Israeli Army Chief Sounds All the Alarms on Gaza, but His Boss Isn’t Listening

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is sitting atop a volcano, but refusing to acknowledge the warning signs that an eruption is imminent

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Palestinians take part in a protest against aid cut in the southern Gaza Strip January 21, 2018.
Palestinians take part in a protest against aid cut in the southern Gaza Strip January 21, 2018.Credit: \ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot’s warning to cabinet members of a looming humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip sparked a brief political storm earlier this week, before being superseded by the criminal investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the war of words between the premier and the police. Still, Eisenkot’s words highlighted a fundamental disagreement and the considerable tension between leading politicians and army officers when it comes to Gaza.

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Cabinet meetings are far from a closed forum. However, the detailed Eisenkot quotes didn’t reach the media from his associates, but from ministers who aren’t fans of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

When the chief of staff’s warning leaked out, leading politicians pressured him (via his office) to either issue a clarification or distance himself from the remarks. Eisenkot didn’t blink or retreat.

>> Israel's defense minister says there's no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Here are the facts <<

'There's no humanitarian crisis' in Gaza, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, contradicting army, during meeting with his party Feb 5. 2018Credit: Emil salman

The person behind the dispute was Intelligence Affairs and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who attacked Lieberman for his policy on Gaza. Lieberman’s position, Katz argued, directly helps Hamas. This was a clear settling of accounts with Lieberman over his opposition to the plan to build a seaport off the Gaza shore – something Katz had promoted last year.

As always, Lieberman wasted no time in responding. In a Yisrael Beiteinu party meeting at the Knesset, the defense minister said Israel shouldn’t assume responsibility for the Gaza Strip, and that ambitious economic projects shouldn’t be promoted there before the matter of the missing Israelis and unrecovered bodies of two soldiers is resolved. Elsewhere, he said that Katz was frustrated by a lack of opportunity to advance his own ideas, recommending that the transport minister focus instead on the war on road accidents (which spiked sharply last week).

The defense minister reexamined the minutes of last Sunday’s cabinet meeting and said Eisenkot didn’t tell ministers a crisis had already begun, but had warned only of a possible future collapse. In any case, Lieberman said, only the coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, is authorized to declare a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Lieberman is in possession of two documents – written by Mordechai and the Shin Bet security service – that refrain from defining Gaza as a humanitarian crisis. For Lieberman, this is proof that Gaza is in dire economic straits due to diplomatic and political issues, and he believes it’s not Israel’s role to solve this situation.

If Mordechai didn’t say so, it never happened – so the thinking goes. But in reality, the Gaza Strip is close to disaster, and Mordechai and his colleagues are making all the warning signs short of officially designating the situation a crisis.

Lieberman blames Hamas for the deterioration due to its insistence on investing all of its resources on strengthening military forces, instead of devoting them to improving the collapsing infrastructure. He identifies other reasons for the worsening situation: the Palestinian Authority’s decision to lay off and retire 6,000 public employees in Gaza; and the tensions between Qatar and Hamas, which has led the former to end its $400 million financing of rehabilitation projects in the Strip. Lieberman believes these are the reasons for the decline in the number of trucks crossing daily into Gaza from Kerem Shalom.

A woman is crying as she asks for a travel permit to cross through the Rafah border crossing from Gaza into Egypt, after it was opened by Egyptian authorities for humanitarian cases, February 8, 2018.Credit: \ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

If Qatar isn’t investing money in these projects, Hamas and Gaza’s traders have no reason to invest in buying building materials. Furthermore, Hamas has decided to buy fuel from within the Gaza Strip instead of Israel. Lieberman doesn’t identify the real danger in the Gazan situation and isn’t prepared to take any urgent steps. It seems like he’s sitting atop a volcano but is barely recognizing the breeze blowing there.

Eisenkot’s words – which he also voiced at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya last month – reflect the depth of the discord. Israel, he believes, has a clear interest in Gaza remaining disease-free. It’s not just a question of the international community blaming Israel if an epidemic breaks out or the risk of war breaking out with Hamas. The IDF may take pride in developing an “Iron Dome” defense against Gaza’s cross-border attack tunnels (following the original Iron Dome that took care of short-range rockets). But no one is yet to find a hermetic solution capable of stopping disease from spreading into Israel’s Negev and border communities.

Another spat is expected when it comes to aid delivered by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. Top defense officials share the Israeli government’s reservations about the strange arrangement in which massive support is given to the great-grandchildren of Palestinian refugees from 1948, while millions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees are abandoned to their fate. However, the officials also know that cutting aid at such a bad time will only exacerbate an already grave situation.

Meanwhile, the last few weeks has seen a series of alarming incidents in the West Bank. Two Israelis were murdered in shooting and stabbing attacks; and 14 Palestinians were killed in clashes with the army, some of them during manhunts for the killers. This week, a Border Police unit killed Ahmed Nasser Jarrer, the Hamas operative who headed the terror cell that murdered Rabbi Raziel Shevach near the illegal outpost of Havat Gilad last month. And the manhunt continues for the killer of Rabbi Itamar Ben Gal, who was stabbed to death near Ariel on Monday.

The suspect, Abed al-Hakim Asi, has an Israeli identity card and moves between Jaffa and Nablus. When his image appeared in the media, a reserve battalion commander currently on duty in the occupied territories identified him. The man volunteers at a home for at-risk youth and once allowed Asi to stay at his own home after the youth clashed with management at the shelter.

The Shin Bet and army are also anxiously following developments in another matter, after Palestinian security forces found a sophisticated series of explosive devices alongside a road near Jenin, in the northern West Bank. The Palestinians have made several arrests in recent days. However, after many years, this is the first evidence of the presence of a highly skilled explosives expert operating in the West Bank.

Taken cumulatively, these incidents – along with the relatively high number of casualties – led the chief of staff to beef up forces in the West Bank ahead of the weekend. Defense officials are concerned about an escalation in coming days, when large demonstrations may combine with attempts to carry out terror attacks. Security coordination continues with the PA for now, despite political tensions.

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