“I’m going to say something now that some of you will not believe.”
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This is how Benjamin Netanyahu begins a controversial new video that the Prime Minister’s Office uploaded to YouTube last week. He’s not kidding; Israel’s prime minister wants to tell you something, and though he acknowledges that it might sound ridiculous to you, he’s “going to say it anyway because it’s true.”
“I, the prime minister of Israel, care more about Palestinians than their own leaders do,” claims Netanyahu in English that’s obviously intended for an international audience; there are no Hebrew subtitles. As if grasping how implausible that sounds to foreign viewers, Netanyahu immediately follows with astonishment over his own statement: “That sounds incredible, right?”
In the video, Netanyahu refers to the recent arrests of two Palestinian aid workers accused by Israel of siphoning off humanitarian aid and funneling it to Hamas. Mohammed Halabi, the director of the Gaza branch of the Christian charity organization World Vision, was arrested this month by the Shin Bet security service. He was charged with being a Hamas operative who infiltrated World Vision and diverted millions of dollars to Hamas’ military wing.
Shortly after Halabi was indicted, the Shin Bet arrested Wahid Bursh, a Gazan who works for the UN Development Program. According to the Shin Bet, Bursh has confessed to abusing his position as an engineer in the program to renovate houses damaged during the 2014 Gaza war in order to assist Hamas in various ways.
“Innocent and impoverished Palestinians were denied vital aid supplied from nations around the world. Hamas used this stolen money to build a war machine to murder Jews,” Netanyahu says in the video. While Hamas, he says, “robs Palestinian children” and “prevents injured Palestinians from getting help,” Israel “treats wounded Palestinians from Gaza in its hospitals” and “facilitates the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza every single day.”
“So I ask you – who cares more about Palestinians?” asks Netanyahu. Well, it’s obvious: He does.
So is Netanyahu telling the truth and is Hamas preventing Gazans from receiving vital aid? A fact check is in order.
In the video, Netanyahu reiterates the long-standing Israeli narrative under which Hamas is willing to sacrifice the lives and safety of Palestinians in order to advance its war against Israel. In a separate Arabic-language video intended for the people of Gaza, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, warned Gazans that Hamas “is stealing your money to promote terrorism.”
The cases against Halabi and Bursh seem to support this narrative, but many of the facts are still shrouded in mystery while others have been disputed. World Vision has contested the Israeli case against Halabi, claiming that the sums Halabi allegedly siphoned off for Hamas – $7.2 million annually over five years – are much bigger than the budget of the group’s Gaza branch over the past 10 years.
World Vision’s questioning of the numbers, as well as the way the Shin Bet and the government celebrated the charges in the media, have led some to suggest that the charges against Halabi and Bursh are merely a political ploy, part of Israel’s efforts to persecute humanitarian NGOs.
But Netanyahu isn’t wrong when he claims that Hamas prevents Palestinians from receiving aid. Hamas is, after all, a corrupt organization that’s not above using torture and extrajudicial killings to do away with its rivals; one that has turned overtaxing the people into a business model. It has had a long and somewhat fraught relationship with international aid organizations in Gaza.
On the one hand, it heavily relies on these organizations to keep Gaza from collapsing, following nine years of Israeli blockade and three devastating wars. On the other hand, Hamas officials tend to believe that as Gaza’s rulers, they can take whatever they want whenever they want. International aid organizations, forbidden to support Hamas in any way because it’s on the U.S. and EU terror lists, are a source for resentment.
In 2009, for instance, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees temporarily halted aid deliveries to Gaza after Hamas seized thousands of tons of food and supplies shortly after the December-January Gaza war. Earlier this year, Israel halted cement deliveries to Gaza’s private sector, claiming that the vast majority of cement earmarked for rebuilding Gaza was being seized by Hamas. The United Nations later affirmed that some cement intended for the private sector had indeed been stolen, and said it would take precautions to prevent this from happening again.
Netanyahu’s two wars
In the past few years, tensions between Hamas and international aid organizations have flared as aid groups tried to limit their interactions with Hamas and Hamas officials tried to inspire popular outrage against the well-paid employees of foreign-aid NGOs.
Hamas in general remains an obstacle to rebuilding Gaza. While the details of the Halabi and Bursh cases are still unclear, on this point Netanyahu is right. But does that mean Netanyahu cares more about Palestinians than their leaders?
This one should be easy: Of course not. As prime minister, Netanyahu has initiated two wars that left Gaza in ruins and killed a disproportionate number of civilians. He has championed an expansion of the settlements, did nothing but stall during peace negotiations, maintained the inhumane Gaza blockade, and fanned racial hatred in order to win reelection.
Netanyahu is the man who made far-right firebrands such as Avigdor Lieberman and Ayelet Shaked top ministers, and basically blamed Palestinians for the Holocaust when he claimed that the idea to annihilate the Jews came to Hitler via the mufti of Jerusalem. So in a country where even left-wing politicians are afraid to look like “Arab lovers,” it would be ludicrous to suggest that Netanyahu gives a hoot about Palestinians.
Then again, Netanyahu was right when he said Israel “treats wounded Palestinians from Gaza in its hospitals,” and “facilitates the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza.” He simply forgot to mention how those Palestinians got wounded in the first place, and why humanitarian aid to Gaza has to go through Israel in the first place. (Hint: After a nine-year blockade that decimated Gaza’s economy and prevented most people from leaving, Gaza is essentially the world’s largest prison.)
He also forgot to mention that after years of gradually easing onerous restrictions, Israel has started to tighten the Gaza blockade again.
Netanyahu builds on this half-truth to suggest that he cares more about the Palestinians than the Palestinians do themselves. It’s a silly statement, one that has surely inspired many a chuckle, but it also has a nefarious undertone.
By saying he cares more about Palestinians than their own leaders do, Netanyahu isn’t trying to win over any Israeli voters. He’s trying to justify the continuance of the occupation by using the standard excuse all colonialists and occupiers have used throughout history: It’s for their own good.