Why Gaza is Not Germany or Japan

Those who favor nation-building often note that there have been several examples in which external forces have successfully reshaped societies under occupation. These people often point to Germany and Japan. Once the power structures of the Meiji Restoration were suppressed, it was possible to drastically reshape Japanese society. The same was true with the suppression of Nazism in Germany. In both cases, extreme measures were critical. For example, the US and UK both actively starved the civilian population of Germany in order to suppress their will to fight.

However, these examples are not appropriate to Gaza. Both Germany and Japan had highly ordered and fully developed civil societies – with the rule of law – prior to occupation. In Germany, for example, only 50% of Jews were killed during the war (as compared with 99% in Lithuania). The reason was that even the Nazi government had to overcome legal obstacles in order to exterminate the population. For example, they couldn’t conduct mass executions on German soil. Instead, they only had the legal right to deport the Jewish population to Poland. In Poland, which lacked a functioning legal system, it was then possible to conduct the campaign of extermination.

Given this, the role of the Allied occupation forces was not to implant a civic sense or to create a fertile ground for the rule of law. Instead, it was more simply to replace the Nazi and Meiji legal realities with something new. That task was far simpler. The ground was already fertile for a law-based society. Attempts to carry out similar tasks in Afghanistan and Iraq floundered in part because the task was far more difficult than it had been after World War II – even if the Coalition forces had been willing to conduct a campaign as harsh as what they carried out in Germany.

Instead of Germany and Japan, the appropriate archetype for the external imposition of a civil society is Hong Kong. Hong Kong had a population of about 6,000 when the British took control in 1841. By the 1865 census, the population had risen to 125,000 and then 1.6 million by 1941. Under Japanese occupation, the city shrank to 600,000 by 1945. However, by 1951, it had grown past all previous records and reached a population of 2 million people. The British inherited a largely unpopulated area. It grew because those who fled there chose to live under British rule. Chinese society was deeply corrupt (and weak) long before the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. That weakness was why the British government was able to force the territorial concessions that yielded Hong Kong itself. The British didn’t impose the rule of law on an unwilling population that suffered from a lack of law. Instead, they imposed the rule of law on a willing populated that suffered from a lack of law.

Interestingly, the bifurcation of Gaza into north and south would enable a similar sort of external imposition. So long as Israel and her partners make absolutely clear that the medium-term goal is the establishment of a rule of law society ruled by external forces, at least in the medium term, then the population will be self-selecting. The population, by and large, will be willing. This doesn’t mean compliance will be universal. In 1967, Hong Kong faced extensive Communist-backed riots. Those riots, which included small attempts at invasion by Chinese paramilitary forces and the placement of 8,000 home-made bombs (of which 1,100 were real), represented a full-on attempt to overthrow British control in the name of fighting fascism. However, the mass of the local population – including ethnic Chinese members of the police forces – did not heed the call to arms. They had come to Hong Kong as a rejection of the Chinese Communist Party, and they maintained that position. The Hong Kong government’s response was brutal, including the beating to death of multiple suspected revolutionaries after their arrest.

The self-selecting nature of the population enabled the Hong Kong experiment to work. Given this, the very first order of business in Northern Gaza is to largely populate it with those who willing volunteer to be a part of a foreign-controlled entity seeking to establish the rule of law. There is a population already there, but their numbers should be overwhelmed by others – those seeking a new beginning.

It must be noted that a willing population is not the same thing as a democracy. The British created a largely free society in which the local population lacked many political freedoms. Singapore has done the same thing – it has a limited democratic reality. While Korea and Taiwan are today flourishing democracies, they weren’t built as democracies. They transitioned to democracy after the establishment of a civil society under autocratic rule. The U.S. eagerness to establish democracy – instead of the rule of law – has been partially responsible for their recent failures. When democracy yields a fundamentally illiberal government (as it did with Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian elections) the result is not a free society, but one man, one vote, one time.

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