, it increased the pressure on Israel. The consequences of the destruction and the humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip - which must now be understood as an event of global political significance - threaten to seriously damage Israel's reputation in the long term. Some of the damage may be irreversible, but Israel may be able to restore a significant degree of legitimacy to the war.


To this end, it must be proactive, not only to immediately adopt a consistent approach to the humanitarian situation in Gaza, but also to tie the goals of the war to an internationally accepted political vision, for Gaza and the wider Palestinian arena. This means aligning with US proposals for regional peace, including a credible path to a 'two-state' solution. Such a proactive movement will allow Israel to better design the process and accumulate necessary international credit. These proposals also present Israel with the opportunity to leverage the October 7 disaster into a dramatic opportunity to achieve normalization with Saudi Arabia that Hamas and its allies led by Iran sought to prevent.


In the weeks after October 7, not only President Biden came to show solidarity with Israel, but the leaders of other Western powers, including Britain, France and Germany, who supported Israel and its right to defend itself. These leaders were in tune with their public, with polls showing a broad wave of international sympathy.

However, polls show that already in December, support for Israel dropped sharply, and local political pressure on Western leaders to rein in the State of Israel is increasing. As the human suffering in the Gaza Strip increases - especially the concentration of the population in Rafah, as well as the acute food shortage in the north of the Gaza Strip - so does the international pressure. Israel now faces resistance in the form of an attack on Rafah, which in turn reduces its leverage in talks about the abductees.


While it is difficult for many Israelis to understand the criticism following October 7, it is important to understand how the war is seen from outside. As early as January, about 60% of the housing units in the Strip were destroyed or damaged. According to estimates, 1.7 million of the 2.3 million residents of the Gaza Strip are internally displaced. The electricity grid is not active, there are no functioning schools, and there is little access to health services. Many medical facilities were misused by Hamas for military purposes.


There are good reasons to be skeptical of the claims of some UN agencies, including UNRWA and parts of the international press. However, the devastation resulting from the war in the Gaza Strip is widely documented and there is a consensus regarding the scope and urgency of the issues that are seen as justified even among Israel's strongest supporters, including the US and UK who are directly fighting the Houthis.


The extensive civilian destruction was inevitable due to the assimilation of Hamas and Israeli abductees into and below the civilian population. Israel has made significant efforts to keep the citizens away from its most intense areas of operation, so the main responsibility lies with Hamas, which does not care about the citizens of Gaza. There are justified doubts regarding the number of casualties reported by Hamas authorities, and the IDF's claims regarding the number of involved casualties indicate that the percentage of non-involved casualties may be no worse, or even better, than in urban warfare conducted by Western forces.


However, the total number of more than 30,000 dead, which has been widely cited around the world and has not been refuted by the IDF, has a significant impact on international public opinion. Israel has not been able to escape criticism, even from President Biden, for not being careful enough to minimize the killing of civilians.


As far as humanitarian aid is concerned, the Israeli government says that it does not limit the quantities entering the Strip and blames the UN agencies for the inability to provide aid. It is not impossible that there is a justification for this. Despite this, State Department spokespeople detailed to reporters how they believe Israeli ministers are delaying aid. Even President Biden criticized the Israeli government for not doing its part. He said in the " State of the Nation " speech: "Humanitarian aid cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip. Protecting and saving innocent lives must be a priority."


This global dissatisfaction with Israel's performance is accompanied by a broad international consensus on the urgency of the crisis and its scope. An interagency report published on March 18, based on a variety of sources, concluded: "Famine is imminent in the northern provinces and is expected to occur anytime between mid-March and May 2024." Other parts of the area are not far behind.


The shelter and food crises are now affecting the willingness of the Biden administration to support a major military operation in Rafah, which most Israelis support and which many believe is necessary to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza.


In addition to Israel's failure to adopt a convincing approach on humanitarian issues and the blame on the part of its closest ally, the presentation of the events by the international media is equally significant in the struggle for legitimacy. The Israeli media usually does not show the pictures, names, faces, or even the numbers of Palestinian civilian victims that the international audience is exposed to, every day.


The immediacy of the atrocities will fade, but documented images will remain forever, and they will be used to ignite memories week after week, year after year, in countless public forums: at the UN and in international courts; in legal proceedings against Israeli leaders under universal jurisdiction; in non-governmental reports; in media analysis; In books, documentaries, plays and movies.


In summary, the destruction of Gaza is now a permanent and global cultural and political item, no less than the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7. Most prominent of all, Israel is now standing trial at the International Court of Justice as an accused in a genocide trial that will last for years.


Israel is about to receive another blow at the International Court of Justice, when the court may provide an advisory opinion according to which the occupation of the "Palestinian territories" is illegal. This potential ruling, combined with the genocide trial, risks giving the BDS movement immeasurably new momentum. This includes popular pressure on Western governments that have been prominent supporters of Israel to carefully consider all aspects of their bilateral relations, including the arms trade. This also puts the private sector at risk when it comes to investing in Israel, especially if it cannot guarantee that economic involvement will be limited to 'legal' Israel within the Green Line. The impact on public opinion in many Arab, Islamic and developing countries is also significant.


The circle of support is shrinking rapidly, including in the US. Israel will retain some unqualified supporters in the US and Europe, but will be limited to the political right because in many countries the issue is becoming more and more partisan. This means that the quality of Israel's relations with Western countries may become more sensitive to the political positions of the ruling party and its most vocal activists.


The dramatic social, cultural and political changes in the USA are very significant. American political polarization has exacerbated partisan and generational divides. A recent Gallup annual survey showed an unprecedented decline among 18-34 year olds who hold a positive view of Israel, from 64% in 2023 to 38% in 2024. Those with a positive view of the Palestinian Authority also dropped, but only from 36% to 32%. These numbers are usually stable, and the drop indicates a severe damage to Israel's image.


In the past, it was assumed that the center of gravity in the US is more pro-Israel than in Europe, with a bipartisan consensus. Today there is a huge gap in attitudes between Republicans and Democrats. Many around Biden want him to be tougher on Israel, and fear that his re-election is at stake.


Biden's personal commitment to Israel was therefore a decisive factor in US policy. He did not unequivocally oppose the Rafah operation, he only conditioned it on a reliable plan to protect the densely concentrated citizens. However, he is not satisfied with Israel's position and the administration is considering setting conditions for the use of American weapons. Without a regular supply of weapons, it is unclear whether Israel will be able to achieve its goals, especially while Israel is involved in a two-front conflict with Hezbollah that could easily escalate.


There is no doubt that any aid that enters the Gaza Strip and ends up in the hands of Hamas has a negative impact. But there are higher military and diplomatic costs if Israel does not guarantee the introduction of sufficient aid. The overthrow of Hamas therefore depends on increased, not lower, concern for the humanitarian situation. Overall Israel's interest is to help Biden help Israel.


For anyone who thought that Israel could reduce its dependence on Washington, it should be noted that Russia is deepening its partnership with Iran even further, and it seems that China is realizing the opportunity to gain support in the developing world by positioning itself as an 'honest mediator', compared to Washington's support for Israel. According to reports, antisemitism has increased on Chinese social networks .


A better and safer future for Israel, and indeed for the Palestinians as well, depends on the overthrow of the brutal, sadistic and evil Hamas regime. However, the humanitarian crisis limits the legitimacy Israel needs to pursue its immediate war goals, including in Rafah. In the longer term, the destruction caused in Gaza could leave Israel with enormous and lasting damage.


But there is a way back. Success depends on the continued support of President Biden. In order to help the President help Israel achieve its strategic goals, Israel must take the initiative and act to the best of its ability quickly, vigorously and decisively to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Preventing severe food shortages and diseases from degenerating into mass starvation should be among the Israeli decision makers not only as a moral imperative, but as an overwhelming and immediate strategic imperative. Doing everything to address the humanitarian situation should soften, if not completely extinguish, American opposition to the Rafah operation.


Beyond the immediate humanitarian crisis, Israel must take advantage of the opportunity offered by the regional proposals of the Biden administration. The interest of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, in contributing to the stabilization of the Israeli-Palestinian arena and normalizing relations with Israel is a huge opportunity.


By accepting the American vision for a diplomatic horizon that includes a Palestinian state, (with all the necessary conditions including demilitarization) and agreeing to a practical step-by-step approach in the civil sphere, which does not compromise Israel's security, Israel will create a basis for a substantial discussion on civil governance in post-Hamas Gaza, which could include the Arab countries whose cooperation Israel hopes to secure, and enable a long-term strategy that will marginalize the extremist Palestinians supported by Iran.


Down the road, hope will be rekindled for the enormous economic, security and diplomatic dividends associated with the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia. Equally important, Israel will equip itself with a powerful rebuttal against accusations of genocide, or illegal occupation.


If Israel takes the initiative, and does not lag behind, it can shape the process better and accumulate much-needed international credit.


Israel also needs to distance itself from the concept, implied by the "day after" document issued by the Prime Minister's office, that deradicalization precedes rehabilitation. It is clear that the first order of priorities is the overthrowing of Hamas and the guarantee of security and public order. However, without a credible plan for civilian governance and reconstruction, a vacuum will be created in which Hamas' ideology will continue to thrive. Conversely, defining a path to restoration will create an opportunity to show that there is a better way. In this context, Israel must cultivate the best possible alternative to Hamas . It could be, for example, a mechanism backed by Arab countries under the umbrella of the Palestinian Authority, but with an administration headed by someone like the former "technocratic" Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad.


Now, most Israelis cannot hear about, much less talk about, a Palestinian state. But to avoid digging into the deep strategic pit, this must change.


Biden and his team are under no illusions that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is a realistic proposition in the short-medium term, but they believe that in order to expand the Abraham Accords there must be a credible political horizon that includes a Palestinian state.


There may be little chance of a Palestinian leadership willing to seriously advance the Palestinian state on terms that even the center-left government can live with. But by aligning Israel's future vision and its policy in the territories, with an approach that is mostly accepted in Western capitals and among moderate Arab states, Israel will be able to transfer the diplomatic pressure to the Palestinian side. Israel has always benefited when it was seen as the party that strives for peace and is ready to make reasonable compromises to achieve it, even if the other party lacks the will or ability.


 


Prof. Yonatan Reinhold is the head of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University and a senior researcher at the BSA Center. Dr. Toby Greene is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University and a researcher at the BESA Center.


For more information, please contact:


Randy E. Spiegel, CEO

Canadian Friends of Bar-Ilan University

O:416-781-4466

C:416-993-6746

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