June 19, 2017 - Israel's Gaza problem, locally and regionally

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses some of the creative thinking on what Israel could do to head off a disaster in the Gaza Strip, such as Katz's proposal for a man-made island off Gaza; whose hands the island’s security would be in; the regional and international complications that appear to render the island idea unrealistic under current circumstances; and whether this issue is linked in any way to PM Netanyahu’s zigzag regarding a plan to allow the West Bank city of Qalqilya to expand into Area C and double its population.

 

Q. Last week you briefly discussed the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza and its link to the PLO in Ramallah and the Saudi-Qatari crisis. Surely Israel can and will do more to head off a disaster in the Strip. Where are the creative thinkers?

A. Can do more, yes. Will, doubtful. Still, there is evidence of creative thinking on this issue in Israel. Hopefully, it will begin to have some influence.

The most interesting creative initiative is that of Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz. Katz is a mainstream (as opposed to extreme right) Likudnik who entertains aspirations to succeed Netanyahu. He may grow very old while he waits, but in the meantime he is a very dynamic transportation minister. He can take credit for the nascent Tel Aviv metro project, the nearly complete high speed train from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and numerous rail projects in Israel’s north and south, including one linking Haifa port to the Jordan border.

As noted, Katz is also intelligence minister. This, like the post of strategy minister, is an empty portfolio created by Netanyahu to keep ambitious ministers happy. (Real intelligence and national strategy are in the hands of the minister of defense and the prime minister.) But Katz seems to have found a way to integrate his two ministries by proposing that Israel advance the mega-project of an artificial island off the Gaza Strip coast. The island, linked by a causeway to the mainland, would provide Gaza’s two million inhabitants with an airport, a seaport, and electricity and desalination facilities.

The man-made island would be subject to intensive security arrangements designed to satisfy Israel’s requirements. It would also link Gazans to the world in terms of their material and development needs. This would relieve Israel of residual responsibility for the Strip and, presumably, reduce the likelihood of future conflict with Hamas.

The spirit of Katz’s proposal is supported by a new “Diplomatic Vision for Gaza” lobby launched last week by Member of Knesset Haim Jelin of Yesh Atid. Jelin (pronounced Yellin) was previously head of the Eshkol Regional Council, which borders on the Gaza Strip. He represents a constituency that pays the highest price in human and material loss every time Israel finds itself at war with Hamas, meaning every few years.

Gaza, Jelin says, “is a ticking time bomb”. He argues, “based on my vision but also my experience”, that in return for a port, an easing of border restrictions and access to Israel for Gaza laborers, “Hamas will agree to forestall its military growth”, thereby preventing the next round of violence.

 

Q. Sounds promising. Where’s the “rub”?

A. Katz presented his proposal last week to the Cabinet. All present agreed to the idea except Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman. Lieberman, who is prepared to discuss rehabilitation of the Strip in exchange for demilitarization (and not merely “forestalling military growth”), is skeptical about the security aspects, particularly if security on the island is not in the hands of Israelis. That effectively killed Katz’s initiative for the time being.

 

Q. So whose hands would the island’s security be in?

A. This brings us to the problematic international aspects of the plan. First of all, Hamas would have to agree to place much of Gaza’s infrastructure on a man-made island that is not under its control. To the best of my knowledge, no one has asked Hamas and it has not volunteered its agreement.

Second, security would presumably be linked to the question of finance: who would build this island and who would pay for it? Katz has reportedly met several times to discuss the project with Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s peace emissary. Greenblatt is interested in ideas that improve the Palestinians’ economic and humanitarian situation and could dovetail with a peace process. The European Union has also expressed readiness to finance the island.

But neither the US nor the EU communicates directly with Hamas, which they both label (correctly) a terrorist organization. Any peace process they sponsor would be with the West Bank-based PLO. However the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, both of which are led by Mahmoud Abbas, do not control the Gaza Strip. So this renders a link between Katz’s island project and an Israeli-Palestinian peace process tenuous at best.

What’s more, in any case Israel would insist on approving security arrangements. That probably eliminates a European Union security role, which Israel might not trust, and leaves either a US role or Israel itself, both of which Hamas would probably reject.

Then there is Egypt. The island would be located not far from Egyptian territorial waters off the Sinai coast and not far from Sinai itself. Egypt would have to be a party to Katz’s initiative and would have to approve security arrangements. Egypt does talk to Hamas but relations are tense and problematic due to Hamas’s links with the Muslim Brotherhood and with Sinai-based ISIS terrorists that the Egyptian army is trying to suppress.

Nor can two additional regional actors be ignored: Qatar and Turkey. As discussed last week, Qatar provides infrastructure and humanitarian aid to Gazans. Because Qatar also supports the Muslim Brotherhood (which Egypt’s President Sisi removed from power in a coup several years ago), Egypt and Qatar have poor relations. Yet in a perfect world, the mega-wealthy Qatar could easily foot the bill for the island and could pressure and incentivize Hamas to concur.

Turkey also supports the Muslim Brotherhood and is “non grata” in Cairo. Yet Turkey’s condition for reestablishing relations with Israel about a year ago was that it be allowed to tender aid to Gaza. Turkey would also be a perfect partner for the island project--in a perfect world. And it has the capacity to deal with security there, too.

But for now we must function in this world, where Saudi Arabia, inspired by President Trump, has generated a dangerous schism among the Gulf principalities. Gaza, Turkey and Qatar are in the pro-Brotherhood camp, tilting toward Iran, while Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Israel are in the anti-Iran camp. This complicates the issue of humanitarian and infrastructure aid for Gaza another ten-fold.

 

Q. All these regional and international complications appear to render the island idea unrealistic under current circumstances.

A. Perhaps even more important is the fact that building and operationalizing the island would in the best case take ten years and billions of dollars. Meanwhile, Gaza is being squeezed by the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership. Ramallah has cut its contribution to Gaza’s electricity bill, thereby reducing electricity supply there to three hours a day. Israel, which supplies the electricity that Ramallah pays for, is complying. In parallel, Egypt is squeezing Hamas to turn over Gaza-based ISIS supporters in return for Egyptian electricity and fuel and a more open Gaza-Sinai border. All this is part of a coordinated regional effort by the anti-Iran camp to force Hamas to adopt more moderate policies.

But it constitutes a gamble. Hamas could indeed respond by agreeing to closer coordination with the PLO/PA in Ramallah and with Egypt, thereby renewing electricity supply and postponing humanitarian catastrophe by a few more months. Or it could respond by initiating another war with Israel. That is what it has done in the past when under pressure and seemingly bereft of attractive alternatives.

On Sunday a senior Hamas official, Khalil al-Khaia, declared in Gaza that Hamas “is not initiating a war and does not expect a war. We’re not interested and the occupation [Israel] says it also is not interested.” At least for the time being, that’s good news.

 

Q. Is this issue linked in any way to PM Netanyahu’s zigzag regarding a plan to allow the West Bank city of Qalqilya to expand into Area C and double its population?

A. The apparent link is pressure on Netanyahu from the Trump administration to come up with schemes for improving the economic situation of Palestinians. The expansion would attach land from Area C of the West Bank to Qalqilya to enable the construction of 14,000 new housing units for Palestinians. Area C is the 60 percent of the West Bank where Israel exercises full control and where all the settlements are located. Qalqilya is in Area A, where Palestinians exercise security control subject to coordination with Israel. (Area B is under Palestinian civilian control but Israeli security control.) The proposed construction would bring expanded Qalqilya, which on its western flank borders Israel, up to the settlement of Tsufim on its eastern flank.

Recently Netanyahu persuaded his cabinet to approve the Qalqilya scheme. This would mean ceding a small parcel of Area C, rendering it Area A or B, and establishing an interesting precedent of limited Israeli withdrawal on the West Bank. Right wing Likud ministers along with Naftali Bennet’s Jewish Home party were in the minority in the cabinet vote. But that did not stop them from whipping up a settler campaign to pressure Netanyahu to repeal the move. This happened on Sunday, with Netanyahu claiming he “couldn’t remember” approving the plan and unfairly blaming General Yoav Mordechai, IDF coordinator of government activities in the territories, for initiating it.

Unlike in Gaza, there is no real security issue here. Rather, the issue is settler-dominated right-wing politics in Israel. Another issue is Netanyahu’s inability to stand up to pressure from his political right flank.

In both cases, Trump and Greenblatt should take notice: this Israeli government and this Israeli prime minister are not peace partners--not even for “economic peace”.

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