Israeli minister offers creative approach to easing Gaza siege

Undeterred by objections in the governing coalition, Transportation and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz continues to push his plan to construct an island off Gaza to provide it access to the outside world.

al-monitor Israeli Transport and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz speaks onstage during the Jerusalem Post Annual Conference at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel, New York City, April 29, 2018.  Photo by Noa Grayevsky/Getty Images for RSL Management Corpnoa.

Jun 12, 2018

On the morning of June 10, just hours before the Security Cabinet — the Israeli government’s top forum on security issues — was set to debate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Transportation and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz struck from the agenda his proposal to build an artificial island off the Gaza coast.

Katz, a member of the Security Cabinet, has been trying in recent years to promote this ambitious and creative plan to ease the pressure of the blockade on Gaza and provide the Palestinians their economic independence without endangering Israel’s security. The plan, which Katz calls a “separation island,” a play on words in Hebrew, has been the focus of international attention, but the Security Cabinet, especially Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, has turned its backs on the idea.

Ahead of the Security Cabinet session, Katz and the director of the Intelligence Ministry, Chagai Tzuriel, went over their slick presentation and prepared topics for discussion, including the legal aspects of the proposal. On the morning of the meeting, however, Katz realized that the strategic debate, scheduled weeks in advance, would instead become a tactical discussion given the series of violent clashes along the Gaza border in recent weeks and the wave of incendiary kite attacks that Israelis have dubbed “kite terrorism.” Katz consulted with others and then announced that he would withdraw his plan from the agenda. 

The official reason for his decision was Liberman’s sweeping opposition to the approach. Katz has known for a while that the defense minister is not enamored of the plan, especially after Liberman said in February that investing billions for the benefit of the Hamas rulers of Gaza was “total madness.” Katz, however, assumed that within the framework of a strategic debate and having the support of defense officials he would finally get to lay out his much-touted plan in an organized presentation, and that given the escalation surrounding Gaza, the Security Cabinet would give it due consideration.

After making his decision to hold off, and before the start of the meeting, Katz issued a statement critical of Liberman. “The State of Israel has been caught in an unreasonable situation in Gaza,” Katz said. “On the one hand, we are dealing with proposals for civilian aid in the short run due to the humanitarian crisis instead of exerting significant practical pressure to return the bodies of IDF soldiers and the captives, and on the other hand, we are avoiding decisions on proper strategic solutions for the long run.”

After the three-hour meeting, Katz understood he had made the right decision. According to ministers at the session, the discussion was conducted along general lines, nothing new was said, improvised solutions were suggested and no vote was taken. Once again, it transpired that the Israeli government continues to lack a strategic solution for Gaza.

During the course of the meeting — an exchange of views, the airing of slogans and letting off of steam — the ministers expressed their views on kite attacks, whereas IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot continued to warn against the severe repercussions for Israel’s security from the economic crisis in Gaza. Liberman, on the other hand, reiterated his insistence that absent progress on the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and two Israeli civilians held in Gaza, Israel would not grant significant humanitarian concessions. According to sources at the meeting, Liberman rejected some of the measures proposed by the military to ease the pressure on Gaza. So did Education Minister Naftali Bennett, chair of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi, who also linked humanitarian aid to the issue of the soldiers’ remains and missing Israelis, saying he would only support an equation of “humanitarian in return for humanitarian.” Bennett and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan also urged the army to direct live fire against kite dispatchers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not put any decisions to a vote or suggest any concrete solutions, although on June 4 he had told reporters while on a trip to Europe that Israel was examining various options to prevent a “humanitarian collapse” in Gaza.

Following the meeting, Katz lashed out at Liberman, accusing him of being pleased with the situation in Gaza. In a June 11 interview on Army Radio, he remarked, “[Liberman] thinks the current situation should be preserved. I disagree completely.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Katz insisted that he has no intention of backing down. He said he would continue promoting his blueprint and would present it at the next Security Cabinet session, where security officials would get a chance to express their opinions frankly.

“There are two options for Gaza,” Katz said. “Either the defense minister comes up with a plan to destroy Hamas in Gaza with all the known costs that entails, and he has yet to present such a plan, or we go for a disengagement, a separation from Gaza, as I propose, freeing us of humanitarian responsibility. I propose a good disengagement instead of a bad one.”

Katz’s plan is interesting in every respect, including in itself and because Katz, a top Likud figure and member of the right-wing camp, suggests thinking outside the box, dismissing populist militant slogans about Gaza and trying to come up with practical, long-range terms. Katz proposes mobilizing international funding for the 3-square-mile island, which will be linked to the coast by an almost 3-mile-long bridge. The project's cost is estimated at $5 billion. The island would be built in international waters, include a seaport (and perhaps an airport), and a security checkpoint would be built on the bridge. “This will allow economic independence for the Palestinians [and] provide Gaza with a controlled humanitarian and commercial outlet without endangering Israel’s security,” he said.

Katz has presented his plan to senior international officials, among them US presidential envoy Jason Greenblatt, and to foreign media. He also, as mentioned, enjoys the backing of the defense establishment.

Katz, who intends to run for the leadership of Likud after the Netanyahu era, is adopting a pragmatic, creative and courageous approach reflecting a humane approach from the political right. On the one hand, he favors tough, military measures to counter terrorism from Gaza, but on the other hand, he does not bury his head in the sand and believe that economic prosperity in Gaza will enable Israel to disengage from the enclave and will be effective in security terms.

Unfortunately, political disagreements and clashing egos are preventing serious consideration of the plan, at least by the country’s top security ministerial forum.

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