Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has belatedly adopted recommendations by professional echelons of the defense establishment and is now allowing the transfer of building materials into Gaza for some large construction projects coordinated by international organizations.
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Officials in the office of the coordinator of activities in the occupied territories have warned that continuing the prohibition on transferring construction materials to Gaza would lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the Strip and adversely affect security.
Ya’alon initially believed that the warnings were overstated, and that Israel should continue exacting a price from Hamas, following the discovery of the cross-border tunnel in the Western Negev. After further deliberation, Ya’alon has decided to partially adopt the recommendations, instructing the co-ordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, to prepare a plan for the partial removal of Israeli sanctions in the coming days, coordinated with the UN.
The dispute in the defense establishment was a delayed response to last July’s military coup in Egypt. Ever since the generals in Egypt deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government, relations between Cairo and Gaza have hit a snag. The Egyptian authorities constantly accuse Hamas of aiding Islamic terrorists in Sinai and have been waging a methodical campaign to destroy the tunnels leading from Sinai into the Gaza Strip, in the Rafah area. Most of the tunnels have been demolished, flooded or blocked and the Palestinian smuggling industry into the Strip has come to an almost complete halt. Egypt’s actions have curbed the flow of weapons into Gaza, but they also severely crippled the influx of fuel and goods through the tunnels. Over the last month, the Egyptians have been blocking the tunnels that were used to smuggle building materials into Gaza.
Three months ago, Israel eased the restrictions on transporting building materials from its territory into Gaza, for use in the private sector. This was done in response to appeals made by foreign states. In October, Israel reversed its decision, after discovering the tunnel near Ein Hashlosha, a kibbutz on the Gaza border. The IDF believes this tunnel was excavated as part of a plan for an offensive operation, such as a kidnapping or the detonation of a large amount of explosives within Israel.
The IDF OC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman claimed that building materials that Israel allowed in were used in the construction of the tunnel, even though the tunnel had been built months earlier. On October 31, six IDF soldiers and officers were injured when a device placed in the tunnel by Hamas exploded, while the soldiers were demolishing the tunnel on the Palestinian side of the border.
Ya’alon believed that Israeli sanctions on the transfer of building materials should continue, since Hamas uses the materials for committing terror. The co-ordinator’s office, however, warned of the effects on Gaza’s economy, which is in dire straits in any case. The defense establishment assesses that a complete standstill in the construction sector in Gaza will lead to layoffs that could reach as high as 40,000 people.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon recently talked to Ya’alon by phone to request that he approve the transfer of the materials, and even Egypt, whose actions brought about the present crisis, has made a similar appeal (even though it won’t change its own embargo.)
Ya’alon will only permit a partial easing, allowing the transport of materials needed for projects led by the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) and other international groups. In the past, Israel allowed in materials for such projects, believing that supervision would be tight and that none would ‘leak’ to Hamas for construction of fortifications. Ya’alon’s decision may also be linked to this week’s visit to Israel by United States Secretary of State John Kerry.
Defense sources told Haaretz that Ya’alon would not permit the transfer of materials beyond those needed for these specific projects, out of concern that they would serve for construction of additional offensive tunnels. Israel is worried that further deterioration in Gaza’s economy will make it harder for Hamas to restrain the smaller organizations and to enforce the ceasefire with Israel.
Meanwhile, the dire power shortages continue in Gaza, due to the termination of fuel smuggling from Egypt. The power station which supplies almost half of the Strip’s requirements has stopped working and power supply is cut for 12-18 hours every day. Egypt is adamantly refusing to renew fuel supplies to Gaza. Smuggled fuel costs a quarter of the price of fuel coming from Israel.
Qatar recently offered to transfer to Hamas large amounts of fuel which it holds in storage tanks in Egypt, but the Palestinian Authority has objected. According to the Paris accords reached with Israel, it is entitled to collect value added tax on goods coming into the territories. Israel has agreed to transport Qatari oil from Israel, after unloading it in Ashdod, but the proposal has met with opposition. Over the last few days, intense negotiations have been held between Qatar, the Hamas government and the Palestinian Authority, in an attempt to resolve the problem and overcome the dire fuel shortage in Gaza.