Israel Pulse

Gaza suffering makes Israeli headlines at last

Article Summary
Following his regular modus operandi, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has preferred so far to ignore the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

Ever since Feb. 2, the Israeli public has been receiving a heavy dose of harsh images depicting the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Photos show Palestinian children lying helpless in hospitals without medication, a severe shortage of water, sewage flowing in filthy streets and long stretches of darkness because of lengthy power cuts. All these images have been flooding the press, news sites and current events programming.

While the situation in Gaza worsened in 2017 — it is now on the verge of becoming a humanitarian crisis — no one in Israel showed any interest: not the local media, not the political echelon and apparently not the Cabinet. The truth is that Gaza should have featured prominently in any coverage of the Israeli political and security situation. Nevertheless, it is all but invisible, despite the direct connection between a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the chance of another violent conflict. And we haven’t even touched on the issue of basic moral values when confronted with such a disastrous human tragedy.

The overall sense of apathy was replaced on Feb. 2 with growing interest, as initial reports from top defense officials began to show up in the media. These reports described the situation as a humanitarian crisis and warned of another war against Hamas. In many cases, the reports were accompanied by assessments that Israel itself would have to provide food and medicine to the Gaza Strip in order to avert a catastrophe, as the Channel 10 Friday night news show discussed.

On Feb. 4, the once anonymous quotes were coming straight from the mouth of Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot himself at the weekly Cabinet meeting. Eizenkot warned the ministers of a possible clash with Hamas, due to the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, and said that Israel must make an effort to prevent the Gaza Strip from spiraling toward disaster.

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By Feb. 5, the situation in Gaza had already become a hot political issue in the parties’ weekly meetings in the Knesset. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beitenu), Labor Party Chairman Avi Gabbay and Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid all reacted to the situation in the statements they issued. Gabbay and Lapid called upon the government to listen to the chief of staff, while Liberman’s comments seemed to contradict themselves. On the one hand, he said that the situation in Gaza was worse than ever, but then he added that it is not a humanitarian crisis.

The chief of staff’s warning to the Cabinet was unusual, but it was completely understandable. Based on the regular reports that he receives, he is concerned that Gaza is potentially volatile, even if this doesn’t seem to bother the government or keep the prime minister awake at night. Otherwise, the deteriorating humanitarian situation there would have been on the security Cabinet’s agenda for a long time now.

The way that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been hiding his head in the sand ever since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014 is nothing less than a political fiasco. This is only exacerbated by the fact that Netanyahu himself made a point of speaking about the new opportunities that the cease-fire with Hamas afforded. Back then, he talked about a “new diplomatic horizon” and hinted that he planned to work with the pragmatic Arab states to create a regional coalition. At the time, there was also talk of rebuilding Gaza in exchange for its demilitarization. But the Gaza Strip was never rebuilt, Hamas continued to use aid money to fund terrorist attacks and life in Gaza got harder by the day. Meanwhile, Netanyahu went back to his old, established patterns of behavior, acting passively as long as there was no clear and immediate danger or an event that needed to be handled.

The election of Donald Trump in late 2016 relieved Netanyahu of the brunt of international pressure, even in his handling of the situation in Gaza and negotiations with the Palestinians. Given this situation, the problem of Gaza has been shunted to the side, while Netanyahu focuses on his transcontinental diplomatic trips, his investigations and various coalition crises. If there ever was a Cabinet discussion of Gaza or if there was some real creative attempt by the government to tackle the volatile situation there, it was not noticeable in anything the government has done, nor was it even mentioned in passing in any official report.

It was in this atmosphere that a plan submitted by Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) to construct an artificial island off the coast of Gaza, and his demand in March 2017 that the Cabinet discuss the future of the Gaza Strip, were both met with derision.

Israel has not had a systematic policy on how to deal with the Gaza Strip ever since the disengagement in 2005. All it has done since then was allow itself to get dragged into round after round of violence with Hamas. Operation Protective Edge earned the questionable honor of being “Israel’s longest war” (50 days), but at least it provided an opportunity to decide what to do with Gaza — and not just militarily either. Meanwhile, the years have passed, so that when the state comptroller released his report on Operation Protective Edge, the focus was on the tunnel fiasco, even though it has since been proved that this was actually a tactical threat that could be overcome using advanced technology. The real fiasco was a lack of policy for the Gaza Strip, based on the assumption that military occupation is not the preferred solution to the problem, even for the current right-wing government.

Paradoxically, it could be that US President Trump’s stern attitude toward the Palestinians and his recent efforts to block funding for UNWRA exposed the true nature of Israel’s position in the conflict. Ostensibly, Netanyahu would have been expected to embrace the US administration’s sanctions against the Palestinians, but he was actually the first to realize that this supposed “prize” could actually harm Israel. It could lead to the international community blaming Israel for the humanitarian disaster, while the deteriorating situation could result in another clash with Hamas, or in other words, another Operation Protective Edge. Israel’s achievements the last time that happened were questionable at best, while Netanyahu only managed to extricate himself from the ensuing crisis by the skin of his teeth.

This is why Netanyahu — who also happens to be foreign minister — had the Ministry of Foreign Affairs send a message to the Americans, asking them to show moderation when cutting their contribution to the budget of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. Here, too, he was guided by circumstances after failing to take advantage of the diplomatic window of opportunity, which he himself identified in 2014.

Now that the Israeli public is being exposed to the situation in the Gaza Strip, and it has become a major political issue, Israelis are also learning about how helpless Netanyahu really is in dealing with this challenge. There was no need for Netanyahu to make major historical decisions such as attacking Iran or dismantling settlements. Still he failed in showing initiative or taking political action, wasting almost four precious years along the way.

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Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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