Israel punishes Hamas, but also advances Gaza development programs

Defense Minister Benny Gantz implements a harsh-response policy on Gaza balloon terror while also advancing Gaza development projects.

al-monitor A mask-clad policeman loyal to Hamas stands behind concrete barriers painted with messages instructing people to remain home due to the coronavirus pandemic at a checkpoint in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Sept. 6, 2020. Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images.

Sep 9, 2020

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s partner in leading the country, has started to implement clear policy lines toward Hamas in recent weeks. This policy tries to shift, if only slightly, the balance with Hamas and perhaps lead to a deal that would return the three Israeli citizens held hostage in the Gaza Strip and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers who were killed in Operation Protective Edge five years ago. 

This policy by Gantz includes, on the one hand, harsher responses than in the past, including attacks on Hamas positions and bases in response to incendiary and explosive balloons, as happened in the latest round of violence in the last two weeks of August. Tanks and planes destroyed entire Hamas bases, and Gantz further warned that Hamas would suffer hard blows, hinting that Israel would reinstate the policy of targeted assassination — that is, the personal killing of leaders of the Hamas organization. Also, Gantz has further sharpened the economic steps against Hamas and groups associated with it and has prevented the return of Palestinian terrorists’ bodies held by Israel. 

On the other hand, the defense minister has tried to break the deadlock in advancing economic projects to build infrastructure in Gaza in order to improve the difficult and worsening humanitarian situation that has resulted from the renewed outbreak of the coronavirus. 

After more than two weeks of terror organizations sending incendiary balloons and explosive devices from Gaza into Israel, and even a barrage or two of rocket fire toward Israeli towns in the Negev, a cease-fire was reached Aug. 31 with the mediation of Egypt and the Qatari emissary to Gaza Mohammed al-Emadi. 

According to the cease-fire agreement, all incendiary balloons and any other belligerent action against Israel will stop immediately, and on the other side, Israel will renew the supply of diesel fuel into Gaza, allow fishermen to go to sea and especially allow Qatar to increase the sum it invests in the Gaza Strip — that is, aside from the $10 million in monthly stipends to about 100,000 needy families, allow another $10 million for the salaries of government workers for three months and a permit for supporting civil projects of the Hamas government. 

In light of criticism in Israel of the agreement to allow funds to enter Gaza, Gantz took two steps to emphasize the aggressive side of his policy. He signed orders to seize millions of dollars worth of Hamas funds and property, some of which are located in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the rest around the world.

Among other things, he signed an order to seize $900,000 of the Gazan money exchange and transfer company Osama Albashiti and Partners, which has laundered money that Hamas has received from Iran and aided other money transfers to the group from around the world. Other orders have targeted nonprofit organizations and companies working in Britain, Lebanon and other countries. The seizure and limit orders are disseminated in a broad circle to the established financial system in Israel and around the world, and they are efficient especially in countries where Hamas has been declared a terror organization.

Another step was the decision by the diplomatic-security Cabinet, initiated by Gantz, not to return terrorists’ bodies, whether they were Hamas fighters or otherwise. Gantz explained, “Since I entered the Defense Ministry, I instructed to create a wide package of deterrence, in the framework of which I directed not to release the bodies of terrorists, to declare and confiscate monies of terror organizations, and to intensify attacks and responses to any breach of quiet, on any front. Not returning bodies of terrorists is part of our responsibility to ensure the security of Israeli citizens and of course to return our sons home. I suggest that our enemies understand and absorb our message well.”

Not returning the bodies is a step that was mostly meant to deal with the issue of returning the Israeli citizens and bodies of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers held by Hamas. The families of the Israeli soldiers and citizens are putting heavy pressure on Gantz and Netanyahu to press Hamas in every way in order to return the bodies. The parents of late 1st Lt. Hadar Goldin, one of the two fallen soldiers whose bodies are held by Hamas, responded harshly to the cease-fire with Hamas: “Netanyahu makes peace for dollars for Hamas. Israel’s government is again submitting to terror and leaving the families of the missing and the hostages with no answer. This balloon will burst in our faces.”

Gantz’s step on the issue of the bodies of terrorists is based on the security establishment’s estimate that returning the bodies of IDF soldiers won’t occur in a cease-fire agreement with Hamas but only within a larger deal that would include returning the bodies of Hamas terrorists along with its security prisoners held in Israel — a deal that has been in negotiations for years.

On the other hand, Gantz and at least some senior defense establishment officials believe that Israel must help the Gazan economy in order to ease the situation there, even at the price of direct cooperation with Hamas on essential projects. Thus, it allowed the significant increase in aid from Qatar to Gaza — money that, in contrast with the past, Hamas could use itself and won’t be directly transferred only to needy families.

The Israeli security establishment understands that although some money could leak to terror purposes, because of the difficult situation in Gaza the risk should be taken. Thus, for instance, according to Hamas sources, Israel has permitted to lay a natural gas pipeline, plans for which have been in place since 2015, with the goal of getting power stations to work in Gaza and allow for constant and regular electric service in the territory. Today Gaza residents receive only four to 12 hours of electricity a day. Qatar is supposed to bear the cost of laying the pipeline and converting the power stations to use gas instead of diesel. This gas would come from Israeli reserves in the Mediterranean Sea.

Another especially important point led to the agreement this week with Hamas: the outbreak of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip, one of the most crowded places on earth. In the course of the last week, hundreds of new cases have been found, especially in the Gaza Strip refugee camps.  Some of the Qatari funds have been allocated to purchasing personal protective equipment, ventilators, and medicine for coronavirus patients and medical personnel. Israel also allowed the shipment of medical equipment from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and there are other shipments on the way from Turkey and other nations.

Netanyahu has allowed Gantz full freedom of action on this issue, one of the only areas on which the two have worked together well without attacking each other. But the Gaza Strip is a problem that needs a much deeper solution, and Gantz is trying, like his predecessors, only to ensure there won’t be an escalation to another war or a real humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip.

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