There’s nothing like election season to help one understand the stark difference between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements and his actions, certainly with regard to the Gaza Strip.
Earlier this week, a “political source” close to the prime minister who briefed reporters during the visit to Ukraine, explained that Israel encourages emigration from Gaza and is even willing to open its borders to facilitate Gazans’ exodus from the region, as long as there are other countries that are willing to take them in. The source further noted that some 35,000 Gazans have left the coastal enclave of their own volition over the past year, “without Israel’s help.”
Statements like these are an attempt by Netanyahu to appeal to his right-wing base and even its radical fringe, which has been fantasizing about a transfer enterprise for decades.
In reality, however, no other government has done as much for the Palestinians in Gaza or for Hamas, as is clearly evident by the fact that Netanyahu and his ministers were the first to grant an aid package for Gaza – tens of millions of Qatari dollars that help Hamas survive from one month to the next.
The current Netanyahu government is the one sparing no effort to prevent the demise of Hamas’ rule in Gaza, all while simultaneously undermining Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ rule in the West Bank.
The same Netanyahu who talks about Israel encouraging emigration from Gaza is the one who signed off on travel permits for thousands of Palestinian businessmen in a bid to bolster the Strip’s failing economy; the one who has improved the power supply, and the one who is doing quite a bit to improve the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.
This is not intended as a criticism of these measures. These are important steps that are crucial to stabilizing the security situation between Israel and Gaza. However, the attempt by Netanyahu and his ministers to portray themselves as having an extreme agenda vis-à-vis Hamas seems ridiculous given the contradictory reality on the ground.
Qatari envoy Mohammed al-Emadi is reportedly set to arrive in Gaza this weekend to deliver more cash to its needy families. It bears mentioning that this money will arrive in Gaza via the Erez crossing, not smuggling tunnels or some daring operation.
This money is also the reason why we have yet to see any rapid escalation of the situation between Hamas and Israel. Despite the recent string of border incidents, Palestinian fatalities, and rocket fire, both parties are still careful not to let the violence spin out of control. The threat of rapid escalation still looms, but Hamas has no interest in it and Gaza’s rulers are even trying – albeit not hard enough – to prevent an all-out war.
One can easily conclude that the (voluntary) transfer fantasy from Gaza has been making headlines specifically during Netanyahu’s visit to Ukraine so as to distract from the embarrassing scandals during the flights and visit, and from the lack of clear policy with respect to Gaza.
To date, Netanyahu’s government has yet to clearly state its objectives for the Gaza Strip, perhaps because Netanyahu’s electorate won’t take kindly to the fact that the prime minister prefers Hamas over any other option (chaos, a peace agreement with Abbas, etc).
Meanwhile, Israel’s willingness to take steps aimed at alleviating the dire situation in Gaza is perceived as a sign of weakness in the West Bank, where the message being driven home is that “the Jews only respond to force.”
In May 2000, Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon was construed by many Fatah members in the West Bank as a sign of weakness, making it one of the key triggers for the Second Intifada. The latest steps taken by the Israeli government to improve the situation in Gaza despite Hamas’ aggression – demonstrations on the border, incendiary balloons, terrorist cells, etc. – are currently being perceived as a sign of weakness. And again, as if on automatic replay, Fatah is calling on its members to resume the armed struggle.
Tanzim leader Hatem Abdel Qader, who was largely responsible for instigating unrest during Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in 2000, has taken things a step further and on Monday called on the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – Fatah’s military wing, whose members have carried out hundreds of terrorist attacks against Israelis – to resume their “military” operations, or in other words, resume terrorist attacks.
This type of rhetoric is not unusual and many in Fatah seem eager to heed this call. It seems that those who over the past decade have been urging an end to terrorist attacks and have supported negotiations with Israel have come to understand that the Israeli government tends to quickly bend in the face of force, and that violence is proving more effective than negotiations.