Since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and Hamas’s takeover in 2007, the enclave has become what is known in policy and planning as a “wicked problem”—one in which efforts to treat some of the challenges it poses make others more severe. Thus, to restore quiet in southern Israel and allow for the alleviation of the humanitarian situation in Gaza, Israel might consider reaching a long-term agreement with Hamas, but this very period of quiet would almost certainly be exploited by Hamas to improve and expand its arsenal for use against Israel in a future conflict. On the other hand, any effort to deal a major military blow to Hamas would require Israel to launch an extensive ground operation and could result in it ruling over two million Palestinians and precipitating a deeper humanitarian crisis there. The crux of the dilemma facing Jerusalem is how to cope with an increasingly powerful and hostile terrorist organization along its southern border while minimizing the negative impact on Israeli citizens and the innocents living under Hamas’s rule.
The immediate impetus for examining this dilemma is the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, but the aim of this article is to consider a long-term strategy for Israel, one that would continue to benefit it a decade or more into the future. Yogi Berra was correct in his observation that “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Therefore, rather than proposing a single future for Gaza that we consider the most likely, we lay out four possible futures for Gaza in 2030 and then suggest some ideas for how Israel can improve its policy in Gaza to match those futures.
Before getting into details, it’s worth defining what Israel’s strategic interests are in the Strip. In narrow terms, they include: a political arrangement that is tantamount to peace or a long-term ceasefire, whether formal or informal; preventing the Hamas terror syndicate from growing more powerful and expanding its military arsenal; preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza that would exacerbate the suffering of innocents and could potentially spill over into Israel; and cultivating a positive image of Israel as a moral actor that abides by international laws and norms. Right now, it seems fair to say that Israel’s current approach to Gaza is losing on all counts.
I. More of the Same: Continued Decline
The first scenario for Gaza in 2030 is one of inertia. Hamas and Israel fail to achieve more than short-lived ceasefire arrangements and this leads to the eruption of sporadic rounds of fighting between them every three years or so—fighting that achieves scant results of any strategic significance for either side. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip remain two separate political entities, and their bitter division prevents the Palestinian national movement from attaining a unified or coherent approach to Israel. Hamas maintains its hardline position against Israel, refuses to accept internationally agreed-upon terms of recognition of Israel, refuses to forswear terrorism, and refuses to honor agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Yet despite all that, Israel continues to find Hamas a somewhat convenient neighbor when compared with the prospect of total anarchy in Gaza, as the terror group can be held responsible for actions taken against Israel and even deterred.
The Israeli and Egyptian blockades of Gaza remain in place because no formula can be agreed on that would allow legitimate imports into Gaza but would also prevent Hamas from expanding its military arsenal. Meanwhile, the conflicts that do erupt every few years eventually wear out the international community’s appetite to fund post-conflict reconstruction, bringing Gaza closer and closer to the brink of humanitarian catastrophe. All the while, Israel’s military superiority serves it well on the battlefield but undermines its cause in the court of international opinion. Major economic advances remain impossible for Gaza given the political and security situation, and so Israel finds itself shouldering the responsibility of preventing a major humanitarian disaster by ensuring Gaza has at least minimal levels of food, water, electricity, and medicine.
While this may seem like the most likely future for Gaza at present, given that all that it would require is the linear continuity of existing trends, it is far from a foregone conclusion. Major dramatic changes often occur unexpectedly over the course of time and exert disproportionate impact on the existing trajectory of events. Or in the words of futurist Herman Kahn, “the most likely future isn’t.”
Probability: 40 percent.
II. Toppling Hamas
In a second scenario, after Hamas initiates the next round of fighting a few years from now, Israel launches a major aerial and ground operation to oust it and provide the Palestinian Authority with an opportunity to retake control of Gaza. The context for this major conflict is Hamas’s expanding military capabilities—largely a result of Iranian assistance rather than homegrown research and development—which threaten Israel directly while also threatening to subvert the PA in the West Bank. In a sense, therefore, when the cost to Israel of allowing it to remain in place overtakes the cost of toppling its regime, Hamas becomes a victim of its own success. Thus, a surprise Israeli strike to decapitate Hamas leadership is followed by a ground invasion intended to weaken Hamas’s hold on the Strip.
The operation is not intended to reconquer Gaza or restore the Gush Katif settlements dismantled in Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Strip. Instead, Arab forces supported by the anti-Muslim Brotherhood axis—chiefly Egypt and the United Arab Emirates—are enlisted to maintain peace in Gaza in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. After that, Cairo facilitates the PA’s return to the Strip and actively supports it against Hamas’s efforts to retake control. While the return of the PA does not in and of itself resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in some ways it is a return to the status quo prior to 2007 and eliminates a considerable barrier to the resolution of the larger conflict.
Although Israeli decision-makers seek to avoid being dragged into additional rounds of fruitless fighting in Gaza, Hamas’s desperation to justify its continued rule over the Strip’s two million residents make it all but inevitable that the terror group will continue to instigate clashes with Israel. In parallel, the expansion of Hamas’s arsenal may lead to its demise as Israel determines that the threat posed by the terror group must be dealt a major blow before it reaches a particularly dangerous threshold.
Probability: 35 percent.
III. The Singaporean Model
A third scenario is one in which Hamas realizes that, despite its continued belief in the radical ideological principles it was founded on, it will be unable to achieve very many of its goals through military means. For its part, the civilian Gazan population no longer finds the missile and rocket attacks against Israeli population centers to be a compelling reason to allow Hamas to continue to rule the Strip, given its dismal record on the economy and governance more generally. Thus, to thread the needle between provoking destructive rounds of conflict and abandoning its core ideological principles, Hamas opts to reach a long-term ceasefire with Israel that is meant to provide Gaza’s economy with a much-needed shot in the arm. In exchange for lifting the blockade on people, trade, and finances, Israel receives assurances that Hamas will not expand its military capabilities and it oversees an internationally operated mechanism to ensure that the group abides by its commitments.
Hamas opts to invest in education as well as physical and bureaucratic infrastructure, viewing the UAE or Qatar rather than Islamic State or the Houthis in Yemen as the model it seeks to emulate. The logic behind this major shift is a desire to prove that, in the absence of Israeli occupation, the Palestinian nation can flourish. This serves it well not only within Gaza but also in its broader efforts to promote its own legitimacy on the international stage and to detract from Israel’s by portraying the latter as an occupying power harming peaceful innocents.
In the case of Hamas, the belief that the responsibility of governance moderates radical groups has not held true; over time, Hamas has only become more aggressive. While it is possible that the terror group will conduct a strategic assessment and determine that its embrace of terror and violence have not served its interests, this appears unlikely due to organizational and ideological constraints that make an abrupt about-face difficult if not impossible.
Probability: 10 percent.
IV. Creative Egyptian Initiative
The final possibility we see: after a particularly destructive round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, Cairo takes the lead on resolving the Gaza crisis. Through a combination of pressure and incentives in the aftermath of the conflict, Egypt succeeds in gaining de-facto control of the Gaza Strip. This could happen directly or through a third-party closely associated with the Egypt-UAE axis, like the former PA official Mohammed Dahlan.
Why would Egypt step in? It has a keen interest in promoting stability and development in Gaza. The Strip borders a chaotic area in Egypt’s North Sinai that has continuously foiled efforts by the Egyptian military to restore control. While it is true that the regular eruption of clashes between Hamas and Israel provides the Egyptian government a chance to play an important role in mediating the conflict, it also places that regime in an extremely uncomfortable position domestically. Egypt right now either has to support publicly Arab brethren aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood—a group that the Sisi regime fears and loathes—or has to support Israel—a strategically important partner nation but one deeply unpopular on the Egyptian street. Egypt could resolve this conundrum by helping to promote an innovative solution to the conflict involving creative ideas like three-way land swaps or a travel corridor to ease movement across Egypt, Gaza, the West Bank, and Jordan.
While Egypt may not find the prospect of becoming increasingly involved in Gaza, which it controlled from 1948 to 1967, particularly appealing, it might be induced into playing that role by certain incentives: allowing it the right to drill in some of Gaza’s offshore oilfields, maybe, or at least a new Israeli commitment to make sure Emirati oil shipments no longer circumvent Egyptian tolls on the Suez Canal (an issue of particular annoyance to Egypt).
In ten years’ time, key regional actors are unlikely to behave or be aligned exactly as they are today. In addition to the new challenges that this can present, it may also present opportunities to resolve longstanding and seemingly intractable challenges. It is possible that the combination of a new context, new ideas, and new leaders will converge in such a way that allows for the development and execution of an innovative idea for resolving Israel’s Gaza problem and maybe even for resolving the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Probability: 15 percent.
Not all of these scenarios are particularly likely to happen; the challenge that Gaza poses has no tidy solutions or silver bullets, which makes the status quo alluring. But Israel should do everything it can to avoid becoming captive to inertia or, worse, simply being reactive. Rather it should follow its Zionist first principles and take initiative to formulate a more effective policy, one that better advances its interests, especially the four strategic interests mentioned earlier, and that helps it prioritize protecting its own citizens without ignoring the fact that Hamas is holding the majority of innocent Gazan residents hostage to its radical agenda.
It is reasonable to try to incentivize Hamas to change course and abandon terrorism—as long as Israel acknowledges that such an approach is unlikely to succeed. Embarking on a risky overture for long-term quiet that could result in a far more devastating conflict—if Hamas exploits incentives or gestures to build up its terror capabilities—would be an unwise strategic decision.
Should Hamas fail to shift, and should the status quo continue to see the decline of Israeli interests, a large-scale operation to decimate the terror group ruling Gaza may become inevitable. Israel no longer bears responsibility for Gaza after its withdrawal, but, when the national-security threat posed by Hamas outweighs the cost of toppling the group, then Israel should opt for the latter. Still any effort to topple Hamas should be preceded by serious planning for what to do on the day after, including a realistic plan for how to ensure that whoever assumes power in the aftermath is inclined toward building a peaceful future.