Gaza cannot wait for a miracle

The crisis in Gaza leaves no time to dream of grandiose solutions, such as an artificial island or desalination plants, and only immediately allowing thousands of Gazans to work in Israel can alleviate the pressure.

al-monitor A Palestinian woman sits outside her home as she escapes the heat during a power cut at Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Gaza, Sept. 15, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Aug 3, 2018

We could wake up one morning soon and be pleasantly surprised to hear that a comprehensive agreement has been reached to save the Gaza Strip. Perhaps a reconciliation will be reached between Fatah and Hamas. Maybe the various global donors will increase their contributions. Gaza's schools may even open their doors for the coming school year and the teachers laid off by UNRWA for lack of funds could return to work. Israel and Hamas could reach an understanding regarding the release of bodies of the Israel Defense Forces soldiers held in Gaza and Palestinian prisoners in Israel. Perchance the fires that are lit daily in the Israeli fields surrounding the Gaza Strip will stop and no more Palestinian young people will be killed at the border fence. A port could be established on an island off the Gaza coast. However, the chances that any of these changes will come to pass on their own are not high, and there is a burning need for an immediate solution that will stop the dangerous deterioration in Gaza.

The shocking descriptions of life in Gaza today have lost their impact. Everyone knows that the unemployment rate is staggering. That the only water safe to drink comes from bottles provided by vehicles that circulate daily. That there is electricity for only four hours a day, meaning that people without generators cannot preserve food, even if they have money to purchase it. That the schools are closed. Everyone says they want to help. Everyone seems to understand the danger of people having nothing more to lose.

The Israeli government understands the need for normalization, but some of the families who lost soldiers in the 2014 Gaza war insist that no steps be taken to improve the living conditions of the Strip residents. There must be no easement of the closure, they say, until Hamas returns the bodies of the Israeli soldiers it still holds. The families oppose a prisoner exchange deal and demand that the government put ever more pressure on the Strip's residents until Hamas caves and returns the bones of their sons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepts their demands.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stubbornly vetoes all ideas for improving Gaza's infrastructure. All such programs need the authorization of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, and Abbas will not authorize such plans until he receives full control of the Strip. He is not willing to serve only as treasurer of Gaza, but wants to control Hamas’ weapons and ammunition and insists that the PA’s control must be “aboveground and below ground as well,” hinting at the tunnels constructed by Hamas.

The Egyptians, who assumed an important role in the last cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, are going out of their way to promote Palestinian reconciliation, which they believe is the key to solving the Gaza problem. They created a proposal and sent it to the two warring Palestinian sides. However, it does not demand that Hamas gives up its weapons and it does not allow the PA to collect taxes in Gaza. Therefore, the chances that Cairo will coax the two sides to bury the hatchet are very small indeed.

The United Nations' coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, has been working overtime this summer between Cairo, Jerusalem, Gaza and Ramallah, offering imaginative infrastructure projects such as desalinization plants the length of the seashore. Mladenov came to an agreement with the World Bank to increase its yearly assistance to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza from $55 million to $90 million. He also developed a strong relationship with Egypt's General Intelligence Service director, Maj. Gen. Abbas Kamel, who holds the internal Palestinian reconciliation as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict portfolios.

Mladenov is one of the more optimistic players in the Gaza saga. He has especially good connections with the region’s leaders who do not talk to one another but do talk to him. However, even Mladenov has faced harsh criticism from the PA. In Abbas’ inner circle, one hears that Mladenov is prone to making promises regarding infrastructure projects without coordination with Ramallah, which will not agree to any project until it is given control over the entire Strip.

The Israeli government seems helpless. Politicians compete against one another in boastful statements regarding what will be done there should the Gaza-sponsored violence continue. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman continues to threaten Gaza, saying that should the missile sirens sound, they will be heard in Gaza as well. But after Liberman’s infamous 2016 threat to eliminate the Hamas leaders within 48 hours should they not hand over the bodies of Israel’s 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict victims, it is hard to imagine that anyone still believes his threats. Netanyahu, by contrast, clearly understands the significance of reconquering Gaza, and that’s the last thing he wants to take on in the sunset of his political career. After all, it is likely that he will be indicted soon in one or more of the affairs he’s being investigated for. Meanwhile, fires continue to scorch the Israeli side from the flaming balloons and kites launched from the Gaza side.

This week I talked to a highly placed source in the Gaza Strip. I asked him what could change things for the better, short of making peace between Fatah and Hamas and initiating a tourism project along a newly lovely Gaza shoreline.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, my source made the following statement: “There is one thing that can be done without the need for prior agreements between the sides. Your army understands the urgent need to take action, therefore it proposes to allow 5,000 men to leave the Strip every day and work in Israel. The Shin Bet opposes this because it is concerned that there will be those who will take advantage of the opportunity to carry out violence. We can’t promise 100% it won’t happen, but if nothing is done, then what will go on in Gaza is likely to be much worse. It became known that the Shin Bet prepared a list of 5,000 people that you are willing to give work permits to. Don’t wait, let them go.”

According to my source, “5,000 workers means an annual income of at least 360 million shekels [$97.5 million] a year. To this we have to add another 2 million shekels [$542,000] a day for transportation. This would be a significant boost to the Gazan economy. It’s relatively simple, and it’s important to the Israelis who need workers. Every day that passes without the go-ahead on this constitutes danger to you and to them.”

The Shin Bet list is prepared, claims an Israeli security source. The plan's chances for alleviating pressure on Gaza are high, and Israelis in the south repeat that they need manpower, and not only in agriculture. The existing security dangers in Gaza today are greater than the dangers of bringing Gazan workers into Israel. There are tens of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank who already work there.

Making such decisions is what the government exists to do.

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