In Bid to Keep Calm, Israel Plans to Ease Economic Sanctions on Gaza

Israeli defense officials seek to positively reinforce the Hamas change in attitude by improving living conditions for Gaza residents

Palestinians demonstrate along along the Gaza-Israel border east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, February 23, 2020.
AFP

Israel is planning a series of additional economic incentives for the Gaza Strip, as part of an attempt to promote calm in the region and to improve living conditions for Palestinian residents. Government and defense officials are examining the option of increasing the amount of imports from Gaza in light of the spread of the coronavirus in China, promoting the establishment of an industrial zone near the border, increasing the number of entry permits for Gazan workers and permitting entry of materials currently banned due to security concerns into the Strip.

The visit by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and the head of Southern Command Herzl Halevi to Qatar, as disclosed Saturday by Avigdor Lieberman, were part of a series of contacts between Israel and Hamas, which the Israeli military says are indirect. In the last year, Qatar has provided Gaza more than half a billion dollars' worth of merchandise and cash, the highest sum of donations in recent years. Israelis say that as a result of this aid, life in Gaza has changed for the better.

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Israeli policymakers are trying to encourage and strengthen these recent trends. There has been a 22 percent decline in unemployment in 2019 compared to 2018 and an 80 percent increase in the average salary for a worker, to 63 shekels ($18.50) a day, according to Israeli data.

To date, half the Qatari sum sent to Gaza has been used, and the rest is expected to be applied to future projects, including basic infrastructure and facilities such as hospitals and sports fields. Furthermore, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett are expected to request the security cabinet's approval to promote the development of an industrial zone near the Karni crossing.

In addition, a decision is expected regarding the import of dual-use materials, such as cement, in order to develop and build. In recent days, the transfer of monetary assistance to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees was also approved, despite the United States stopping funding for the organization in 2018.

The most prominent change has been an increase in work permits issued for Gaza residents, now numbering 7,000. The defense establishment considers the number of permits of central importance for the development of Gaza's economy. The permits are designated for commercial needs and are used mainly for agriculture and employment. Israel plans to increase them to 10,000 by the end of the year.

The political leadership has thereby accepted the opinion of the military, which supported granting entry permits subject to restrictions, despite the opinion of the Shin Bet. To date, about 5,800 requests for such permits have been submitted and approved, although the average number of Palestinians who exit Gaza into Israel each day is about 650.

The defense establishment believes that Gaza's growth trends have strengthened Hamas, which did not take the money for itself but kept it in the hands of the civilians. For years, Hamas used electricity revenues to strengthen its military power. However, it has recently lowered the price of electricity for civilians by about 87 percent, in order to raise the standard of living and approval rates among Gaza residents.

In addition to these civil steps, Hamas has also changed its conduct toward Israel in the past year, primarily by restraining Islamic Jihad and other factions. The Israeli defense establishment views Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar as the one who controls what happens in Gaza and notes him as having reliably abided by agreements made with Israel.

Israel's trust in Sinwar’s authority in Gaza explains why Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh was given permission to travel abroad, and why Hamas was granted immunity during Israel's 48-hours operation against Islamic Jihad last November. These steps, in turn, also improved the status of Hamas and its leaders inside Gaza.

Israeli defense officials believe that Hamas' support for explosives-laden balloons being launched at Israel is a move meant to Egypt rather than Israel. Cairo was opposed to Haniyeh attending the funeral of Qassem Soleimani, the late head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force assassinated by the U.S. in January, and in response hiked taxes imposed on the movement of people and goods between Gaza and Egypt. Hamas believed that Israel would ask Egypt to lift the new sanctions, but the Egyptians did so on their own, although Bennett and other politicians claimed that the reason was Israel’s aggressive response.