A fragile cease-fire has temporarily stopped the violence in Gaza, and Israeli and Palestinian delegations have made efforts to negotiate a more permanent resolution. The only way they can succeed is to let the Palestinian Authority and its security forces back into Gaza.
The Hamas terrorist organization forced the PA out of Gaza in 2007. But in the West Bank, the PA’s security forces have proved relatively effective in maintaining security. There has been good cooperation with Israeli security forces, and considerable progress has been made in building the governmental institutions of a potential Palestinian state.
By contrast, Hamas’s rule in Gaza has been disastrous for its people — producing economic failure, brutal governance, human hardship, little hope and three wars with Israel in six years.
Both sides in the most recent Gaza conflict have their requirements for peace. Israel wants an end to rocket and missile attacks from Gaza (as well as terrorist tunnels) and the demilitarization of Hamas and other terrorist groups. Hamas wants the opening of crossing points with Egypt and Israel, the return of prisoners and the rebuilding of Gazan infrastructure, including an airport and seaport.
These requirements can be met only by reintroducing the PA and its security forces into Gaza, supported by the international community. Recent polling suggests that Palestinians in Gaza would favor such an outcome.
Hamas must recognize that Israel and Egypt are not going to open the crossing points unless a reliable party is there to ensure that what crosses into Gaza will not be used to rebuild tunnels and other terrorist infrastructure. The only such party Hamas is likely to accept is the PA, perhaps reinforced by an international presence. Hard for Hamas, no doubt, but discontent among Gaza’s citizens, Hamas’s international isolation and the need to get the Gaza economy going again may be sufficiently persuasive. And some saving of face may be provided by the pact established last April between Hamas and Fatah (the party headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that is committed to nonviolence) — and the unity government they formed in June.
For Israel, the PA’s return to Gaza offers the best hope for preventing the resumption of rocket, missile and tunnel attacks on Israel. Over time, PA security forces could take control of the heavy weapons now in the hands of Hamas and other terrorist groups and begin to disband their militias — steps that are fully consistent with Abbas’s avowed goal of “one authority, one law and one gun.” Any prisoners Israel agreed to release in return should be turned over to the PA government, not Hamas.
As part of a more permanent cease-fire, the PA unity government should appoint a cabinet-level team to oversee the rebuilding of housing, factories and public facilities that were destroyed by the war. This team should simultaneously be charged with reform of Gaza’s governmental institutions to make them more accountable, effective and aligned with those in the West Bank.
Implementing a permanent Gaza cease-fire along these lines could open up opportunities on the West Bank, where Hamas has gained in popularity because it was seen as taking on Israel. It is important now to strengthen the position in the West Bank of Abbas and other PA leaders who have stood against violence. The most important step would be enhancing the prospects of the two-state solution — with the state of Israel and a state of Palestine living side by side in peace and security. For even as mistrust has deepened, a majority of each community still supports this goal.
Direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are too hard politically for both communities right now. But Israel could take steps on the ground — in close but quiet coordination with the PA — that could preserve and even advance the two-state objective. Israel could cut back its security operations in areas in the West Bank where security responsibility is in the hands of the PA. More Palestinian business activity could be permitted in areas that remain under Israeli control. Some areas now under Israeli control could be transferred to the PA. And Israel could gradually pull back its military forces to the positions they held before the last intifada in 2000.
Why should Israel take any unilateral steps? First, they would not be truly unilateral. In parallel, PA security forces would be keeping Gaza quiet and assuming more security responsibility in the West Bank. Second, it is in Israel’s interest for Palestinians to see the PA assume more control. It will enhance Palestinian confidence that the two-state solution can become a reality and strengthen the prospects of Fatah — rather than of Hamas — in future Palestinian elections.
This has been an exhausting period for Israelis and Palestinians. It is tempting to turn away even from modest steps. But today in the Middle East, standing still is sliding backward.
Samuel R. Berger was National Security Adviser to President Bill Clinton from 1997-2001. He is now chair of Albright Stonebridge Group. Stephen J. Hadley was National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush from 2005-2009. He is currently chair of the Board of Directors of the U.S Institute of Peace.