Alongside the series of funerals expected in Gaza on Tuesday, the official Israeli government policy – as reflected in the responses from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, members of the security cabinet and the talking points put together by the Foreign Ministry for the foreign press – is casting full responsibility for the crisis in the Gaza Strip on the leadership of Hamas, and focusing on explaining Israel’s right to defend its borders.
But behind the scenes and for a long time, cabinet ministers have been discussing with security forces representatives about the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and advancing possible solutions to quell the flames.
The positions in these discussions are usually divided between those who think the crisis directly affects Israel’s security, so it must take serious action to ease the situation; and those who feel the crisis has still not yet reached the level of a humanitarian disaster and is still not urgent to deal with it. Among those holding the minority opinion, there are some who think Israel has no reason to intervene and prevent the suffering of Gaza residents.
Traditionally, it is the IDF representatives who represent the position that preventing a humanitarian disaster in Gaza is an Israeli security interest, while representatives of the Shin Bet security service are those who say the situation is not that bad yet – and they even present the ministers with evidence that the standard of living in Gaza is reasonable, showing them pictures of packed cafes and other places, to back this up.
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Over the past few months, it seems a certain amount of change has occurred in the Shin Bet’s position, which now tends to support the IDF’s view that the economic crisis is severe and getting worse.
Netanyahu and the members of his security cabinet have been presented with repeated warnings about the economic collapse in Gaza, and in particular the collapse of the civil infrastructure, over the past six months. Data reported by Amos Harel in Haaretz shows the Israel’s security establishment has warned that about 95 percent of the water in the Gaza Strip is unfit to drinking and hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of sewage flow into the Mediterranean Sea every day – and also reach Israeli shores. The unemployment rate is nearing 60 percent.
The former coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, said similar things at the Globes Business Conference in January: “The Gaza Strip is a failed region. 90 percent of the water is unfit for drinking and I can provide many more figures here. The problem is mostly that of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. But Israel is very much influenced by it. This is another factor and layer for the IDF’s security viewpoint,” said Mordechai.
In light of these warnings, most members of the security cabinet conceded in these meetings that Israel must act to promote solutions to the crisis, mostly in the area of infrastructure, but only with international cooperation and funding. For example, in January Israel presented an emergency plan for the humanitarian rehabilitation of Gaza at an emergency conference of donor nations to the Palestinians in Brussels – and asked the international community to enlist to fund it. At the center of the plan was Israeli aid to construct desalination, electricity and natural gas facilities as well as improving the Erez industrial area, at a total cost estimated at $1 billion.
In a very rare exception since the diplomatic breakdown between the Palestinians and the Americans, PA prime minister Rami Hamdallah sat with U.S. special representative to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt and Israeli representatives: Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi and Mordechai. Hanegbi, Netanyahu’s representative at the conference, presented the Israeli plan. It included a proposal to build a desalination plant, a new high voltage electricity connection to Israel to double the amount of electricity received by Gaza, a natural gas pipeline from Israel to Gaza, a sewage plant, waste disposal landfill site, improvements to the Erez industrial area and more.
Israel proposed contributing knowledge and technology to the projects and was more flexible concerning allowing the entry of certain “dual-use” materials, which can be used for both civilian and terrorist purposes. In other words, Israel can be more flexible when it wants to.
Hanegbi told the European Union’s representative for foreign affairs Federica Mogherini that Israel hopes the conference succeeds and is acting on many levels to aid the residents of Gaza. In a talk with journalists in January, Netanyahu said he supports easing the economic situation in Gaza.
Israel’s intensive efforts to deal with situation in the Gaza Strip can also be seen in the ongoing links and tight coordination with the Egyptian security forces and leadership. Netanyahu is personally involved in the relations with Egypt in an attempt to create leverage to calm things down. Israel is also holding talks on the matter with both the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.
Therefore, the official claims that Israel has supposedly completely left Gaza and Hamas bears complete responsibility for what is happening there, does not exactly correspond in practice to the government and security establishment’s intensive efforts on the issue of the fate and economic situation of Gaza residents – especially concerning questions relating to the easing of the tight blockade: How many people and how much goods can enter and leave Gaza – both from Israel and from Egypt.
The present focus in public on the messages renouncing any such responsibility out of fear of “PR damage” and “headlines around the world” conceal the fact that the Israeli government has been discussing for a long time the humanitarian time bomb in Gaza. At a time when cabinet ministers are themselves working to find solutions behind the scenes, it is worth remembering that public relations is just another Band-Aid on a mortal wound.