Ro’ee Rutenberg was murdered in the fields of Nachal-Oz, a small kibbutz not far from the Gaza Strip on April 29, 1956. The funeral was attended by hundreds of thousands of Israelis and is still remembered for one of the most famous eulogies in Israeli history. “The gates of Gaza were too heavy for his shoulders,” proclaimed then military Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, referring to the biblical story of Samson and the Philistines. “This group of youth, sitting in Nachal-Oz, carry on their shoulders the heavy gates of Gaza,” he said, while “on the other side, hundreds of thousands of eyes and hands pray for our weakness to show, so they can tear our bodies apart. Have we forgotten?”
In those days, when Palestinian militants crossed the border to murder Israelis, the Egyptians ruled Gaza. Later, Israel became the occupier, and then the Palestinian Authority controlled parts of it. Last summer, with much fanfare, Israel left Gaza—for good, it was promised. The settlers were evacuated, and the military pulled out.
“A successful disengagement will enhance the security of Israel, and it should give a sense of confidence and trust between the Israelis and Palestinians as they look to a better future,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, praising Ariel Sharon for his “bold move.” Hollow words, broken promises. Not even a year has passed, and the Gaza problem is as painful as ever—with no signs of improvement. The prospect of calm was dashed—again—under the heavy gates, and Gaza is still waiting for someone to take responsibility.
Israel’s withdrawal didn’t stop Palestinian militants from shelling Israeli towns with rockets. When Hamas came to power, it was even clearer that the Palestinian government couldn’t be trusted to stop the militants.
Then came the Israeli retaliation and the preventive attacks—targeted killings that sometimes hit their targets and sometimes killed innocent civilians. In both cases, the result was more anger—and more reasons, or excuses, to attack Israeli targets. The Palestinian government didn’t seem willing or able to stop them. The newly formed Israeli government had to react, since the Israeli public was frustrated with its lack of action. When a group of Palestinians executed a well-planned surprise attack on an Israeli military post—killing two soldiers and kidnapping one—there was no way to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.
From the Palestinian point of view, Israel was overreacting. After all, the Palestinian president had denounced the attack—and even the Hamas government disavowed it, declaring that it wanted the soldier to be returned unharmed.
In fact, the incident ignited some interesting Palestinian political dynamics. Suddenly it was no longer President Mahmoud Abbas from Fatah, the good guy, against Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh from Hamas, the bad guy. A delicate power struggle between the two men became a three-way game as Hamas leaders who live in places like Damascus and enjoy the support of Syria and Iran took a harder line in an attempt to prove that they are the real power brokers in Palestinian society. This could be seen as an encouraging development, hinting at the possibility of a more moderate Hamas leadership within the territories.
Why should Israel—no longer an occupier in Gaza—need to invest itself in all these nuances of Palestinian politics? The Palestinian government is responsible for the area, so it’s only reasonable to expect it to act on its obligations and bring law and order to the border. If it doesn’t, Israel has to defend its citizens and soldiers. No country would have allowed a neighboring entity to infiltrate its territory with rockets or enemy combatants.
But the really big problem emerging from the deadlock is one that will increase the likelihood of future waves of violence. The current crisis didn’t only expose the gaps between the two branches of Hamas—it also showed that Prime Minister Haniyeh and his Hamas party can be as powerless as President Abbas was always said to be.
Intelligence reports suggested this weekend that the kidnappers didn’t take orders from anyone. They are exalted by their achievements and encouraged by the support they received from the Palestinian street for the demands they presented to the Israeli government: to free Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the kidnapped soldier.
The people who abducted Cpl. Gilad Shalit simply ignored the prime minister and the president, they ignored Egyptian mediators, and they ignored the entire international community. Their actions proved, yet again, that Gaza is still a no man’s land waiting for a Samson.