TEL AVIV, Israel – The Israeli general who controls the gates of Hamas-run Gaza says he is pursuing a complex and delicate strategy: enable exports from and development in the impoverished Palestinian territory while somehow preventing the Islamic militants who rule it from getting credit for any progress.
In an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot said Israel seeks to work with Hamas’ rival, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, to help revive the economy. Fayyad would set priorities for what Gaza needs and place his people at the borders, Dangot explained.
He said that the Palestinian Authority — driven out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007 and currently involved in fitful peace negotiations with Israel — must “show the flag there, to show their existence — even if 100 meters (yards) from there is a Hamas checkpoint.” The new approach is just the latest of the twists and turns Israel’s Gaza policy has taken since the Hamas takeover. Trying to contain and weaken an Iranian-backed entity on its doorstep, Israel has employed a wide range of tactics — from a punitive three-year border blockade to periodic cease fires to a brief and devastating war almost two years ago. Israel imposed the blockade after the Hamas takeover of Gaza, allowing in only a limited selection of basic goods. But it came under pressure to ease the embargo after an Israeli raid of a Gaza-bound blockade-busting flotilla killed nine Turkish activists in May. Dangot has since helped devise the more relaxed rules. Today, most consumer goods are allowed into Gaza, while many raw materials and building supplies remain restricted and exports are banned, with the exception of seasonal shipments of strawberries and cut flowers. The general says he hopes to ease restrictions further. This could include allowing in more raw materials to crank up Gaza’s key industries — textiles, furniture and agriculture — and to enable more exports by spring. Cement, steel and other vital building supplies are only allowed into Gaza if earmarked for international aid projects, meaning the private construction sector — traditionally the engine of the Gaza’s economy — is left on the sidelines. Dangot said he could envision arrangements in the future under which private builders could receive supplies, provided their projects are approved by Fayyad. Ghassan Khatib, the spokesman of the Fayyad government, called for a complete lifting of the blockade, saying Israel’s policy has been counterproductive and only benefited Hamas. Hamas, for its part, has harshly criticized the Palestinian Authority for its coordination with Israel and has urged the West Bankers to instead seek a joint government that is closer to Hamas’ hardline views opposing peace talks with Israel. Israel broadly says its policies were dictated by security concerns, such as halting repeated rocket attacks; Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets at communities in southern Israel in recent years, killing a dozen Israelis. Yet officials also acknowledge that there is a political dimension in that Hamas must not be perceived as ruling successfully. “We are fighting against a terror regime,” said Dangot, who is called the military’s coordinator for the West Bank and Gaza and is a pivotal player in policymaking toward the Palestinian areas. “You cannot be in a situation where Hamas gets credit for a policy” that improves the lives of people, he said. At its most restrictive, Israel’s border blockade prevented the import of seemingly random items from spaghetti to pencils. The policy did little to weaken Hamas politically but came under intense global scrutiny after the flotilla raid. Did Israel have to wait for the criticism to ease the embargo? Dangot acknowledged that in “a few cases there were mistakes (and) some of them were not.” The international community has praised the easing of the blockade, but says more needs to be done to get Gaza’s economy, battered by a decade of conflict and closure, back on its feet. Dangot said the continued import restrictions are necessary because of concerns that cement, steel and other items could be diverted by Hamas to build bunkers and tunnels. Gazans say that the easing of the embargo has fallen short of needs, and the arrangement with the donors has done nothing for badly needed private construction. In a meeting with Dangot earlier this month, Gaza business people told the general that 75,000 to 120,000 jobs could be created in the construction industry, and that the entire embargo notion was misguided. “You succeeded to inject blood into a patient who is intensive care,” delegation member Ali al-Hayek told Dangot. “You are not killing him and you are not reviving him. We need to re-evaluate the blockade, which failed.” Dangot urged them to be patient, saying that change would be gradual. In the AP interview at Israel’s sprawling military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Dangot noted that since the summer, Israel has already approved importing building supplies for more than 70 international projects, including schools and infrastructure. He said the issue of private construction could also be addressed in tandem with the Palestinian Authority in order to build up the Fayyad government’s credit with Gazans: “We have to find a mechanism,” he said. “If, for example, a group of local commercial people will come and the PA will (sponsor) them, this is what I am looking for.” He said the PA can also help determine priorities for infrastructure projects. “I am not confirming anything without Fayyad’s approval.” Israel hopes that the Fayyad government will eventually re-establish a foothold in Gaza, including by deploying its representatives on the Gaza side of Kerem Shalom, the main trade crossing with Israel. Currently, the West Bank government coordinates shipments to Gaza with Israel, while Gaza business people take delivery of the goods at the crossing. With a Palestinian Authority deployment in place, Israel would be able to allow more exports from Gaza, beyond strawberries and cut flowers, Dangot said. However, it’s not clear whether Fayyad could send border inspectors to Gaza without an elusive unity deal. The current system is hitting some snags, including over which international aid projects get Israeli approval. Dangot said he has encouraged aid agencies to submit as many plans as possible. However, he has denied approval to two U.N. schools being built on an empty plot in Gaza City, saying they need to move to a nearby location. In the interview, Dangot suggested that there were Hamas facilities nearby or beneath the site and that the schools could therefore function as inadvertent shields for Hamas in a future conflict. Chris Gunness, spokesman for the main UN aid agency in Gaza, disputed any Hamas presence near the intended construction sites. Gunness said the UN is working closely with area residents to get the badly needed schools built, and asked: “Do you think the community would agree to build two schools for 5,000 children if they were going to be used as human shields?”