On Gaza, Israel Turns a Blind Eye

In the West Bank Israel believes the Palestinian Authority has so far quelled the protests over the death of a dissident ■ Why Finance Minister Lieberman gave the army’s top brass a reason for optimism

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A concert held this week in Gaza City in front of a tower levelled by an Israeli air strike in May.
A concert held this week in Gaza City in front of a tower levelled by an Israeli air strike in May.Credit: Mohammed Abed / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It's been another week of unusual quiet for Israel on its border with the Gaza Strip, as compared to the rising tension in the West Bank, for several reasons not directly related to Israel. In the very first week after the formation of the new government, a large number of incendiary balloons were launched from Gaza into Israel. The opposition was quick to claim that Hamas did so because it discerned the weakness of the decision-makers in Jerusalem. The air force struck Hamas facilities in Gaza and calm was restored.

According to Arab media reports, indirect talks have been renewed between Hamas and Israeli delegations in Cairo, under the mediation of the head of Egypt’s intelligence directorate, Gen. Abbas Kamel. The two delegations are housed close to each other but, as usual, do not meet directly.

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At Israel’s request, the negotiations are now focusing on the issue of the Israeli captives and bodies of soldiers held in the Gaza. Israel has conditioned any significant progress on rebuilding Gaza’s infrastructure on Hamas’ willingness to start the process of returning the two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers being held in the Strip.

One of the reasons that Gaza has been so quiet is apparently the regular, large shipments of goods sent from Egypt via the Salah al-Din Gate next to Rafah while Israel turns a blind eye. Hamas has thus been making up for the restrictions that Israel has continued to impose at its border crossings since the end of the hostilities in May.

Israel has been ignoring these shipments, even though it knows that they provide an opening to bring in means and materials that Hamas could use to rebuild its military arsenal. As usual, there is a pronounced difference between the fiery rhetoric of wartime and the day-to-day constraints that are set by the desire to avoid another immediate flare-up.

So far, no new arrangement has been found to bring in Qatari money to the Strip, other than Qatar’s direct financing of the purchase of fuel. In the absence of a solution that will involve the United Nations or the Palestinian Authority, Israel is saying that it will not allow the money to come into Gaza in the form of cash in suitcases. And in the absence of an arrangement that will ensure the regular transfer of funds, the way is short to a renewed escalation, possibly even during this summer.

Demonstrations are continuing in the West Bank in the wake of the death of human rights activist Nizar Banat in a Palestinian Authority prison in Hebron last week, although protesters are keeping a relatively low profile. The impression of Israel's defense establishment is that the PA is succeeding in restraining the protest for the time being, albeit with the use of considerable force. The concern is for the longer term. The rule of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is less stable than it was in the past, the succession battles among his subordinates are being waged openly, and above all, Hamas is continuing to gain popularity against the backdrop of what is perceived as its success in standing up to Israel during the fighting in May.

Together with the violent clashes with the IDF over the unauthorized Evyatar outpost, the West Bank will very likely require greater Israeli attention in the months ahead. The situation is very different from recent years, which generally produced the feeling that the PA was in control of things and therefore exceptional activity by Israel was rarely ever called for.

Sense of optimism

Despite everything, Defense Minister Benny Gantz chalked up one achievement this week when he succeeded in reaching an agreement with Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman not to shorten the service for male IDF conscripts even further. According to a 2015 agreement between Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, military service was to be abbreviated in two stages: first by four months (to 32 months) and then by two more months. The previous chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, supported this on the grounds that it would aid the economy, and that the IDF would receive compensation in the form of getting approval for short stints in the career army for soldiers who had been filling essential roles during their service.

Kochavi, the present chief of staff, was absolutely against this arrangement. Since taking up his post two and a half years ago, he has waged a campaign against the further reduction of service, which already came into effect for those drafted last year. Now, with former defense ministers in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Treasury, Kochavi gained an attentive ear and the law will be amended accordingly. The army’s chief argument is that a period of just 2.5 years creates an unbridgeable disparity in filling essential posts – in combat units and elsewhere – and that the army will have to shut down units. Moreover, according to the IDF, the lengthy training period for complex tasks that require extensive technological knowhow doesn’t leave enough time to get the most out of these soldiers in a shortened period of service.

Gantz and Lieberman haven’t worked out all the details, but experts in the Treasury are furious because the move will delay former soldiers' entry into academic studies and the labor market, and in the long-term will cost the economy billions of shekels. The Finance Ministry has also noted that all forecasts indicate the number of draftees will increase in the coming years. As usual, there’s a dissonance between the IDF’s growing need for combat troops and soldiers to carry out complex technological tasks, and an increasing share of administration-level soldiers with middling personal profiles and relatively low motivation to serve, for whom the army has no great need.

If the new government succeeds in passing a budget and staying in office, one hopes that it will find the time to examine the tracks of service in the IDF more thoroughly. The division between necessary and unnecessary soldiers is only growing more sharply, and the army will not really have anything for the increasing number of rear-echelon soldiers to do.

The success with Lieberman is apparently giving Kochavi hope for the future. He’s been waiting two years to find proper funding for his multiyear plan, Tnufa ("Momentum"), whose full realization has been delayed because of four successive elections and the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, that optimism could turn out to be unwarranted: The government is concentrating – and rightly so – on the urgent social and economic problems, and it will be hard-pressed to provide the army with the extra budget it believes it requires.

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