- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

The Gaza Strip has always been a difficult place to govern. According to the Bible, when Moses came out of Egypt to go to the Promised Land, he took the long way home. Meaning he avoided Gaza.

Fast-forward a few thousand years and Gaza remains problematic. Now throw in 1.5 million Palestinian refugees, chronic unemployment, severe overcrowding, religious zealots, weapons of all caliber, compounded by an Israeli blockade, lack of food, clean water and electricity - with all it encompasses - and if you believe this will solve the problem, there is a bridge in Brooklyn you should consider buying.

Israel would have benefited from history had it done the same and bypassed Gaza when it went into Egypt in June 1967. Since the Strip was first occupied during the Six-Day War, Gaza, far more so than the West Bank, turned out to be a thorn in Israel’s side. Largely due to the tough economic conditions under which Gazans live, the Strip harbored more hard-liners than the West Bank and represented more of a headache to Israel’s security than the Palestinians living in say Hebron, Nablus or Ramallah.

Prior to the Israeli occupation, Gaza was already a problem for Egypt. In fact, when Israel suggested the Strip be returned to Egypt, the Egyptians politely declined the offer. “Gaza is more of a problem than a gift,” said the legendary Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister during the ‘67 war.

Gaza’s geography counts for one of the reasons Israel failed to pacify the long, coastal plain, where poverty, frustration and radicalism play a major role. Gaza has little to no agriculture and no resources, other than thousands of unemployed angry young people.

Today the Gaza Strip remains an area of trouble for the Palestinians who live in it, for the Israelis who until recently occupied it and also for the Egyptians who border it.

For the Egyptians, Gaza represents a turbulent neighbor right on its doorstep with a potential pool of recruitable elements that can easily be turned into troublemakers and infiltrated into Egypt. Not to mention the fact that Gazans demonstrated to the Egyptians their capability to cross the border into Egypt at any time of their choosing, regardless of how high, wide or electrified a fence might be.

For the Israelis, Gaza remains a source from where terrorist attacks against Israel are launched, as are Qassam rockets on Israeli towns and villages neighboring the Strip.

For the Palestinians, the situation in Gaza is reaching “catastrophic” proportions, said Karen AbuZayd, commissioner-general for the United Nations’ Relief and Works Agency for Palestinians refugees.

AbuZayd warned that a humanitarian “catastrophe” loomed if Israel continued to prevent aid from reaching Gaza.

Understandably, security remains Israel’s primary concern. However, if the last 60 years of occupation has proven one thing in this eternal cycle of violence and counter-violence it is that the occupation does not make Israel any safer.

What would make Israel safer? A negotiated settlement.

To those who say Hamas should not be engaged in negotiations, please, let us not be hypocritical. If you don’t negotiate with enemies, then just whom do you negotiate with?

A lesson should be drawn from the years of blacklisting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), when Israel and the United States refused to engage the PLO in talks on the grounds it was a terrorist organization. Instead, Washington talked to the PLO through the Algerians. Precious time was wasted, during which the conflict was allowed to escalate.

Similarly, history should remind Hamas that so long as Israel continues to feel threatened chances of a negotiated settlement remains unattainable.

The United States and the Israelis should accept the fact that at the end of the day Hamas will have to be engaged in dialogue, regardless. Every day that passes only serves to further aggravate the situation with investment in hatred building up.

The Palestinians, more specifically, Hamas must face the reality that Israel exists and needs to be engaged in dialogue.

As one Arab ambassador in Washington recently explained: “The Israelis want to be certain that any territory they return to the Arabs will not become a future base from which to attack Israel. And so far, nothing has been done to alleviate those fears.”

History, they say, repeats itself, and Gaza is a good example. Both Israel and Hamas are committing the same mistakes as in the past. Israel believes strong-arm tactics will work, when the past has clearly shown otherwise. Put a people in a ghetto-like environment and tighten your hold on it and the reaction, typically, will be to fight even more.

And if Hamas believes there can be a military solution to this dilemma, then it should invest alongside others in that bridge in Brooklyn.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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