“Shalom, ladies and gentlemen. We’ve decided that we can dialogue directly, and I’m glad I was given an opportunity to address you personally.” This was the opening line of Maj. Gen. Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), in his first live video chat with Palestinians on the Facebook page Al-Monsiq (Arabic for “The Coordinator”). The Facebook page was set up in March 2015 to improve communications between residents of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank on issues under COGAT’s purview, both relating to individual matters and to those of the Palestinian public in general. Mordechai is involved with the daily routine of more than 2.5 million Palestinians in the [Hamas-controlled] Gaza Strip and West Bank.
In mid-November, Al-Monsiq’s 80,000 Palestinian followers were asked to send in questions for Mordechai. Surprisingly, all those who did, including residents of the Gaza Strip who are banned by Hamas from direct contact with Israelis, identified themselves by name in seeking solutions to their many problems. Gaza has been under siege since 2007, and the West Bank is experiencing a severe economic downturn. So as not to anger the Palestinian authorities tasked with conveying residents’ appeals to Israel, Mordechai explained that relations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) are excellent, and occasionally even heaped praise on the PA and its coordination with Israel.
Throughout the 30-minute chat, hundreds of participants reacted with “likes” and openly addressed the security, diplomatic and economic situation; some even wrote their impressions of the personality of Mordechai, who spoke to them in Arabic. One of the main messages Mordechai sought to deliver was that “if you are asked to pay someone for an exit permit [from Gaza or the West Bank] to Israel, don’t pay.” Tough economic times and many Palestinians’ growing needs to seek a livelihood in Israel have spawned a flourishing industry of fake documentation and extortion by middlemen who charge poverty-stricken Palestinians high fees for obtaining entry permits. Mordechai told the participants that he had received a complaint from the PA to the effect that Israeli employers or their representatives are trading in permits to Israel. The general said that a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee had been established to find ways to put a stop to the extortion. But he did not provide a solution for those who would be shunted to the end of the line if they heed his advice and refuse to pay the exorbitant fees to the middlemen.
“I am happy to report that the number of Palestinians working in Israel these days is the highest since the year 2000 [when the second intifada broke out]. Some 75,000 permits have been granted,” he said. Mordechai even added that Israel has an additional quota of 10,000 permits that can be issued immediately, and urged the Facebook users to apply through the PA.
Abu Yasser of the Palestinian Bureij refugee camp in the Gaza Strip asked why Gazans are not allowed to work in Israel.
Mordechai responded that prior to the Hamas takeover of Gaza in June 2007 some 120,000 Gazans worked in Israel. However, this is incorrect. When the second intifada broke out, Israel imposed strict limitations on the number of work permits, granting 5,000 at most. When Hamas ousted Fatah from Gaza and took control, Israel canceled all permits. Mordechai promised Gazans that a pilot program was being conducted to examine the renewal of work permits of those who once worked in Israel.
Another question that came up repeatedly was why Israel had toughened conditions for traders in Gaza seeking transit permits to do business in Israel and the West Bank.
On Oct. 5, Al-Monitor reported that Israel had confiscated hundreds of such permits from Palestinians, who complained that their businesses were about to collapse as a result, and that this was an additional, almost fatal blow to Gaza’s already dying economy. Mordechai explained that it had come to Israel’s attention that some Gaza traders had been recruited by Hamas and had passed on sensitive information in regard to what they had seen in Israel. He named one such businessman, Mohammed Younes Moustafa, who admitted to having been recruited by Hamas, saying, “Hamas exploits the fact that traders go to Israel. It stops them on their way to the Erez crossing and demands that they pass on information. Had it not been for this, we would not have prevented major traders from doing business with their Israeli colleagues.”
Fadi, a Gaza resident, complained that Israel had stopped the mail service to the Gaza Strip.
“Hamas used the mail service to smuggle weapons to terror groups and even cameras meant for installation on drones,” Mordechai claimed, but did not give specific information. Nonetheless, he promised that if an official letter is received from the PA or an international organization willing to assume responsibility and promise that the mail would not serve as a contraband channel, the service would be renewed.
Mordechai tried to explain to the participants the difference between Israel’s attitude toward Gaza — which it no longer controls — and the West Bank, praising the PA without mentioning its chairman, President Mahmoud Abbas. “The economic and humanitarian situation is much improved [in the West Bank], not just compared to Gaza, but also in comparison with the Arab states around us in the Middle East,” Mordechai said.
“I am glad to have had the opportunity to talk with you from Tel Aviv,” were Mordechai's parting words. Not all the residents were satisfied with the answers he gave to their many complaints, but one participant conceded that “this is the best coordinator Israel could have assigned to the post.” Another Gaza resident suggested that if Israel is willing to conduct direct contacts with residents in Gaza, the next one would best be conducted face to face over a cup of coffee in Tel Aviv.