Something strange happened on the Israeli political scene last week. After Education Minister Naftali Bennett wondered at the INSS conference if it isn’t “preferable to come to terms with reality and to sever our responsibility for two million Gazans? To open horizons so that they can live – with proper security monitoring?” Unnamed sources close to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Bennett was passing off ideas discussed in the Security Cabinet as though they were his own. The idea of replacing the Gaza closure with some other policy, said the unnamed sources, was not new at all. It has been discussed.
A cabinet discussion about Gaza is major news. As far as we’re aware, no serious discussion has ever been held about the closure and no meaningful alternatives have been suggested. Former National Security Council (NSC) Chairman Uzi Arad revealed this fact, calling it “a slipshod affair”. Roni Bart, who held a senior position in the NSC in recent years made similar comments (Hebrew): “There hasn’t been a single strategic discussion about Gaza for four and a half years. When it happened, what came up was two dud alternatives and an unequivocal recommendation to carry on with the current policy”. We know there was no discussion about Gaza in 2010 either, because we listened to Dan Meridor, who served as the Minister for Intelligence Affairs, talk about how Ehud Barak, then Minister of Defense, explained that the continued closure was a result of “inertia”. So, if there really was a discussion, it’s news.
Over the past year and a half, numerous officials have drawn a connection between Gaza’s reconstruction and regional stability. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said it; top military officials said it, former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said it, and even current Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot said similar things in an interview with Alex Fischman from Yedioth Aharonot (“The policy he is outlining relies on two principles: trying to hold back Hamas’ rising strength and, at the same time, doing everything to bring hope to the Gaza Strip, so they have something to lose. Eizenkot supports helping Gaza’s reconstruction. For instance, he does not rule out the idea of a remote port that would serve the people of Gaza, in Cyprus for instance. On this point, he agrees with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai – a member of his closest circle. Both believe that the more hope there is, the more a confrontation can be kept at bay”). Politicians, from MK Ofer Shelah to Minister Naftali Bennett, have also said it. There is an almost complete consensus among Israeli officials that can be summed up in one sentence: the continued chokehold on Gaza’s economy is dangerous for Israel. In other words, not only is there no conflict between human rights and Israel’s security interests, in fact, upholding the rights of Gaza residents is essential for security.
So it’s good that there was a discussion, and there’s a good reason to assume that some voices calling for the removal of the Gaza closure were heard there, because so far, the only signs we have seen, are that Israel is backtracking on what few restrictions it lifted after Operation Protective Edge. In recent months, the number of exits through Erez Crossing has dropped, and Israel has toughened the conditions for travel from Gaza. The decision to finally allow Gaza-made and -produced goods to be sold in Israel and the West Bank is failing to deliver on its potential promise for Gaza’s economy because of a slew of restrictions that make shipments expensive, and while construction materials are brought in under Israeli monitoring, Israel has banned the entrance of wood planks into the Strip, jeopardizing the furniture industry. The result is a 42.7% unemployment rate (59.7% among young people), poverty and the usual attendant warnings of another violent escalation.
It’s good that the cabinet had a debate about the Gaza closure, and it’s nice to see that everyone finally sees that the closure policy has failed, and that the time for fixing it is running out. On the other hand, it’s deeply disturbing to realize that instead of changing the policy, it is upheld, and even hardened, when all the signs are clearly pointing to the terrible price to be paid by all for this.