Members of the top-level security cabinet have spoken out against a reported proposal for the Gaza Strip that was said to have been discussed during secret talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said Tuesday that key elements of the arrangement, which called for restoring Palestinian Authority control over Gaza in place of the current Hamas regime, would be a threat to Israel’s security.
On Monday, Channel 10 television news reported that Netanyahu secretly traveled to Egypt in May to meet with Sissi. Quoting unnamed American officials, the report said the focus of the trip was to discuss an arrangement in the Gaza Strip that would see the return of the PA to power there, a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas terror group that currently rules the Strip, the easing of the Israeli and Egyptian blockades on the Strip, and steps to advance humanitarian projects.
Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the West Bank-based PA, which is led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party. The two rival groups been at loggerheads ever since.
“Any attempt to return Abbas to Gaza and to connect between Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in Judea and Samaria by way of a ‘secure passage’ which crosses Israel, will be a direct threat and a serious impact to Israel’s security and the demographic balance between Israel and the Palestinians,” Katz told the Israel Hayom daily, using the biblical names for the West Bank regions.
Katz was apparently referring to expected elements of the Trump administration’s peace plan, which has still not been made public, but was reportedly also discussed by Netanyahu and Sissi.
“It is understandable and the matter should be debated and decided in the cabinet. Israel’s policy regarding Gaza must be clear — civilian separation between Gaza and Israel and the stretching of a clear border security line between Israel and Gaza,” Katz told Israel Hayom, which is seen as being aligned with the Likud party led by Netanyahu.
According to the newspaper, other cabinet ministers are also opposed to the deal Netanyahu and Sissi discussed.
A Likud cabinet member not identified in the report said, “Hamas will never give up on control of the Gaza Strip; therefore, such proposals are detached from reality.”
According to the report, ministers are wary of any unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, an Islamist terror group that seeks to destroy Israel. A deal struck between the two last year, but largely unimplemented, was met by an Israeli refusal to negotiate with the PA if it included Hamas as part of a unity government.
Most international parties view a Fatah-Hamas power sharing agreement as a necessary step toward reaching a deal to ease the Strip’s dire humanitarian situation. Abbas has rejected any plan for the Strip that would see it recognized or dealt with as a political entity distinct from the West Bank and ruled by a non-PA party.
Katz did not say who should be in charge in the enclave. Israel occupied Gaza from 1967 to 2005, when it unilaterally evacuated settlements and pulled its military out, though it maintains a land and naval blockade to keep weapons from entering. While some in the right wing have called for Israel to reconquer the Strip and its 2 million Palestinian residents, most view that as an unrealistic prospect.
During the meeting with Netanyahu, Sissi stressed to Netanyahu that the PA must be allowed to regain control of Gaza and take responsibility for the territory, according to the report.
Channel 10 said the Netanyahu trip to Egypt took place on May 22 and most ministers in the security cabinet were not aware of the meeting between the leaders.
The TV report did not mention the idea of a “safe passage” connecting Gaza to the West Bank but the concept is seen as being a likely part of an future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Gaza and the West Bank are separated from each other by Israel territory that is about 35 kilometers (21 miles) wide at their closest point.
The report comes as Israeli is reportedly nearing a long-term truce with Hamas, negotiated via Egyptian and UN mediation, that will see a halt in attacks from Gaza in exchange for an easing of Israeli restrictions on the enclave.
Local leaders near the Gaza border and hawkish politicians have been pushing the government and army to take a harder line toward Hamas even at the risk of war. A ceasefire agreement reportedly reached last week following a violent flareup was rejected by local politicians in the Gaza border region, who fear daily arson attacks and other cross-border violence will return if Israel does not take military action.
The last several months have seen several flareups of violence, with Hamas and other terror groups firing hundreds of rockets and mortars in to Israel and Israel hitting dozens of Hamas posts in Gaza.
In addition, Palestinians have launched almost daily arson attacks by sending balloons and kites carrying incendiary devices across the border where they start fires in Israeli territory. The blazes have burned thousands of acres of farmland and countryside causing millions of shekels of damage.
Netanyahu on Sunday warned Hamas that Israel will continue to operate against the terrorism stemming from the Gaza Strip, apparently confirming that no official ceasefire agreement had been reached with the terrorist group.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman will meet with senior members of the Israeli security establishment later Tuesday to discuss easing restrictions on the Gaza Strip following a decrease in Palestinian violence, according to a senior defense official. It was not clear if Katz will also be at the meeting.
There has been a significant drop this week in arson attacks from the Palestinian enclave.