Army calls to lift some economic restrictions on Gaza, boost chances of quiet

Senior officer says Israel and Gaza at ‘watershed’ and that Hamas’s return of the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers is precondition for long-term calm

A photo taken from Gaza City on May 29, 2018, shows smoke billowing in the background following an Israeli air strike against a military target in the Palestinian coastal enclave, in response to repeated mortar and rocket attacks on southern Israel. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
A photo taken from Gaza City on May 29, 2018, shows smoke billowing in the background following an Israeli air strike against a military target in the Palestinian coastal enclave, in response to repeated mortar and rocket attacks on southern Israel. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

A top official in the IDF’s Southern Command said Thursday Israel must take steps to ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, which would likely bring quiet to the Gaza region.

The senior official said this could be a “watershed” moment for Hamas and the residents of Gaza. He said the parties to the conflict could choose to maintain the existing and potentially explosive situation or embark on a path of humanitarian relief that will bring some respite and economic development to the Gaza Strip.

“We’re at a crossroads. Decisions have to be made,” the unnamed officer told journalists in a background briefing. “There are small things that can be done to give us a year of quiet, and it’s also possible to reach a longer arrangement,” but that would require significant concessions from Hamas. “The more Hamas is accommodating, the better the arrangement will be,” the officer said.

If the current situation continues, the defense establishment assessment is that there will be more skirmishes like the one this week when Palestinian terrorists fired over 100 rockets and mortars at towns and cities in southern Israel. The Israel Defense Forces responded with dozens of airstrikes on Hamas military targets.

The officer said future conflicts of this kind have the potential to escalate into large military confrontations.

He stressed that the Southern Command was prepared for all scenarios, including a large operation within Gaza if necessary. However, he said, the army had recommended to the political echelon to begin a process of easing the economic pressure on Hamas — for example, by allowing workers from Gaza to enter Israel to work.

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)

But he added that no long-term arrangement was possible without the return to Israel of the bodies of IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.

“Hamas is in its worst situation since it came to power [in 2007], and the same is true of the Gaza Strip. The responsibility for that lies first of all with Hamas, but we can also take steps. Hamas is trying to figure out how to save itself from collapse, and it has only two solutions: reaching an arrangement [for quiet with Israel], or turning to military confrontation.”

The officer noted that the entire defense establishment agreed and recommended that the political echelon end this week’s fighting as quickly as possible: “That was also the message we received from the leaders of the towns near [Gaza],” he said.

According to reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed with the assessment, preferring to focus on mid-week efforts to carve out an agreement with Russia on Iranian troop withdrawals from Syria and to avoid a distracting round of conflict in the south.

Palestinian demonstrators use slingshots to hurl rocks at Israeli forces during clashes along the border with the Gaza Strip, May 18, 2018. (AFP/ Said Khatib)

The officer explained that the IDF also had only two options. “One is to allow an escalation with the toll [that would take] and with the need to manage the day after Hamas, if it was removed from power in the fighting. The second is to reach small or big agreements,” he said.

The IDF also expected the weekly Friday demonstrations at the border fence to continue, though scaled back from the tens of thousands that participated in the first few weeks of the protests, he added.

He said he expected major border protests next week on Naksa Day — the June 5 commemoration by Palestinians of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. However, he estimated that they would be smaller than those on Nakba Day on May 15, which came the day after the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, when over 60 Palestinians — most of them members of the Hamas or Islamic Jihad terror groups — were killed in clashes with the IDF.

The officer said that progress had continued this week on the subterranean line of defense against Gazan tunnels crossing from the coastal enclave into Israel. So far, 11 kilometers (seven miles) of the project have been completed out of a total of 64 kilometers (40 miles). It is supposed to be completed by mid- to late-2019.

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