Gaza: Just Round Two in an Endless War?

By Anthony Cordesman
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There are still those on both sides who seek peace out of sheer hope and idealism. The problem is that hope is not a strategy. At this point, there are no real plans, actions, and probability of success. Moreover, every year separates Israelis and Palestinians more from the time they lived and worked together.

This situation is worst in Gaza. Gaza is a tiny urbanized slum with no real resources except the uncertain future prospect of offshore gas. It has over 1.7 million people living in the equivalent of a prison that have no secure access in or out on either personal or economic terms. Gazans have become a development problem that the World Bank now sees as nearly hopeless. The CIA estimates that over 40 percent are unemployed, 38 percent live below the poverty line, and the median age is under 18 with a population growth rate that is the sixth highest in the world.

The West Bank is marginally better in terms of living conditions, economic conditions, and political freedom. It too, however, has few real resources, no clear supply of additional water, and a population that already is far too large for its agricultural and other economic base. The CIA estimates that the West Bank has over 2.6 million people living under severe restrictions, with some 311,000 Israelis living in the West Bank and another 186,000 in East Jerusalem.

The West Bank too is over 70 percent urbanized, its median age is under 22, and the Palestinian population is still growing rapidly. Overall unemployment is near 24 percent, and youth unemployment is over 46 percent. Over 18 percent live at the poverty line. There are no credible current figures on the average combined per capita income of Gaza and the West Bank, but the CIA uses $2,800 and a ranking of only 173rd in the world. Much of this comes from outside subsidies and aid. Neither Gaza nor the West Bank has a real economy of its own.

In contrast, Israel is a major success, although it too is built on an aid-driven economy. It has some 7.6 million people, some 76 percent of which are Jews. Youth unemployment is less than 15 percent, and much of this is Israeli Arab. Per capita income is now around $32,000, and overall unemployment is around 5.6 percent. Some 23.7 percent is rated as living at or below the poverty line, but this is set at $7.30 a day-far higher than the usual level and again is largely Arab. It is scarcely fair to criticize Israel for its economic successes, but the contrast to life in Gaza and the West Bank are clear. Anger, history, religion, culture, politics, and a lack of sovereignty and dignity all interact with economics and demographics while feeding Israel's matching concerns over its security.

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These differences also now interact with the political crises and upheavals in the Arab world. Egypt now has a Muslim Brotherhood government and more real democracy, which makes tolerance of the problems in Gaza and the West Bank far more difficult and does much to ensure that arms, money, and extremists can flow more easily through the tunnels into Gaza.

Egypt faces years of economic reform and challenges and has no immediate ability to absorb Gaza or even properly fund development in the Sinai. There are some Israeli officials and political leaders that are thinking about an Egyptian solution to Gaza, but that is the last thing the Egyptian government wants and might well prove a threat to an already uncertain peace treaty. (Egypt's population stands at 83.7 million, with unemployment of 12 percent, a poverty level of 20 percent, per capita income at $6,500, median age of 24.6, and youth unemployment of 24.8 percent.)

Many of the same pressures affect any talk of making Jordan the solution to Palestinian state. The last thing Jordan needs for the foreseeable future is another massive source of instability. The Jordanian economy is in a crisis of its own, and it cannot absorb the problems of the West Bank, much less the far more difficult problems of Gaza. (Jordan's population stands at 6.5 million, with unemployment of 12.3 percent, a poverty level of 14.2 percent, per capita income at $5,900, median age of 22, and youth unemployment of 27 percent.)

As for Lebanon and Syria, the most one can hope is that the short-term outcome of the current crisis in Gaza will be seen as a deterrent to supporting Hamas and anti-Israeli extremism rather than as an incentive. In practice, the risks are more likely to be limited by the internal tensions in Lebanon and Syrian than such calculations, and it is difficult to see that either country will have a government or security service that can limit the actions of its various violent extremist movements. Hezbollah may not be an open-ended risk taker, and Lebanon's Sunni extremists may now be too weak to act, but this is no guarantee for the future. As for Syria, if Bashar al-Assad manages to survive, playing the Palestinian extremist card may be a way to leverage both Israel and the United States and win some Sunni support. If Assad fails, and Neo-Salafi extremist movements have a major role in his overthrow, they may pressure future Syrian governments and join other movements like al Qaeda's various branches in pushing hardline and violent Palestinian action.

As for Iran-and indeed Sunni Neo-Salafi extremist movements outside the region-it is clear that low-cost support of Palestinian violence wins outside support, puts pressure on Israel and the United States, and poses few risks. Even a few longer-range Grad rockets can steadily undermine any cease-fire and exploit the fact that there is no real progress toward peace and a meaningful form of either sovereignty for the Palestinians or security for the Israelis.

And yes, these are grim conclusions. They may argue for new peace efforts in theory, but there is almost no prospect of real efforts in practice. They scarcely argue against cease-fire and negotiating efforts, but they warn that such efforts are likely to buy little more than time as the situation continues to deteriorate. Accordingly, the real world solution may have to be to accept that what is happening in Gaza today will be repeated again and again in the future, that the United States can do little more than encourage Israeli restraint while helping Israel steadily improve its defenses against each new form of asymmetric attack, and continue to do what it can to check Iran and violent Salafi extremism and terrorism. In the real world, the only lasting solutions are the ones neither side will really support or act upon.

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Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

(AP Photo)

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