NEW YORK — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Israel’s warming relations with Arab nations, and highlighted Egypt’s continued efforts to help resolve the economic crisis in the Gaza Strip and quell tensions along the border with the Palestinian enclave.
Briefing Israeli reporters traveling with him in the US on Friday, Netanyahu said Israel now has “good relations with the Arab world,” and that the Jewish state was working on creating a process of reconciliation with Gulf nations.
At the same time, a senior Israeli official stated that while relations with many Arab nations were indeed improving, Israelis should not expect a peace deal to be signed with those countries in the near future.
When discussing the deteriorating economic situation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, as well as the ongoing clashes along the border with the Palestinian enclave, Netanyahu said Israel’s security concerns guide the government’s policy, and that Israel was prepared for any scenario.
“This is not a throwaway line,” Netanyahu said. “Our immediate policy is to prevent breaches and maintain our security.”
Referring to Islamist terror group Hamas, Netanyahu said that “there is a general problem in Gaza, which is ruled by a theocratic regime with the explicit goal of destroying Israel.”
The senior Israeli official elaborated that the crisis in Gaza stems from the fact that the enclave has no market economy or proper government. “Seventy percent of the money going into the Strip is used to fund the [Hamas] war machine,” the official said. “[The residents of Gaza] live on crumbs.”
The official said Israel had been actively engaged with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in an attempt to find solutions to the situation in the Strip. “Sissi is a very, very intelligent man, and one common interest of ours is to solve the problem in Gaza,” the official said.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has cut more than $500 million in aid to the Palestinians, including ending all support for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, sparking a budget crisis.
Last week, the World Bank warned the Gaza Strip’s economy was in “free fall.” The report said Gaza’s economy shrunk by six percent in the first quarter of 2018 “with indications of further deterioration since then,” it said.
The bank said one in two Gazans now lives below the poverty line and that unemployment is running at 53 percent. More than 70% of young people are jobless, it said.
Making matters even more complicated, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has slashed funding to Gaza and cut salaries of PA employees there to pressure Hamas into handing over the territory, making it increasingly difficult for Hamas to govern. Hamas fears Abbas may reduce funding for health care and other services for Gazans.
Further cuts to Gaza’s budget are seen as a move that could worsen the Strip’s already dire humanitarian situation and deepen a rift between the rival groups.
During his speech to the UN General Assembly Thursday, Abbas indicated he would cut the remaining PA budgets allocated for Gaza if Hamas refused to hand over control of the coastal territory.
“There is an agreement between Hamas and us. We abided by it and our Egyptian brothers know that, but they have not abided by it. Therefore, from now on, we will not bear any responsibility [for Gaza]. I ask you to understand that. We will not bear any responsibility if they insist on rejecting agreements,” Abbas said, referring to an Egyptian-brokered agreement Hamas and Fatah signed last year.
Hamas and Fatah signed an agreement to bring the West Bank and Gaza under the PA’s authority in October 2017, however the rival parties failed to implement the deal.
The Israeli official said Friday that Israel had requested that Sissi put pressure on Abbas in order to ensure that the situation in the Strip not spiral out of control. “It is clear that Hamas created the first problem, but Abbas is striking the final blow, [and we asked Sissi] to pressure him to stop the strangling, because it would only lead to an explosion that no one wants.”
On Saturday, a Hamas and Islamic Jihad delegation left the Gaza Strip for Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials to advance efforts to reach a Palestinian reconciliation deal and a possible long-term truce with Israel, Palestinian media reported.
According to the reports, the delegation was headed by Hamas deputy leader Salah al-Arouri. The Gaza officials were scheduled to meet with Egyptian intelligence officials throughout the day for deliberations.
UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov said this week the failure to implement the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement was a key factor behind the Strip’s worsening humanitarian situation.
The Palestinian delegation traveled to Cairo a day after the Gaza health ministry said seven Gazans, including 2 teens, were killed in clashes with Israeli troops along the border.
The IDF said about 20,000 Palestinians took part in violent protests, spread out among a few locations along the Gaza security fence. In several instances they threw hand grenades and explosive devices at soldiers. In two cases IAF aircraft carried out strikes against grenade throwers, the army said, noting there were no injuries to IDF forces.
Egypt has also been trying to broker a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that would see an end to the ongoing border protests in exchange for loosening the blockade on the coastal territory.
However, those talks have stalled as well and the riots along the border have gone from a weekly event to nightly protests. Israeli military officials said Friday’s border violence was the worst in two months.