If you're ever in Gaza and have the time for a museum visit, pop by the Al-Mathaf Hotel. Here in dusty glass showcases you’ll find treasures on display dating back to the days when this coastal area was still one of the ancient world’s major trade centers. Tempora mutantur (times change) — the wealth of the Philistines is well in the past: Gaza today is about misery, war and death.
The Palestinian strip of coastland has become a cipher for an apparently unsolvable conflict. For decades this small scrap of land has been thrown back and forth between powers, administered by Egypt, occupied by Israel. And it is one of the bitter paradoxes of world politics that nobody wants responsibility for the area that is nevertheless constantly fought over.
To break the cycle of catastrophe you need not only considerable effort, strength, good will, luck — you need the right timing. And the question is: Might we finally strike the right time now for Gaza? Of course, experience in the Middle East has shown that as a general rule the pessimists turn out to be the realists. When something changes here, it’s usually for the worse.
And there’s no dearth of horror scenarios for what will take place after this war, particularly as the brutality of the fighting provides ample reasons for renewed hatreds. But if in all the routine gloom you allow yourself another point of view, there are several indications that the time is ripe for change.
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A pro-Palestinian protest in Rome — Photo: Bruno
The reason for this is not only that, historically, wars — with all the ruin they cause — can mark a turning point in and of themselves. But what changes the game this time is that all players say that after this devastating clash there can be no going back to the way things were. The old status quo was intolerable: Gaza’s 360 square kilometers have been a prison for 1.8 million people. There’s just enough to eat so as not to die. But there’s not enough to make life worth living — no perspectives, no hope.
This misery feeds the extremism that no military mission no matter how massive can ever conquer. Gaza’s status quo ante is torture for its people, a scandal for the world, and a permanent or at least periodic threat for Israel. Gaza needs breathing room — and the world needs a plan.
The blockade politics practiced by Egypt and Israel can now conclusively be seen as failed. Instead there must be internationally coordinated efforts that result in a guarantee of Israel’s right to peace from rockets and the right of those living in Gaza to prospects in life. Free import and export of goods must also be guaranteed, even as weapons must be prevented from entering the area. Both freedom and control are needed.
So much for the vision. The path to it is thorny indeed. One prerequisite for success is that the outside world, which previously deliberately ignored this infamous Strip, invests a lot of attention, money and patience in the build-up plan. Israel particularly must do a great deal: That country has to bring about a political paradigm change and recognize that neither fear tactics nor the concept of divide-and-rule in their relations with the Palestinians can hope to bring any lasting security.
And Hamas ruling Gaza is certainly not the right partner for the implementation of such an ambitious plan. The goal must ultimately to be a fight against not only the misery but the extremism — and thus to deny support for the extremists.
The only person who can solve this problem is President Mahmoud Abbas with the unity government he formed before the war started. So far, Israel has opposed this government. That was a mistake that must be urgently righted. Abbas must become the discussion partner for all sides and reap the gratitude of Gaza’s people when life there improves. What will beat Hamas isn’t weapons, it’s prosperity. An empowered Abbas could also breathe new life into the idle peace process.
All of this is a plan in the conjunctive. Right now not even the dust from all the fighting has settled. Gaza will most likely not find its way back to the luster it enjoyed in ancient times. Nevertheless, in recent years the chances have never been so great that history could take a positive turn.