Israeli Army Appoints Point Person on Hamas to Avoid Criticism of Gaza Aid, Sources Say

'Inexperienced' reservist has been drafted as part of efforts to allow coronavirus aid into Gaza without sparking the ire of bereaved Israeli families, circumventing government unit

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בן לולו כמפקד חטיבת כפיר עם גנץ כרמטכ"ל, ב-2014. במערכת הביטחון אומרים שאינו מבין איך דברים מתנהלים ברצועה
Asher Ben Lulu with then Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, 2014. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi appointed a reserve brigadier general to be responsible for pursuing a long-term agreement between Israel and Hamas, even though the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories at the Defense Ministry is in charge of implementing Israel's civilian policy in the Gaza Strip.

Israeli defense officials questioned the appointment and said the brigadier general, Asher Ben Lulu, who does not speak Arabic, lacks the relevant experience for the role and thus far has not contributed substantively to its objectives.

According to defense officials, the appointment is meant to circumvent COGAT in promoting agreements with Hamas and providing the Gaza Strip with aid in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Sources said that the appointment allows Israel to advance such policies without sparking the ire of bereaved families of two Israeli soldiers whose bodies are held by Hamas in Gaza. The bereaved families have campaigned to condition humanitarian aid to the Strip on moves that would advance the return of the soldiers' bodies.  

Kochavi approved Ben Lulu’s appointment at the request of the head of the army’s Southern Command, Herzl Halevi, who expressed the view that COGAT officials were not handling the job appropriately and did not report sufficiently to the Southern Command. A security source said that Ben Lulu’s appointment did not require the appointment of the defense minister at the time, Naftali Bennett. Bennett declined to respond when asked by Haaretz if he had been aware of the appointment.

Ben Lulu has never served in a position involving contact with an Arabic-speaking population or with international organizations on civilian issues. His last position in the army was as headquarters director of the army’s Northern Command. Security sources have said that he does not understand how things function in the Gaza Strip and, despite his new post, has no influence over what goes on there. He left the army in July of last year and was tasked seven months later with the new job.

Until now, Ben Lulu has not taken part in talks with Qatari or Egyptian representatives who have acted as intermediaries with Hamas. “He comes to meetings and has met several times with the UN special envoy to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, but these have mostly been updates rather than anything concrete,” a source said.

Ben Lulu “doesn’t understand how things work so he also doesn’t know how and what to advance regarding an arrangement” with Hamas, another security source said. “In practice, he can’t do a thing without the relevant agencies, such as COGAT, the National Security Council and the Shin Bet [security service]. It’s not clear what his real advantage is.”

Medical equipment donated to Gaza by the International Red Cross, April 2020. Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/רויט

“[Ben Lulu] comes from time to time to discussions and walks around the Southern Command, but there is no information about any significant statement or action that justifies the appointment,” said another source “It’s not clear why it wouldn’t have been possible to use him and why it was necessary to bring in a reserve officer on a personal contract involving tens of thousands of shekels a month who has no background to carry out the position.”

His appointment to a position as an intermediary between Gaza and Israel has not prevented Ben Lulu from speaking out on social media. That included a post on Twitter a day after a highly publicized incident in February involving an Israeli bulldozer that was filmed dragging the body of a Palestinian near the Gaza border.

“I don’t accept the criticism of the army operation to pick up the terrorist’s body,” he tweeted. “In my view, it’s a correct and important act to send in an armored piece of equipment, due to concern that [that the Palestinian] was wearing an explosives belt, to pick up the body of a terrorist that may help bring our boys home.”

The reference is to the prospect that the body could be exchanged for the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers in Gaza. “And to all those commenting on the pictures, war usually doesn’t photograph well,” Ben Lulu wrote.

Ben Lulu's associates have said that he was appointed to the post to carry out humanitarian operations in Gaza related to water supply, sewage and electricity infrastructure as well as to provide the enclave with medicine and equipment. He has handled the transfer of assistance from Turkey, China and the Gulf states, the associates said, adding that he was in charge of providing medical know-how to combat the coronavirus to medical teams in Gaza.

The army said in a statement that it has recruited a number of reservists following the outbreak of the pandemic. “In addition, the army appoints outside advisers and project managers to deal with specific operational needs. These appointments go through the required chain of approval.”

“Brig. Gen. (res.) Asher Ben Lulu … in the past two months has been employed in a position as joint project manager for the army and COGAT to advance humanitarian-civilian issues in the Gaza Strip,” the statement added. Ben Lulu “brings a great deal of experience from his prior positions” when it comes to the integration of projects among various entities.

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