Gaza after the war: lessons of experience – Asia Times

There is much talk about “de-radicalization” in Gaza, de-militarization and not allowing Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) or UNRWA to be in charge. 

The PA has forgone elections since January 25, 2006, and lost elections in Gaza. UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, in its present shape perpetuates and aggravates the conflict rather than being an institution to mitigate it.  

All three objectives – de-radicalization, de-militarization and preventing dictatorial regimes from gaining power – have been pursued around the world, at times successfully, at times not. The failures offer better lessons than the successes.  

Germany and Japan went through successful de-radicalization after World War II. However, this experience cannot be replicated and bring about transitions from dictatorial and deistic mindsets toward decentralized, meritocratic ones. Yes, Germany abandoned Nazism. However, that ideology did not have centuries-old roots, as the combination of centralization and an Islamic conception of society have had in the Middle East.  

Japan abandoned both a warmongering political leadership and the concept of emperor’s divinity, when in an Imperial Rescript on January 1, 1946, Emperor Hirohito declared that he was not a living god.

These acknowledgments were not so drastic as they appear at first sight, since the 1889 Constitution of the Empire had already separated state and religion and distinguished Shintō from other religions. The latter’s rituals became just part of Japan’s program of national ethics.  

These cases of “de-radicalization” in a relatively short time are thus not applicable to either Gaza, the West Bank, or the more populous Muslim states in the Middle East, expectations of “Arab Springs” having been hallucinations, really. Moreover, Germany and Japan were demilitarized, and the US stayed put in them during the years of transition. 

Societies in the Middle East, based on deistic/dictatorial conceptions, never had the institutions to disperse power – financial power in particular. 

Such conceptions, assumed to last forever, are not discarded quickly in favor of voter-made laws and institutions, though occasionally mutated from theocracies to pan-Arab, nationalistic principles – the kind of transitions that Europe had gone through centuries before, and which have been typical of societies whose populations and mobility were growing rapidly.

The transitions brought about new dictatorships, masked occasionally by democratic jargon, and accompanied by corruption and violence, as seen now in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Latin America – and centuries before in Europe too.

And, as noted, the German and Japanese de-radicalization and de-militarization happened while the Allies stayed in these countries after winning in World War II, and reshaped the countries’ institutions. However, these days, if a coalition of countries were to remain in Gaza, replacing Hamas and UNRWA, that would be labeled “occupation,” “colonialism,” “imperialism” – and as of now this option does not appear to be in the cards.  

How much military would be needed to stay in place to disarm various Islamist cells and put in place a decent administration, paving the path toward a civil society – whose essence is dispersion of powers?

Recent events in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans offer guidance of both what not to do and a range of goals that a coalition’s administration/military staff would have to commit to.

The Iraq experience

In Iraq, the US was set on dissolving the Baath military and administration, assuming this would prevent Saddam Hussein’s followers from restoring dictatorship and also prevent conflicts among the country’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.

A memo signed by then-US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld titled “Principles for Iraq – Policy Guidelines” stated that the coalition would “actively oppose Saddam Hussein’s old enforcers – the Baath Party, Fedayeen Saddam, the Special Republican Guard, etc – and make it clear that the coalition will eliminate the remnants of Saddam’s regime.”

But the consequence was that 400,000 previous military personnel became unemployed – together with 750,000 Baathists in the administration, from policemen to museum curators and ordinary civil servants – all now, with their families, facing uncertain prospects.  

The discarded officers and soldiers abandoned their bases – with weapons. The police force was drastically reduced, and security of property was much diminished. It took long years to replace the political administration.  

This could have been mitigated by recognizing that the mere fact of being Baathists did not imply eternal loyalty to Saddam, but – as was the case of many Communist Party members in Russia – to make a living. There are few Solzhenitsyns in this word, and the old Latin adage applies: “Primum vivere, deinde philosophari” – meaning “first live, philosophize later.” 

As to the country’s military: According to the US Marine Corps’s Robert Weiler, it took two years to form just 40,000 Iraqi “soldiers assumed loyal enough to be enough to replace the departing coalition forces.” As events showed, this was not enough.

During the prewar planning, the US military estimated that 386,000 troops would be needed for a while to replace the discarded Iraqi military and also fulfill security tasks such as protecting border, military and other infrastructure, and maintaining law and order. Only 150,000 were deployed. 

Applications for Gaza

What do these events and numbers imply about a potential administrative solution for Gaza?

A RAND study concluded that after wars where the army and administration are decimated, in order to sustain law and order, a country would need one soldier for every 50 citizens (the numbers used for Kosovo). For Iraq’s roughly 25 million people this would have meant 500,000 troops. 

For Gaza’s 2 million, this would mean 40,000 troops to be able to de-militarize, de-radicalize the place, sustain law and order, and also supervise the creation of institutions that eventually could assure that future transitions of political powers would happen without resorting to violence.  

After all, this feature defines a civil society and what democracies are assumed to be about, not just voting, which can easily create mobs. As to a proposed “ceasefire” – it would be signed and enforced by which entity? 

The above experiences imply that without long-term commitment and the required dedicated personnel and resources, Gaza would face problems Iraq and Afghanistan have been facing after premature departure of coalition forces, and without leaving behind enough competent administrative personnel. In particular, the successful de-radicalizations of Germany and Japan are inapplicable for the Middle East. 

A serious obstacle to such long-term commitment in both the US and Western Europe, more serious than the fads dominating political discussions, is the fragile state of government finances. Although the US House of Representatives approved a stopgap bill to fund the federal government a few weeks ago, that ends in early March – an in-depth discussion about re-allocating funds has hardly started.

Since it is unlikely that either the US or Europe would commit adequate funding for significant military and reliable administrative personnel to watch over Gaza, and with Muslim and Arab countries unwilling or unable to commit supervising de-militarization and de-radicalization, it appears that the solution would be for a coalition to prevent re-armament by watching imports.

That would entail closing the land borders hermetically – Israel emulating on the northern and eastern borders what Egypt has done on Gaza’s southern border. Then letting the Gazan population manage without any trade relations with, or going through, Israel.   

The area’s situation would not differ from Israel’s in 1948, when the country’s only opening for trade was toward the Mediterranean and firmly closed on the north, east and south (Eilat came later) – as it would be for Gaza.

The vast tunnel network shows that the local population has the technical capacity to build a decent infrastructure, manufacturing, water supplies – above the ground. 

Israel managed to prosper with some 800,000 people, surrounded by neighbors who promised daily to kill them. Gaza’s population of some 2 million would not have to worry about that, and even a tiny fraction of them would not be at risk – if they focused on building better lives for themselves, rather than amassing infrastructure to attack Israel, and destabilize Sinai and Egypt. So they could eventually prosper too. 

Perhaps it is time for Gaza’s population not to count on the kindness of strangers, or even their cousins.

This article draws on Reuven Brenner’s book The Force of Finance (2001) and his articles “Unsettled Civilizations: How the US Can Handle Iraq,” (2004), “How to Relink 7 billion People” (2017), and “Demography Is Not Destiny” (2024).