Coordinating with Hamas, Israel increased the number of Palestinian laborers from the Gaza Strip allowed to work in the country, and this seems to be the main reason for the relative quiet along the border with the coastal enclave in recent days.
The move was not announced to the Israeli public. Like other relief efforts recently approved by Israel's political leadership and defense establishment as part of the understandings reached through mediation by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations, this decision, too, was not officially disclosed in Israel.
Gaza's head of the Chamber of Commerce, Maher Tabbaa, told the Saudi-owned Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper over the weekend that Israel promised to greatly increase the number of permits for Gaza businessmen to enter Israel. The number of permit holders rose by two-thirds, from 3,000 to 5,000, he noted, adding that the minimum age for entering Israel was lowered from 30 to 25, said Tabbaa.
This is an old trick, which Israel has used occasionally for the past few years. The permit holders are described as businessmen but in practice it seems the majority of them are workers – manual laborers. Before the rounds of escalation began in March 2018, such laborers were a rather rare sight in Israeli cities in the south.
Presenting the workers as businessmen frames the step as a commercial matter instead of returning Gazan workers to Israel through the backdoor – even in symbolic numbers.
Until 1991, around the end of the First Intifada and the first Gulf War, the Israeli economy relied on tens of thousands of workers from the Gaza Strip. After Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, the Israel Defense Forces recommended to allow some 5,000 workers from Gaza to work in Israeli towns in the region near the Gaza border as an initial stage as part of the rehabilitation of the Strip.
The government was afraid of the political ramifications and the Shin Bet security service warned that mass entry of Palestinian laborers could be exploited by terrorist groups from Gaza to gather intelligence and infiltrate terrorists.
The partial solution that was found is to use the relatively small number of permits for businessmen, most of whom are really manual laborers. But as far as the Gazans are concerned this too is great progress because every such worker earns money to support a large extended family in Gaza.
An Israeli civilian who by chance happened to be at the Erez checkpoint at the northern end of the Gaza Strip on Monday morning described the scene there to Haaretz: “For years I haven’t seen the checkpoint so busy and filled with people. Every minute a Palestinian crossed through the gate from Gaza. Many of them are young people. They are carrying bags with them and are clearly dressed like laborers. On the Israeli side a long convoy of vehicles is waiting, most of the drivers are Israeli Arabs. The parking lot is completely filled too. Everyone there understands exactly what is going on.”
The present deterioration in Gaza began when Hamas instituted the "March of Return" protests against the blockade at the end of March 2018. The mass weekly protests along the border fence accompanied by harsh violence and rioting have resulted in over 200 Palestinians killed by IDF forces.
The deaths led to rounds of escalation in which Palestinians fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, and in response the air force attacked numerous Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. In the latest round, at the beginning of May, three Israeli civilians and a Palestinian worker were killed on the Israeli side and over 20 Palestinians were killed in Gaza.
At the end of every round a temporary lull is reached through international mediation, in which the Palestinians have promised to stop the violence in return for significant easing of the blockade on the Strip and an inflow of cash from Qatar to the Hamas government. But even after the understandings reached early in May, the parties have found it hard to arrive at a binding and stable arrangement.
Hamas was not satisfied with the sums Qatar provided, which in some cases did not include money that was promised to Hamas members and needy families. Gazans were also disappointed by the pace at which agreements with Israel were implemented – including easing the blockade and starting the large infrastructure projects that were promised.
Hamas allowed increasingly violent protests along the border fence, while renewing and increasing the number of incendiary balloons launched into Israel, which cause fires in fields and Israeli communities near the Gaza border. Great frustration arose among the Palestinians in Gaza toward the Hamas government.
Israel responded in a number of cases by reducing the permitted fishing zone for Palestinians off the Gaza coast. The fishing zone was reduced and expanded intermittently, but the instructions from the political leadership prevented the IDF and Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories from providing a full report to the Israeli public on the actions taken. In most cases, announcements were made only about the limiting of the fishing area. When it was expanded again, in return for another commitment by Hamas for quiet, the Israeli public was not told anything.
This is the government’s clear policy – also concerning the transfer of money from Qatar to Gaza, which had intentionally been left hazy until last November. Around that time, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned over disagreements concerning Gaza policy and the picture of the Qatari representative bringing suitcases of cash into Gaza, which was somehow leaked to the press.
The picture and media reports led to a harsh political dispute and fierce criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy, with claims that the cash transfer represented a shameful capitulation to Hamas. The criticism also came – in the midst of the last election campaign –from both the right-wing parties as well as from the more centrist and left-leaning Likud candidates.
Over the past week, a relative calm has returned to the Gaza border region: The number of incendiary balloons has dropped and Hamas has also avoided renewing the violent night-time protests, which it sometimes held along the border fence. Last Friday's protest was also relatively quiet. Now, we can understand why.
Sources in the security forces confirmed that the number of those with permits to enter Israel from Gaza has been increased recently. The move was made to address the same issues that the Qatari money was meant to address, they said. However, sources said, the situation along the border with Gaza is still tense and violence could well break out again.
On Monday, the IDF said it had uncovered another attack tunnel dug by Hamas under the border into Israel. The tunnel was discovered during work on a new barrier along the Gaza border – and is the 18th tunnel discovered since the project began.
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