Israel Eyes Gaza Economic Relief to Put the Heat on Hamas

According to defense officials, Israeli plans to up work permits and imports are designed to head off an immediate economic deterioration in the Gaza Strip without strengthening Hamas

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Members of a Palestinian family warm themselves by a fire at their home on a cold, rainy night in the northern Gaza Strip, on Wednesday.
Members of a Palestinian family warm themselves by a fire at their home on a cold, rainy night in the northern Gaza Strip, on Wednesday.Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

Israel is planning on taking a series of steps to ease the deteriorating economy in the Gaza Strip, in an effort to pressure Hamas to maintain the relative quiet that has prevailed there since a round of fighting in May.

Defense officials have said it makes more sense to improve Gazans’ economic situation on a more routine basis, rather than just after a round of fighting or as compensation to Hamas for maintaining calm in the Strip.

Putting these steps into practice – which are unrelated to large-scale reconstruction proposals to rehabilitate the Strip – will proceed without coordination with Hamas.

So far, the amount of cross-border traffic at the Kerem Shalom border crossing has been increased; new and used motor vehicles have been allowed into the coastal enclave; and thousands of laborers from Gaza have been issued permits to work in Israel at higher wages than they could earn at home

A woman walks as bulldozers remove the debris of Al-Jawharah Tower building that was hit by Israeli air strikes during Israel-Palestine fighting last May, in Gaza City, on Tuesday. Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

One security official expressed the hope that economic concessions, most importantly the monthly wages of 5,000 shekels ($1,600) that Gazans earn in Israel – several times the comparable wage in Gaza – will lead the public there to pressure Hamas to avoid escalation with Israel, which would in turn freeze the measures.

“Let Hamas explain to 10,000 merchants and laborers why it was important for them to heat up the security situation,” the source quipped.

Israeli work permits are a prized commodity in Gaza, where many jobs pay only between 20 and 60 shekels a day – meaning residents would be able to rely on their income rather than economic aid from Qatar and other countries.

The pivot in Israel's approach contradicts the country's earlier declarations that assistance for wide scale infrastructure work in Gaza would be conditioned on the return of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held there.

In addition, Israel has expanded the zone in which Gazan fisherman can operate off the coast of the Strip, which is subject to a partial blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt.

Israel also recently entered discussions with the United Nations on a deal to permit the fisherman to repair their boats, following an extended period in which the necessary materials for repairs were not allowed into the Strip.

The UN deal to permit the repair of fishing boats, some of which were damaged in Israeli attacks, includes allowing fiberglass into the enclave – despite its potential military use against Israel in the construction of rockets and drones.

The agreement outlines the UN's responsibility for repairing the boats as well as Israeli oversight, stipulating advanced coordination with Israel and assurances that the materials have only been used for repairs.

Similar arrangements would also be made for the repair of communications infrastructure that until now has been unauthorized.

Israel is further considering permitting Gazans to travel to Jerusalem to pray at the Temple Mount – for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic nearly two years ago. If granted, such permissions would include age restrictions and be subject to approval by Israel’s Shin Bet security agency that those seeking entry have not been involved in what would be considered terrorist activity.

Beyond economic concessions, Israel has in recent months been attempting to prevent Hamas from strengthening its influence in the West Bank, where the militant group has been working to boost its position against the backdrop of what it views as the weakness of the Palestinian Authority.

Last month, dozens of Hamas activists whom Israel accused of planning terrorist attacks – including attacks within Israel's 1967 borders – were arrested.

Last week, the Palestinian Authority suffered losses in local elections in rural areas of the West Bank – elections in which Hamas did not officially participate. Most of the winning candidates were independents, though some are affiliated with Hamas. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority replaced several members of their security personnel, following incidents that were perceived as demonstrations by Hamas, including at funerals of those killed in clashes with the Israeli army and at marches calling for the release of prisoners.

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