Demilitarising Gaza is being touted as part of a solution to the recent fighting – Israeli leaders are making this demand; US officials are endorsing the demand; and Europe's foreign ministers have stated that “all terrorist groups in Gaza must disarm.” Sensible as the idea may sound, however, it's a red herring — and a potentially dangerous one.
Israel is clearly justified in insisting on measures to protect its citizens and the argument being made here is not that arms should freely enter Gaza or be encouraged to do so – inspection mechanisms at border crossings can and should be utilized. But the push for demilitarisation is a trap – here are five reasons why.
First, demilitarisation is impractical. Israel failed to achieve that goal during 38 years of permanent military and settler presence inside the Gaza Strip or during its four large-scale military operations against Gaza since 2005, including this latest operation “Protective Edge”. Israel could fully re-occupy the Gaza strip – but it would be extremely costly. Yet, Israel is insisting that the reconstruction of Gaza be made conditional on the realisation of this chimerical goal.
Which brings us to our second point: The “reconstruction for demilitarisation” formula is an illegitimate equation that continues to impose collective punishment on Gaza’s civilian population. Making the Gaza population’s most basic humanitarian needs — the rebuilding of homes, water and electricity networks, hospitals and schools — conditional on Hamas being disarmed should be condemned as indecent and inhuman.
Third, pursuing demilitarisation is more likely to make the security situation worse, rather than stabilise it. Everyone knows the demand can’t be realized, yet failure to achieve it will be cited as Israel’s reason for keeping the siege in place. During previous periods of security quiet, Gazans — let alone Hamas — were given very little incentive to maintain quiet. Quite the contrary. What for Israel were periods of quiet and normalcy, were for Gazans periods of not only blockade but also international indifference to their plight. Should Gaza remain under siege, a new round of violence is guaranteed.
Fourth, international experience teaches that the “demilitarisation” demand is only plausible in a conflict where one side has been militarily defeated, or where a political settlement has been reached; neither of which has been the case in Gaza. South Africa, Northern Ireland, and countless other examples demonstrate that political breakthroughs precede disarming, not the other way round.
Fatah’s experiment in bucking this basic rule of conflicts — ending its armed struggle without securing Palestinian rights, an end to occupation or any guarantees thereof — has, from a Palestinian perspective, been a dismal failure. Hamas will not follow suit.
Finally, demilitarisation is a distraction — it offers no way out of this conflict for either Palestinians or Israelis. For progress on Gaza, attention would be better focused on, for instance, the establishment of a port facility that would be less dependent on Israel or Egypt and could reconnect Gaza to the outside world.
Demilitarisation looks set to become the latest mantra of obfuscation and an evasion of the steps necessary to resolve the underlying Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of which the Gaza war is but one symptom. Don’t fall into the trap.
A full version of this article was first published on Al Monitor.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.