Attention All Gaza Gardeners and Saleswomen

The ordeal of an honest contractor to a UN agency shows the power Israel has over everyone in Gaza. Just blame Hamas.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinians receiving aid in Gaza, on bottom-right Wahid Bursh.
Palestinians receiving aid in Gaza, on bottom-right Wahid Bursh.Credit: Reuters / Shin Bet
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Waheed al-Bursh, a contractor with the UN Development Program, will be returning to his home in the Gaza Strip Thursday, seven months after he was arrested at the Erez checkpoint. This is a failure for the Shin Bet security service, which tried to frame him with a series of charges involving aid to Hamas over the years.

It’s also an embarrassment for the prosecution, which got out of the corner into which the Shin Bet had painted it and reached a plea bargain with Bursh’s attorney, Lea Tsemel. And it’s a hushed reminder how the Israeli media, which in August happily published false reports based on distorted information, convicted Bursh without trial as a terrorist or Hamas activist who had infiltrated the UN agency.

Interrogations by the Shin Bet over 17 days, interrogations by the police, four or five days in a prison cell with snitches, collaborators masquerading as security prisoners – none of that could prove the verdict rendered by the Shin Bet and the media.

From accusations of “contact with a foreign agent,” “providing services to an illegal organization” and “use of terrorist property,” the prosecution retreated to a single charge: the second one. Last Wednesday, Bursh was convicted of that charge.

Be’er Sheva District Court Judge Aharon Mishnayot said it was a serious charge, and so did the representative of the prosecution’s southern district, Shuli Rothschild, They had to say this in order to justify the hullabaloo that preceded the trial. But the sentence, time served, says the opposite: It isn’t serious.

So what was it about? One role of the UN Development Program is to remove and sort the rubble created by Israel’s bombing of Gaza in the summer of 2014 (a total of around 2 million tons). Bursh was responsible for moving this crushed debris to locales determined by the Public Works Ministry of the reconciliation government in Ramallah. In early 2015 he was asked by that ministry’s employees in the Strip to move some of the rubble to a site in northern Gaza.

Bursh explained that such a request has to be made through accepted channels, and that he wasn’t the one who decided. Then an official request came from the ministry in Ramallah to the UN Development Program to move rubble to the fishing port in northern Gaza, to prevent a retreat of the shoreline.

Bursh moved about 300 tons, which a year later, just before his arrest in July 2016, had still been heaped along the road. He didn’t know that Hamas intended to close that part of the beach.

Like many officials in government ministries in Gaza, the two Public Works Ministry officials who approached Bursh were Hamas men, and known members of the Hamas military wing. Bursh was convicted of failing to report to his superiors that these were the two officials who approached him, “closing his eyes to the service this renders to the Hamas military wing,” as Mishnayot wrote.

The judge, a former president of the military court of appeals and a resident of the settlement of Efrat, should also have written that the Development Program and other UN agencies are doing a great service for Israel. Under the impossible conditions of prohibitions and restrictions that Israel has imposed, these agencies are preventing an even worse humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

Israel has designated Hamas an illegal organization. In Gaza, Hamas is the de facto government, which must also provide services to the public, and does so. Activists in Hamas’ civilian and military wings have been placed in various public-sector positions.

Bursh had every reason to assume that the men who approached him did so in their capacity as employees of the Public Works Ministry. He referred them to the official channels – which Israel monitors. This cost him the disruption of his life, seven months in prison, harsh interrogations, damage to his health, separation from his family and concern for his professional and financial future.

The message? Whenever it wants, Israel can convict and destroy the life of every gardener in the Gaza municipality, every saleswoman in a clothing store or every falafel vendor. The reason? “Rendering services to an illegal organization.”