Liberman: Israel to invest NIS 3.5b in Gaza border towns
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Liberman: Israel to invest NIS 3.5b in Gaza border towns

Defense minister warns Knesset committee of Hamas build-up, Palestinian money woes, and army staffing issues

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman addresses the  Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, flanked by Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, left and the committee's chairperson Avi Dichter, right, in the Knesset, on October 31, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman addresses the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, flanked by Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog, left and the committee's chairperson Avi Dichter, right, in the Knesset, on October 31, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel will invest approximately NIS 3.5 billion ($909 million) over the next few years to shore up the defenses of the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced Monday.

During a meeting with the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the minister warned of the Hamas terror group’s growing “attack force” and desire to renew conflict with Israel.

“Hamas in Gaza has 26,000 fighters and another 40,000 officials whose salaries it pays,” Liberman said.

While he said the build-up of Hamas’s forces was an attempt to “bring the fight to Israeli territory in the next round,” the defense minister also noted that some of the terror group’s efforts were directed toward “restraining the other groups in the Strip,” a reference to the more extreme jihadist groups that have been responsible for the rockets fired into Israel since the 2014 Gaza war.

Police sappers dig out piece of a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip that struck a road in the southern city of Sderot on October 5, 2016. ( FLASH90)
Police sappers dig out piece of a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip that struck a road in the southern city of Sderot on October 5, 2016. ( FLASH90)

Liberman attributed Hamas’s efforts to prevent the rocket fire to a more forceful retaliation policy he has instilled in the Israel Defense Forces to make; however, the number of rocket attacks has not changed considerably since the army adopted the policy in August, remaining at between one and two launches hitting Israel each month.

During a press conference at the start of the meeting, Liberman also told the attendees that the government “cannot accept any situation where officers in uniform are a target to be attacked or lashed out against, especially by Knesset members.”

He appeared to be referring to comments made by Jewish Home MK Moti Yogev, who had criticized the IDF’s military advocate general, Brig. Gen. Sharon Afek, and officers from the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, during a committee meeting in September.

In his remarks to the powerful Knesset committee, Liberman also addressed the worsening financial situation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, as well as the human resource issues facing the IDF.

According to the defense minister, both Gaza and the West Bank are in dire financial straits, an issue that affects both Palestinians and Israels.

A meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, on October 31, 2016. (Yitzchak Harari/Knesset spokesperson)
A meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset, on October 31, 2016. (Yitzchak Harari/Knesset spokesperson)

“Improving the Palestinians’ financial situation is an Israeli security interest,” Liberman said, according to a statement issued by the committee.

Hamas’s shaky pecuniary position has long been an issue in the Gaza Strip, where the unemployment rate stands at approximately 40 percent, according to the Israeli military.

Liberman charged both Hamas and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — a constant source of ridicule and ire for the defense minister — with deliberately dragging their feet in addressing the financial crises in Gaza and the West Bank.

“Abu Mazen is primarily busy with leaving a political legacy, including a number of political moves planned for 2017, and does not work to improve the Authority’s financial situation,” he said, using Abbas’s nickname.

A Palestinian girl walks barefoot in el-Zohor slum, on the outskirts of Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, June 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A Palestinian girl walks barefoot in el-Zohor slum, on the outskirts of Khan Younis refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, June 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

With regards to Gaza, the defense minister claimed the Strip’s foreign aid, which he said constitutes some 95% of its budget, has dried up over the past few years.

According to Liberman, despite that situation, Hamas has deliberately avoided steps to improve the lives of Gaza residents.

For proof, he pointed to the Gaza Strip’s impending water crisis. According to the United Nations, the coastal enclave may be uninhabitable by 2020, in part due to a lack of fresh, clean water.

A Palestinian man fills tankers with drinking water for sale at a drinking water station in Gaza City, April 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A Palestinian man fills tankers with drinking water for sale at a drinking water station in Gaza City, April 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Over the years, the World Bank has provided some NIS 383 million ($100 million) for a water purification system, and in June, the Israel Electric Corporation agreed to supply the Gaza Strip with the additional power necessary to run such a treatment plant.

Yet Hamas has not approved the plan, according to Liberman. In light of that, he said, Israel will have to put together a plan “in the next few months” to supply Gaza residents with clean war.

In the committee meeting, the defense minister also discussed the IDF’s current staffing issues.

Unable to compete with civilian companies’ salaries, the army has seen something of a brain drain, as talented officers and non-commissioned officers leave for better pay.

The army has trotted out some solutions, offering soldiers modest bonuses and other perks, as well as encouraging them to remain in the army for idealistic and patriotic reasons.

Liberman offered no concrete answers to the crisis, but criticized the decision made prior to his becoming defense minister to cut short the required military service for male soldiers from 36 to 32 months, though he said he would not move to change the policy.

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