Steven S. Drachman: Why no safe haven for the children of Gaza?

[Editor’s Note: This editorial originally appeared on the IsraelPalestinePeace news-blog, and it appeared more than nine years ago. Then, another three years ago, it appeared in Audere Magazine. It is a depressing fact of the Israel/Palestine situation that little ever changes. This does make life easy for editorial writers, who don’t need to think up new things to say. One hopes that this time around, Hamas, one of the biggest impediments to Israeli-Palestinian peace, will be eliminated from the Strip. This would be progress. Hamas’s repulsive and vicious attack within Israel on civilians — women, children, babies — was unjustified, inescusable, and adds a whole new element to this war. Nevertheless, this column is as timely and sensible as it was way back then, so here it is again.]

August 3, 2014. As of this morning, Israel has announced an end to operations in Gaza, having destroyed all or a majority of tunnels, although the military remains on alert, a heart-breaking number of people have died, and Hamas as of this writing has yet to agree.

Any number of reasons have been given for the deaths (as have any number of reasons for the war itself), but whether one or more of them is true (Hamas stores weapons in schools and fires from hospitals, etc.), there is one overriding reason for the number of dead, which is the lack of any place to flee.

In the Lebanon War, which was fought in the South, residents could flee to the North. Syrian residents who did not wish to participate in their country’s recent civil war could flee to Turkey and Lebanon.

Other than Khalid Mishal, the Hamas leader, who sits out the current hostilities from the comfort of a luxury hotel in Qatar, refusing ceasefires and downplaying the seriousness of hundreds of martyrs, the people of Gaza have had no such safe haven, and they have spent the War mostly fleeing from place to place within a war zone. (Some on the pro-Israel side of the debate have said that Hamas refused to let their people leave home, or otherwise encouraged them to stay in order to increase civilian casualties and win the world’s sympathy. Hamas denies this. Whatever the facts at the beginning of the war, it is clear that by now, the Palestinian non-combatants of Gaza have been desperately searching for places to hide.)

It is my view that the solution to the Situation is for Israel, in cooperation with the United States, the Quartet, the U.N. and the moderate Arab states (those who hate Hamas), to put a new peace framework on the table too generous for the Palestinian “street” to reject, but which addresses Israel’s needs as well. A summary of that framework can be found here. I don’t want to predict Hamas’s reaction to such an approach. It is possible that they would bend to the people’s will immediately; it is possible that they would fire rockets into Israel to try to scuttle any new approach to peace. But even if Israel were to adopt our proposed framework, it is certainly possible that it would be a long time before the Palestinian leadership catches up with its own citizens’ desire for peace.

As a result, it is highly probable that Israel faces a future of periodically “mowing the grass,” an expression that journalists perhaps erroneously attribute from time to time to Benjamin Netanyahu as a metaphor to describe his strategy. An accomplished English speaker, Netanyahu would know that the correct metaphor is “mowing the lawn”; furthermore, anyone with any PR-sense would never say anything so pernicious.

Whatever the origin of the expression, it means fighting a war in Gaza every four years that is so devastating that it will buy Israel a few years of quiet. Unlike literally mowing a lawn, which does not kill the grass but instead makes it tidier, this strategy, if it does indeed exist, is an endless cycle of death.

If that is the plan, then let Israeli soldiers battle Hamas fighters every four years. I’d prefer we not call it “mowing the grass” (or even the lawn), but that particular genie is apparently out of the bottle.

Still there must be a place for the ordinary civilians to go.

Contrary to popular belief, civilians fleeing a war are not necessarily refugees under international law (although some may be); if they just don’t want to get blown up by an errant missile, they are “displaced persons.” Refugees by definition have managed to get out of the country of their nationality and have fled out of a reasonable fear of persecution, not a reasonable fear of an exploding apartment building. Displaced persons have not necessarily left their country of national origin. And unlike refugees, displaced persons have no particular rights in other nations, and they are not subject to any international treaty. Palestinians outside the state of Israel (even many of those in Gaza, Judea and Samaria) are classified as refugees rather than displaced persons, for reasons that are highly controversial, and about which I won’t comment here. U.N. “refugee camps” in Gaza (as some towns in which the Gazans have lived since 1967 are known) are particularly useless “refuges” in a time of war.

If this terrible situation is to recur, then at the first sign of hostilities, the Cairo government must ensure a safe and organized process to facilitate the relocation of displaced persons in U.N. camps resituated to the Egyptian side of the Gaza border. There is no dearth of land there, and it is an area in which, since the Arab Spring, no sensible Egyptian citizen would wish to live. Weapons, of course, would be left in Gaza. If Egypt fears that terrorists will infiltrate its territory, then it could accept only men over the age of sixty, women and children. If it doesn’t trust any Palestinian adult, then it could just let the children sit out the war.

If Egypt worries about how to pay for all these displaced persons, let me put Mr. Sisi’s mind at ease – the U.N. has plenty of money to keep Palestinians idle in camps forever.

No matter whom you want to blame for all the children dead in the 2014 Gaza War, the solution next time is a simple one. Let the children out.


Steven S. Drachman is the author of Enough Already: A Framework For Permanent Peace in a New Palestine and Israel, and he moderates the IsraelPalestinePeace Facebook page. He is also the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.Image by Uttersnap / Unsplash

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