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Michael Oren

When Israel gave Hamas something worth not fighting for

The latest clash showed that what’s good for Gaza can be good for us – it's time to implement game-changing humanitarian plans for the Strip
Palestinian workers with Palestinian officials at the Erez crossing in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, as they wait to enter Israel for work, on March 13, 2022. (Attia Muhammed/Flash90)
Palestinian workers with Palestinian officials at the Erez crossing in Beit Hanoun, in the northern Gaza Strip, as they wait to enter Israel for work, on March 13, 2022. (Attia Muhammed/Flash90)

One of the Palestinian civilians tragically killed in Operation Shield and Arrow was Abdullah Abu Jaba. The father of six lived in Gaza and was struck by a Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) rocket while working in Israel. Abu Jaba was one of some 17,000 Palestinian workers who daily cross from Gaza into Israel. Their employment by Israeli farms, factories, and construction sites played a critical role in shortening the operation by many days if not weeks, and in saving untold numbers of lives.

The presence of Palestinian workers in Israel is a win-win. Israeli employers have access to dependable labor, and workers from Gaza – where unemployment often reaches 40% – get jobs. Yet the strategic advantages of the arrangement are even greater. The salaries the workers take home have become vital to Gaza’s economy. That boon would be lost, and the borders once again sealed, if Hamas were to join PIJ in firing at Israeli targets. Despite incessant pressure to join in the fighting, Hamas chose social and financial stability over jihad and held its fire. Israel was spared many thousands of rockets thanks largely to its decision to admit the Gazan workers.

In this photo from March 26, 2017, Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip pray as they wait on the Israeli side of the Erez terminal to cross into Gaza. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov, File)

That decision, though, was not easily taken, as I can personally attest. My involvement with the Gaza workers issue began in 2016, during my tenure as deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. While my responsibilities were largely diplomatic, one day the prime minister called me in with an unusual assignment. Israel was still reeling from the aftershocks of Operation Protective Edge two years earlier, and my task was to find ways of averting another major clash with Hamas.

Accepting that challenge meant sitting through startling briefings by the Shabak – Israel’s Internal Security Service. Though I knew Gaza both as a soldier and as a historian, nothing prepared me for what I learned. I heard, first, how Hamas takes a huge cut of everything from cement to baby diapers transported into Gaza, yet it also limits the flow of essential goods in order to keep the population dependent. I heard how Hamas is willing to fight PIJ to the last Israeli and how Iran, which funds and manages PIJ, is willing to fight Israel to the last Palestinian. The Palestinian Authority, for its part, eliminates subsidies to Gazans who work in Israel and to Gazan patients receiving medical care in Israel. This pushes Hamas to seek more concessions from Israel through rocket fire to which the IDF responds by bombing Gaza. Hamas gets bloodied and Israel is branded a war criminal – precisely the PA’s goals.

As depressing as these lessons proved, they also pointed the way to potentially game-changing policies. The idea was to give Hamas the one thing it lacked: something to lose, thereby raising the price it would pay for aggression. Together with my able advisor, Netta Korin, and in close cooperation with Major General Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, commander of GOGAT (Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories), my office developed plans for constructing a power plant, to be located in either the Negev or Northern Sinai, that would provide Gazans with more than the four hours of electricity they were receiving each day.

Another project envisioned a waste treatment system that would relieve Gaza of the need to spill tens of thousands of cubic meters of sewage into the sea, polluting our beaches and fouling our desalination facilities. The system could be connected to Gaza, where potable water was virtually nonexistent.

Most ambitiously, my office called for creating a rail link between Gaza and the Erez Crossing – a distance of six kilometers – through which supplies could be quickly transported into Gaza. The empty containers, we suggested, could be processed into much-needed housing.

Absurd situation

Of all of these proposals, though, the most pressing and easily implemented was for readmitting Gazan workers into Israel. Many thousands had worked in Israel in the past¸ though the practice was discontinued after 2007 when Hamas seized control of the Strip. Instead of hiring the Palestinians who lived just meters over the border, Israeli employers were bringing laborers at great expense and time from Judea and Samaria. We thought the situation was absurd, especially in view of our objective of giving Gazans – and Hamas – something to lose.

Palestinian men gather to apply for work permits in Israel, at Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 6, 2021. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Our office received tremendous support from the army as well as from the American and several European governments. Yet none of our proposals were implemented. The principal objection came from the Shabak, which argued that Hamas would use the electricity not to light up Gaza’s homes but to illuminate its tunnels, and confiscate railroad ties to make rockets. Workers from the Strip would in effect act as Hamas agents, gathering intelligence and even planting bombs. Similarly rejected were blueprints submitted by then-Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and then-Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz for constructing a port for Gaza either in Cyprus or on an artificial island. Israel had enough trouble preventing Hamas smuggling over the border, the Shabak reasoned, without trying to monitor an offshore dock.

The most implacable obstacle, though, was not the Shabak but public opinion. Israelis subscribed to the formula, “What’s bad for them (Gaza) is good for us (Israel).” Reinforcing that assumption was the very understandable demand that nothing be done for Hamas until it returned the bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, IDF soldiers who fell in the 2014 fighting, and repatriate Israeli prisoners Hisham al-Sayeed and Avera Mengistu, who wandered over the border. The notion that “what’s good for them might also be good for us” was too costly politically for Israeli decision-makers who, when it came to Gaza, refused to make a decision.

It would take several years and a series of additional firefights before the government finally began issuing work permits to Gazans. As the first few hundred grew into thousands, even the Shabak had to admit that its security concerns were exaggerated. Israelis and Palestinians were once again working side-by-side fruitfully and peacefully. And while PIJ tried its utmost to kill our civilians, Hamas remained quiet.

In view of this success, now is the time to review the other proposals tabled by my former office, as well as by Steinitz and Katz. The more Hamas has to lose, the better the future will be for both Israelis and Palestinians. Back in 1956, while eulogizing Roi Rotberg, a kibbutznik murdered by Palestinian terrorists, IDF Chief-of-Staff Moshe Dayan described “the sea of hatred and desire for revenge swelling beyond the Gaza border,” against which Israelis would always have to fight. We will still have to fight, unfortunately, but with flexibility and creativity, the costs can be reduced.

About the Author
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset Member, and Deputy Minister for Diplomacy, is the founder of the Israel Advocacy Group and the Substack, Clarity.