Liberman conditions aid for Gaza on Red Cross visits to captive Israelis

Defense minister blames Strip’s deteriorating humanitarian situation on Palestinian Authority’s rivalry with enclave’s Hamas rulers

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

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, left, meets with senior officers in the IDF Southern Command, including IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, center, and Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi on June 12, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, left, meets with senior officers in the IDF Southern Command, including IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, center, and Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi on June 12, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday conditioned stepped-up humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip on Hamas granting the Red Cross access to the Israelis held captive in the Palestinian enclave.

“We’re asking for the most obvious, humane humanitarian gesture — at least letting the Red Cross see our captives and fallen soldiers,” Liberman said. “After that it will be much easier, not necessarily to reach a long-term ‘hudna’ (ceasefire) but to give humanitarian aid to the residents of Gaza.”

Two Israeli men — Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — and the remains of two fallen soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — are believed to be held captive by the terrorist group in the Gaza Strip.

Hamas has refused to grant aid groups access to see them, in violation of international law.

Oron Shaul, Hadar Goldin and Avraham Mengistu. (Flash90/The Times of Israel)

Goldin’s parents have led a campaign calling on the government to take a harsher line on Gaza until the captives and remains are returned.

Liberman made his remarks while on a visit to the Gaza periphery, where he met with senior military officers about the security situation in the Strip, which has been especially tense in recent months.

Palestinians protesters run from tear gas fired by Israeli troops on the Israel-Gaza border, Friday, June 8, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Since March 30, thousands of Palestinians have gathered along the Gaza security fence each week for often violent demonstrations, which have occasionally included direct armed attacks on Israeli soldiers across the border. Hamas officials have said the purpose of these border riots is to breach the security fence and enter Israeli territory. IDF troops, in response, have used tear gas and live fire against the rioters. Over 120 Palestinians have been killed as of this week and thousands more have been injured, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. Many of them were acknowledged members of terrorist groups.

Last month also saw a large flare-up around the Gaza border, with terror groups in the Strip launching some 200 mortar shells and rockets at southern Israel. In response, Israeli aircraft bombed over 65 targets in the coastal enclave.

Two Palestinians help fly a ‘fire kite’ from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory during mass demonstrations along the security fence on June 8, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The defense minister also commented on the regular phenomenon of Palestinians flying kites and helium balloons laden with burning material and incendiary devices into Israeli territory. These daily airborne arson attacks have already burned thousands of acres of farmland, forests and parks, according to Israeli officials.

“We are succeeding in shooting down two-thirds of the kites and balloons, despite the increase in the use of this weapon by Hamas,” Liberman said, referring to a military drone program that has intercepted hundreds of incoming flaming contraptions.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center-right, meets with senior officers in the IDF Southern Command, including IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, center, and Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, right, on June 12, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“We are coming up with a solution for the other third that are still being launched,” Liberman said.

He warned the Palestinians flying these incendiary kites and balloons that Israel would not tolerate the situation for much longer.

“They are pulling the rope too tight, and eventually that rope will break,” Liberman said.

The defense minister accused the terror group of stealing the helium that is meant to be used in Gaza hospitals to help run MRI machines to power the incendiary balloons.

Incendiary balloons being launched into Israel from the Gaza Strip in May 2018. (Screen capture: Quds news)

“Hamas is taking advantage of the Gaza Strip’s medical network in the nastiest and most cynical way,” Liberman said.

“Instead of the helium going to the sick patients that need it for MRIs, [Hamas] is using it for balloons to set fire to fields here,” he said.

The defense minister called on residents of the Gaza Strip to pressure Hamas into returning the Israeli captives and stopping its terror activities.

“Gaza residents, you have effectively become captives of the Hamas regime. You can build a better future for your children, you can get all the humanitarian, economic and civilian aid — but first kick out the Hamas regime,” he said.

“We request again and ask you, put pressure on the leaders of Hamas to return the captives and fallen soldiers. This will ensure humanitarian and economic aid for all residents of Gaza. To my dismay, so long as the Hamas regime continues, the chance for coexistence, partnership and a better future for the residents of Gaza simply will not occur,” he said.

In this Thursday, May 31, 2018 photo, free porridge is distributed to the poor during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

As Israeli ministers and defense officials discuss the future of the Gaza Strip and its humanitarian conditions, Liberman and the IDF’s top brass have found themselves on opposite sides of the argument.

Israeli military officials have called for Israel to ease the situation in Gaza by providing additional aid and other benefits to the beleaguered coastal enclave.

Liberman has said he does not believe this will have a real impact on the security situation.

“Whoever thinks that improving the civilian and humanitarian reality in Gaza will prevent the kites and fire is wrong and is misleading [people],” Liberman said last week.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah on May 14, 2018. ( ABBAS MOMANI/AFP)

On Tuesday, the defense minister blamed the poor living conditions in Gaza on the Palestinian Authority and its president Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen.

Hamas took control of Gaza from the PA in 2007 in a violent coup.

Since then, the PA has been engaged in a conflict with Hamas and uses the power that it has over Gaza — mostly in the form of tax money — in order to exert pressure over its rival.

The PA has cut payments to Gaza-based officials. It has also refused to pay for the coastal enclave’s electricity, as has Hamas, leaving Gaza residents in the dark for all but a few hours of the day.

“What I don’t hear from figures in the media or from public figures in Israel is who is responsible, who made the situation deteriorate. I’ll remind you that despite the Ramadan holiday, despite everything, Abu Mazen has barely paid half the salaries for April, to say nothing of May and nothing of the cuts he continues to make for the welfare system, the healthcare system for Gaza residents,” Liberman said.

“And yet he’s the one running to the International Criminal Court, to the UN Security Council, to the UN General Assembly to blame Israel. The person ruining this situation and trying to play both sides is first and foremost Abu Mazen,” he said.

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