July 1, 2010
In News The Israel-Palestine Conflict
Yedioth’s military reporter, with good ‘internal’ sources analyses the Gaza Blockade “easings” and gives his forecastPreparing for Exports, Too/ Falling from One Pit into Another Yedioth Ahronoth (25.6.2010 p. 8) by Alex Fishman – It is already possible to plan the headline for the next trap Israel is about to fall into in Gaza: “Palestinians on the Fence.” The phenomenon is expanding, but we have not yet begun to regard it as a threat. And the scenario of the Turkish flotilla will be played out once again bit by bit. Israel knew about the flotilla for months, yet understood nothing of it. They thought it was another group of peace activists with Scandinavian manners, maybe just a bit bigger. And this is the precise attitude these days concerning events alongside the fence in Gaza. For several weeks now demonstrations have been held by Gazan civilians, mostly youth, women and children, along the separation fence. Sometimes these are a few dozens, sometimes several hundred, on occasion in one spot only, and sometimes scattered over several locations — but in each demonstration the same format is certain to be followed: the demonstrators attempt to enter the area Israel has defined as a “special security area” — a strip of 300 to 500 meters on the Palestinian side of the separation fence. The procedure states the following: when a Palestinian enters this area he is shot, if there is a concern about explosives, ambushes, or a kidnapping attempt across the separation fence. Like the flotillas, the demonstrations began earlier this year, fairly innocently: a farmer from Beit Hanoun organized a protest along with his family and neighbors, because he had not been allowed to cultivate his lands along the fence. An activist with the Popular Front in Rafah decided to appropriate the idea and established a popular movement concerning these lands. Then the idea grew, became institutionalized, became more violent, and each time the demonstrators become a bit more daring, and provoked the troops just a little bit more. Sometimes Hamas authorizes these demonstrations, and sometimes it intervenes to stop them. The IDF has now developed a “removal from fence procedure,” which commences with smoke grenades and evolves into warning shots. Sometimes this escalates to a grenade aimed directly at the demonstrators. The Palestinians have already reported on dead and several wounded in one such event, and when the military began to realize that things were only getting worse, in view of the fact that troops started to find themselves firing on civilians, warning pamphlets were distributed, in which the forbidden areas were marked. In recent weeks the demonstrations have been covered by several media outlets, and European anarchists, who have made it through the Rafah crossing, have been taking part. And if until the flotilla Israel thought that this was an imitation of the Bilin demonstrations, so now the penny has dropped: the demonstrations are part of the battle cry that Hamas has been promulgating regularly through el-Aksa television: Break the Siege. The worst case scenario is that the demonstrations will get continuously worse. The Palestinians will cause more provocations, the IDF will respond with fire, civilians will be killed and wounded, and the world will fail to accept, fail to understand, just as it failed to accept or understand the assault on the Turkish flotilla in international waters. It could even expand from this point, and reach the point of thousands of Palestinians storming the fence, just as was the case in Rafah, last year. What will Israel do then? Shoot the thousands approaching the fence? Northern Encirclement Two years back Hamas also spoke about staging “demonstrations of the hungry” at the crossings, and Israel became concerned that thousands of civilians would storm the Erez crossing. Several demonstrations did in fact take place near the Erez crossings, the IDF fired shots — and people were wounded. Then too, Israel had no idea what it would do if the violence spread and instead of several dozen, several thousand would attempt to storm the fence. This failed to materialize. International opinion was favorable at the time, Israel got the support of the American administration, and the United States of George Bush showed absolutely no leniency, which could be construed as weakness or obsequiousness on the part of the Arab world. We were the good guys, Hamas the bad. What’s more Kassam rockets were still falling. And what’s more: negotiations were underway with the Palestinian Authority. Israel’s position was completely different. The security establishment misses such days, or to put it as Ehud Barak did behind closed doors: had the Turkish flotilla taken place two years ago, international response to Israel’s actions would be far more comprehending. This week, while visiting the United States, Barak attempted to rehabilitate Israel’s standing. The defense minister is pressing for a return to peace negotiations, mostly on the Syrian track, and it was no mere chance that he arrived in Washington when he did. These days there is a debate in the White House as to the next phase in American Middle East strategy, with many of Obama’s advisors pushing for a rapprochement with Bashar Assad, in order abet the American withdrawal from Iraq next year and in order to distance the Syrians from Iran. The renewal of talks between Israel and Syria is part of this strategy, and in the American National Security Council there are those pushing for a major move with the Syrians and only minor continuations with the Palestinians. Barak arrived at Washington in order to put his weight in this debate. He believes that Netanyahu, in the present coalition, will have an easier time advancing with the Syrians than with the Palestinians. The IDF General Staff also believes that the Syrians should be challenged by a dilemma of returning to negotiations, and senior sources in the IDF have taken this a step further: that Turkey should reassume its role in mediation. This will ease tensions, and allow everybody to get off their high horses. Israel, say such sources, has things to offer: the Golan Heights have already been returned to the Syrians, in one form or another, by every prime minister since Yitzhak Rabin, and in exchange Israel will demand a Syrian disengagement from Iran, without saying this explicitly in the first stage of negotiations. So the military wants this, the defense minister wants this, no small part of Obama’s National Security Council wants this — but special US envoy Mitchell thinks this is a mistake, and that the Palestinian track ought to be the central one. In the course of his most recent visit, as part of the ongoing proximity talks, he left behind for both parties a questionnaire containing sixteen identical questions concerning the core issues. He was expecting to receive Yes and No answers to them, as in the American testing system. But Israel failed the test. Instead of answering Yes and No, each question was answered with a question of our own. And thus, the proximity talks are limping along, and appear to be beckoning for a presidential initiative that will serve only to weaken the Netanyahu government even further. So now we’re trying to go back to the “Syria first” idea. On the weekend Barak returned from the heights of strategic thought over in Washington to the depths of tactical maneuvering here in Jerusalem, and he will now have to make far more practical decisions. For example, what one must do to avoid yet another fall into a Hamas-set trap. If Israel neglects events taking place by the fence, it is clear that we will be heading into a trap. Israel will again enter an international ring of pressure and be portrayed around the world as a force preventing the free movement of innocent Palestinian farmers. One can already envision the headlines calling for the dismantling of the walls of the world’s largest prison. And just as the flotilla forced us to remove the economic blockade, so such demonstrations will break the limitations of Palestinian free movement, and force Israel to open the crossings to human movement as well. Of Lists and Lines As of today, free movement along the crossings is a red line, and when a government declares a red line this is a clear sign that a day will come when its positions change and that the lines will be relocated. Therefore, an experienced statesman such as Tony Blair remains unimpressed by such red lines. Just as he remains unimpressed by the fact that half of the principles laid down for Israel by the Quartet were rejected. So true, meanwhile there has been no opening of the crossings for human movement, civilian sector projects in Gaza have not been authorized, the Karni crossing is not to be opened, and no additional crossings are to be opened, international observers are not to be placed at the crossings, and the agreement to open the Rafah crossing by Israel, Egypt and Palestinian along with international observers has not returned to its previous status — but Israel has significantly expanded the quantity of goods entering the Gaza Strip, the crossings are operating at higher capacity, and construction is to be allowed in the Gaza Strip (though only under the tutelage of international organizations, committed to giving reports and supervision). For this purpose, Israel will allow the entry of raw materials such as metal, cement, etc., and more importantly: Netanyahu has accepted the principle of formulating a list of what may not enter Gaza, rather than a list of what may enter. On the list of forbidden materials there are still a few thousand items. According to international charters a country may prevent only the entry of military goods, and regarded as such are sensors, lasers, computers, communication equipment, compasses, GPS gadgets, and so forth. And there is also a military decree from 2008 concerning material that cannot be entered into the West Bank, which is to be in place also in Gaza. Here the issue is dozens of basic and compound chemicals, which could be used as explosives. And as if this were not enough, also optical lenses, parachutes, surf-gliders, water motorcycles, engines for water gear of over 25 horse power, diving equipment, spare parts for workshops, and metal pipes over 50 millimeters in diameter. And the list goes on. But as in the case of the red lines, neither does this long list fail to sink the mood of the Quartet envoy. Lists are destined to shrink. On Tuesday Blair arrived at the Kerem Shalom crossing, the main crossing for goods into the Gaza Strip, in order to revel in the diplomatic achievement he had scored on the pages of history: the removing of the blockade and saving Gaza’s civilians from starvation and humanitarian crisis. The cilantro lie was able to cause the world’s heart to tremble, and the British gentleman arrived and took the pot. The sun’s rays beat down on the working fields of the Kerem Shalom crossing, a dry wind spread sand all around the grounds, the men surrounding him are red-eyed and dripping of sweat, and he in a jacket, as fresh as the morning dew, frolicking easily across the area, and charming everyone with his grace, from the profound briefing by Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot, all the way to a friendly conversation with Palestinian workers at the crossing, taking interest in office equipment, papers, coconut bags, the toys, the Chinese-made utensils, the Israeli manufactured food — all of which was to go through the crossing that day, and packed with the destination statement: “Gaza — Palestine.” From there Blair moves on to the media outlets, with the movement of trucks in the background. Blair assumes the appropriate pose of the leader on the field. And still not so much as a drop of sweat. The man is a media-machine. Not a single mistake made. In a conversation with the coordinator of government activities in the territories he wanted to hear a clear commitment, to get as many trucks loaded with goods into Gaza and as quick as possible. How many trucks a day can you get done, he asks. Two hundred and fifty, responds Dangot. So how quickly will you make it to 250? Blair presses on. A few weeks, responds Dangot. And Blair does not let up, and strikes the iron still hot. A few moments later he declares the bottom line, and tells the world that Israel has given its commitment that it will allow 250 trucks to enter the Kerem Shalom crossing each day. Now we can start figuring out how the heck we are going to honor this commitment, in view of the fact that the Palestinians are not at all interested in receiving that many goods. On Tuesday, the first day of the lifting of the blockade, 4,500 tons of fuel, animal feed, construction material, on 130 trucks entered the Gaza Strip. Prior to this there were 3,000 tons being carried to Gaza Strip, and according to the commitments given to Blair Israel will have to reach 9,000. Far beyond what the Palestinian economy is capable of using. What’s more, the Gazan economy has developed substitutes for many materials, some of which are cheaper. When the gasoline coming through the tunnels from Egypt cost NIS 2 per liter, who needs the costly Israeli fuel? Crowding the Gazan economy with Israeli goods will cause an economic war in the strip. The crossings threaten the smuggling industry, which have made the southern Gaza Strip — Khan Yunis and Rafah — the most affluent area, whereas the north has become poorer. It seems that Israeli goods will make it only to the north, and the south will maintain its monopoly on “imports” from Egypt. This is also the root of the concern that the nouveaux riches people from the south will attempt to strike the crossings. And beyond this, there is growing view in Gaza that states: why are we consuming Israeli food? While our brethren in the West Bank are boycotting Israeli products. Incidentally, during the first days after the blockade was broken, the big hit was not food but rather spare parts for cars. This week Israel will finally get rid of goods arriving on the flotilla. Hamas agreed, out of the goodness of its heart, to receive them. Exports Too What about the next stage of your plan to break the blockade, I ask. Blair looks at me as if he doesn’t understand the question. I am referring to the stage of exporting goods from the Gaza Strip. If Israel lets in raw materials, Gaza will want to export fruits and vegetables as well as goods from light industries, which atrophied in the last three years and 95% of which are shut down. We are thinking about this, he replied. So what is the plan, I ask again. Blair smiles, doesn’t fall into the trap: you’re the expert, you make a recommendation, I’m just a politician. The truth is, the Quartet states already have a very concrete plan for the next stage: international pressure on Israel so that it also allows the export of goods from the Gaza Strip. True, Blair counts trucks as a symbol, but what truly interests him is reviving the Gaza economy and the professional figures who cooked up for him the ideas for breaking the blockade are now preparing papers for a breakthrough also in the opposite direction. It will go more or less like this: at first, Israel will agree to allow the exit of agricultural products, which were also allowed out, although in small amounts, even during the blockade. In the second stage, Israel will agree to the export of consumer goods from Gaza. As Israel sees it, exporting from Gaza is a red line today. Strengthening the economy means strengthening and shoring up Hamas’s rule, and this is liable to obscure the distinction between Gaza and the West Bank. In the Israeli view, the West Bank must prosper and Gaza must wither, so that the Palestinians understand which is preferable. But the nature of red lines, as we’ve said, is to fade and to shift, and if Israel does not begin also to prepare for exports, it will be forced into doing this, too.