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Israel Is Obscuring the Truth About Gaza and Ignoring the Warning Signs

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Bennett talk a big game but are willing to go far to ensure calm – Sunday's rocket fire shows Hamas is in no rush to implement a cease-fire

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A demonstration, called for by various groups in Gaza, to protest against a U.S.-brokered peace plan, in Gaza City on February 21, 2020.
A demonstration, called for by various groups in Gaza, to protest against a U.S.-brokered peace plan, in Gaza City on February 21, 2020. Credit: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman is not bothered by little things like the army censor's objections, especially when it's not clear that they are justified. And this time, the Yisrael Beiteinu leader did the public a favor.

A report, about to be published by journalist Tal Shalev on the Walla news website, had been delayed by the military censor for nearly two weeks. It revealed a secret visit to Qatar by Mossad head Yossi Cohen and the army’s Southern Command chief Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi to persuade the Emirati leadership to continue funding the ceasefire process in Gaza. On Saturday Lieberman went on Israel's Channel 12 and blew the case wide open.

Lieberman’s revelation corroborates reporting in Haaretz last week. Despite the rocket fire on Israeli border communities near Gaza on Sunday evening, the Israeli government is willing to go a long way to prevent the Gaza front from flaring up before the third Knesset elections on March 2. This is a completely legitimate position, certainly considering the alternative, which could end up as a casualty heavy military operation with dubious chances of success.

The gap between the Israeli leadership's harsh public rhetoric and actual dealings with Hamas is more obscure. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent Cohen and Halevi to Qatar to ensure that money from the Gulf continues to grease the palms of the Gaza regime. That's a far cry from Netanyahu's claims that Israel is preparing a surprise for Hamas, or Defense Minister Naftali Bennett's frequent boasts about "changing the rules of the game."

Israeli efforts to ensure continued monetary assistance to Hamas come with steps on Israel's part, like the decision to grant 2,000 more Israeli work permits for Gazans, in addition to the 5,000 from last year.  Here too, there is a clear gap between what the public is told and the facts on the ground. Officially, Israel (that is, the security forces – the politicians avoid mention of it entirely) says these permits are for business people only.

This is based on a misleading premise – that Gaza has a flourishing economy. It is unlikely that there are more than 7,000 businesspeople in all of the Gaza Strip. Most of those receiving permits are laborers who work in communities in the Negev and return to the Gaza Strip in the evening. The Shin Bet security service opposed granting more permits, over concerns that they would be used to collect intelligence and attempt terror attacks. Uncharacteristically, the Shin Bet’s stand seems to have been rejected. This shows how invested the Israeli leadership is in the agreement with Hamas.

The IDF believes in an agreement in the Strip and is urging the government to implement it, especially since the last round of violence in November, when Israel assassinated senior Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata. The shared interests of the government and military have led to a creative bending of the facts headed by the assumption that the Israeli public would be less alarmed by Palestinian businessmen than laborers.

Israeli soldiers inspect the area around an observation post across the border fence with the southern Gaza Strip east of Khan Yunis on February 23, 2020.
Israeli soldiers inspect the area around an observation post across the border fence with the southern Gaza Strip east of Khan Yunis on February 23, 2020. Credit: SAID KHATIB / AFP

This goes hand in hand with the army's delays in reporting recent failures, from the unwarranted use of censorship to hide the waterlogged fighter jets at the Hatzor Air Base (for three days) and the six month delay in reporting the failure to properly count the number of ultra-Orthodox draftees (until it was reported by the Kan Broadcasting Corporation).

A short-term fix

Meanwhile, while Israel is considerably expanding relief measures to Gaza as attempted attacks from the Gaza border continue. On Thursday, a squad of Islamic Jihad snipers opened fire near the border fence, the Israeli army reported. On Sunday morning, two Palestinians, also Islamic Jihad members, were spotted approaching the fence in an attempt to lay explosive charges. One was killed and the other wounded. An army bulldozer entered Palestinian territory, and moved the body over to the Israeli side.

Videos of the incident disseminated in the Gaza Strip sparked a storm on social media and threats of retaliation from the Palestinian organizations. The pictures are indeed hard to look at: The bulldozer blade pushes the body while the Palestinians try to carry it away. This adds flesh to Israeli declarations on changing policy and gathering bodies of terrorists as “assets” to use as bargaining chips for the two bodies of missing IDF soldiers held by Hamas. It raises another question – were the soldier or soldiers in the bulldozer not overexposed to danger, for example an anti-tank ambush, to retrieve a body when it is unclear what use will come from holding it, if any?

On Sunday evening, about 20 rockets were fired at Israeli communities near the Gaza border. About half of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system. There were no reports of injuries from the rocket fire, but Israel would be expected to retaliate in any event. Even if the current round stops here, there are more weighty questions.

Those questions were well stated Sunday morning by Col. (res.) Michael Millstein, former head of the Palestinian desk in Military Intelligence. In exchange for the extensive relief measures granted by Israel, Hamas has committed mainly to stop the terror by balloons carrying explosive devices, which it had initiated itself in January. However, Millstein told Haaretz, Hamas does not impose its authority on other Palestinian groups, first among them Islamic Jihad, which is continuing its activities as usual.

While senior Hamas figures in the Gaza Strip do not openly acknowledge the existence of an agreement, Saleh al-Arouri, one of Hamas’ leaders abroad, has declared the launch of violent efforts in the West Bank. Moreover, Hamas is preparing to mark the second anniversary of the demonstrations at the Gaza border fence, demonstrations that it stopped late last year, with a large rally on March 30.

Attainment of a long-term ceasefire in the Gaza Strip is certainly a desirable goal. As opposed to some of the other steps the Netanyahu government has taken, the risk here is justified in order to reach the least bad alternative. But on the way there, the Israeli leadership is not telling the public the whole truth – and ignores warning signs that could attest to this as a short-term fix that will eventually fail.

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