Qatari cash for Hamas is politically toxic in Israel, but may stave off war

Former deputy national security adviser says the cost of a ‘shawarma a month’ for every resident in Gaza is a small price to pay for relative quiet

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A Palestinian woman counts her money after receiving her salary in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, November 9, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)
A Palestinian woman counts her money after receiving her salary in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, November 9, 2018. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The ever-restive Gaza Strip was again brought to the brink of war on Tuesday, after a Palestinian sniper shot at a group of Israeli soldiers along the border, hitting a company commander in his helmet.

It was not immediately clear who fired the shot at the IDF officer, though many in Gaza and in Israel suspected the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second-largest terror group in the Strip. Hamas officials on Wednesday said they were investigating the matter.

In response to the sniper attack, the Israel Defense Forces bombed a nearby Hamas observation post, killing a member of the Gaza-ruling terrorist group and injuring two others. Hours later, the air force also targeted a Hamas location in northern Gaza.

Potentially more painful for Hamas was Israel’s announcement late Tuesday that it was again withholding the transfer of $15 million in Qatari funds, which were supposed to be handed over to the Islamist group Wednesday. The money was initially meant to be transferred to Gaza last week, but this was also delayed due to a flare-up along the border at the time.

The helmet of an IDF officer that was hit by a sniper bullet during a riot along the Gaza border on January 22, 2019. (Courtesy)

Hamas and the other terror groups have yet to retaliate militarily to the decision, but have warned that they would respond in some way and accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of escalating the violence in Gaza for electoral purposes.

Some 10 months after regular clashes began along the Gaza border with the “March of Return,” the situation in the Palestinian coastal enclave remains poised to deteriorate into another all-out war — what would be the fourth in about a decade — that benefits neither Israel nor Hamas, but may nevertheless break out due to their respective domestic political considerations.

The $15 million of Qatari funds that were halted this week are from a total package of $90 million, spread out in six monthly installments, which is part of an unofficial, “cash for quiet” ceasefire agreement between Israel and the hard up terrorist group.

The money for Hamas is meant to pay back salaries of Gazan civil servants and other non-military expenses, but at least some of the funds will likely end up making their way to the group’s terrorist activities, if only by offsetting costs Hamas would have otherwise had to pay from its coffers.

Preventing war for the cost of a fast food meal?

The cash transfer is, not surprisingly, a deeply divisive issue within Israeli society, especially as campaigning for the April elections is in full swing. The timing of the matter has turned it from a primarily security-focused, cost-benefit analysis to a question of political realities and optics.

A Palestinian man shows his money after receiving his salary in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip November 9, 2018. (Said Khatib/ AFP)

“It’s not about the money, it’s about the appearance of Hamas getting money while they’re hitting our people,” former deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

Indeed, the image of the first $15 million in the form of three suitcases full of $100 bills entering Gaza for delivery to Hamas, which calls for the Jewish state’s destruction and acts on that belief, was quickly spread online and used to criticize Netanyahu’s coalition.

Avigdor Liberman, of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, specifically cited the matter in his decision to step down as defense minister in December. Now in the opposition, he continues to assail the government about the issue.

Left-wing politicians, meanwhile, aren’t condemning the prime minister for allowing the transfer to Hamas per se, but rather for the hypocrisy in Netanyahu billing himself as tough on terror while allowing Hamas to receive tens of millions of dollars from Qatar. They also cite Netanyahu’s opposition to a similar payment to Hamas under then-prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2009.

But to Freilich, and other defense analysts, a transfer of $90 million to Hamas in exchange for calm along the border is a good deal, even if it does ultimately amount to a reward for terror.

“In a perfect world, [Hamas] wouldn’t be getting money. But do you want to be right, or do you want to be smart?” he asked.

Breaking down the $15 million monthly installments into a per-person sum, Freilich said it amounts to just over $7 for Gaza’s over 2 million residents, or roughly the cost of a fast food meal in Israel.

“For the price of a shawarma a month, we help keep them quiet,” he said.

Palestinians react as tear gas canisters fired by Israeli forces rain down during clashes along the Israeli border fence, east of Gaza City on September 28, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Former head of the Shin Bet security service and Yesh Atid parliamentarian Yaakov Peri told Army Radio on Wednesday that withholding the funds raised the chances of renewed clashes in Gaza.

“They should have transferred the Qatari money, even though there’s an argument about it. The failure to do so carries a fairly serious risk of an outbreak of violence,” he said.

In Gaza, Hamas is increasingly feeling pressure domestically as the humanitarian conditions there deteriorate, with the pace of the decline increasing in recent months due to an ongoing, ugly feud with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

A picture taken on June 13, 2017, shows Palestinian children at home reading books by candle light due to electricity shortages in Gaza City. (AFP/ THOMAS COEX)

The $90 million of Qatari funds would not solve Hamas’s woes in Gaza, but would provide a degree of relief for the beleaguered coastal enclave, where residents have limited access to electricity and clean drinking water.

Netanyahu’s decision to halt the transfer of the funds on Tuesday was quickly described, both in Israel and in Gaza, as having been made for political rather than security considerations.

This will likely be true of all steps made regarding Gaza in the lead-up to the April elections and will put the IDF in the uncomfortable position of being placed in the middle of partisan debate.

“So the IDF is screwed here,” Freilich said.

But according to the ex-defense official, while the prime minister will want to appear tough on Hamas during the campaign season, he would not be helped by a major military operation.

“He doesn’t want a war before the elections, nor does he want to look like a softy before the elections. So he has to manage [the situation in Gaza],” the former deputy national security adviser said.

This largely leaves the IDF to continue with its current policies of responding to attacks by Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip — striking a balance between responding forcefully enough to warn against further violence and with sufficient restraint as to not prompt these groups to feel they must retaliate.

“We have to learn to manage this situation because we don’t have a solution,” Freilich said.

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