Israeli Defense Officials: Return of Israelis Held in Gaza Shouldn't Be Precondition for Hamas Deal

Unlike senior politicians, officials oppose linking the two issues, at least at first, with some emphasizing that Israel should avoid being blamed for possible failure of talks

Israeli soldiers watch a wheat field that caught fire next to kibbutz Nahal Oz along the Israel-Gaza border, Monday, May 14, 2018.
Tsafrir Abayov/AP

Defense officials are recommending that Israel takes steps to ease the economic situation in the Gaza Strip as part of an interim arrangement with Hamas before there is progress on negotiations on the release of Israeli soldiers' remains and Israeli civilians held by Hamas, contrary to senior politicians' position.

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According to senior Israeli army officers, humanitarian projects can be advanced in Gaza that would defer any possible military confrontation between Israel and Hamas at least until the end of next year, when an Israel project to install an underground barrier along the Gaza border is completed. Senior defense officials have recently said in various settings that Israel should "do everything" to avoid being the party in the negotiations that would bring about the collapse of an agreement.

On Sunday, a political official said that no wide-ranging agreement with Hamas would come about without the release of two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as the bodies of two soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. For their part, however, defense officials have expressed the view that such an agreement is in Israel's security interest, and that the negotiating process should be utilized to bring it about. Nevertheless, Israeli army officials have been careful to express their commitment to return the prisoners and the bodies of the soldiers to Israel, and view an interim arrangement with Hamas as an opportunity to advance that effort as well.

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Top defense officials are expressing concern as much over a humanitarian crisis in Gaza as over a potential military confrontation, even though exercises have recently been carried out to improve preparedness for hostilities in the enclave. It is possible, they said, to make a distinction between infrastructure projects geared at preventing a collapse in the immediate term and other projects that would considerably improve the quality of life in Gaza following an agreement. The senior officials said no linkage should be made between essential infrastructure such as water, electricity, medical services and food on one hand and projects involving transportation, employment and the admission of older laborers to work in Israel, which can be conditioned on the return of Israeli civilian prisoners and the soldiers' bodies.

In February, military Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot warned a cabinet meeting that the Gaza Strip is on the verge of collapse and that Israel should take significant steps to prevent that. Eisenkot said that neither Hamas nor Israel desires such a caollapse, adding that an additional deterioration in the situation could increase the possibility of a confrontation in Gaza as soon as this year. Defense Minister Avidgor Lieberman contradicted Eisenkot and said the following day that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

The senior defense officials said that by the end of next year, the Israeli army is expected to complete construction of the underground barrier along the Gaza-Israeli border that is designed to block the path of Hamas attack tunnels into Israeli territory. According to military assessments, the number of such tunnels is in the double digits, and until the barrier is completed, defense officials view them as the most significant threat in case of a military confrontation.  In addition to the underground barrier, next year the army will be introducing other defenses, including an aerial defense system against drones.

A senior defense official recently told a closed meeting that by the end of 2019, the Israeli army would give priority to border defenses "over anything else," because securing the border, he said, would be the most significant strategic event on the Gaza front. As a result, Eisenkot has refrained from halting work along the border even during the period of tension last month. A considerable part of Hamas' desire to come to an agreement is the result of an understanding on the part of the Islamic organization's leaders that they are likely to lose the most significant strategic asset that the group has, the senior official said.

Defense officials have expressed the view that if Hamas promises to Egypt that it will calm the situation along the border, it will make good on its word, at least during the period sought by Israel. This is based on an intelligence assessment that Hamas is in its most vulnerable position since it took power in Gaza in 2006. According to those same assessments, which are accepted by all of the Israeli defense agencies, Egypt is the only country that has remained attentive to Hamas demands, which were posed with the beginning of the demonstrations near the Israeli border on March 30.