Analysis: A New Vision for Gaza?

Gaza Strip. Image Credit: NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Israel’s foreign minister launched a major new Gaza initiative on Sunday, offering a “new vision” based on “economy for security”. Yair Lapid was speaking on the 16th anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from the coastal enclave, which has been wracked by war and a humanitarian crisis under the leadership of the Hamas terror group.

What happened

  • Addressing a conference at Reichman University’s Institute for Counter-Terrorism policy in Herzliya, Lapid urged Israel to adopt a “new vision” based on a “multi-year process in Gaza of economy in return for security”.
  • Lapid, who heads the centre-left Yesh Atid party and is due to become prime minister in the second half of the new unity government’s term in office, said the initiative aimed to “create stability on both sides of the border”.
  • The foreign minister reiterated his support for a two-state solution and, in line with other recent steps by the government, placed a strengthened Palestinian Authority at the heart of the Gaza plan.
  • Lapid said he hopes to bring the plan to the cabinet for approval and added that he had already discussed it with leaders from the European Union, Egypt, the Gulf States, the Biden administration and Russia.
  • Lapid spoke as Democratic party senators visiting Israel praised the “very pragmatic” attitude of the country’s unity government and the opening up of a dialogue with the Palestinian leadership.
  • On Monday, the United Nations was due to begin distributing cash payments to needy Gazan families under a programme funded by Qatar and halted after May’s violent clashes between Hamas and Israel.
  • Terrorists in Gaza responded to Lapid’s speech by firing a rocket towards Israel. It was the third night of such attacks, leading to the IDF striking military targets in response.

False choices and a failed past

Lapid’s speech appeared to acknowledge the failure of Israel’s past efforts to deal with the threat posed by Hamas since it seized power in Gaza in a bloody 2007 coup. “The policy Israel has pursued up until now hasn’t substantially changed the situation,” he suggested. Referring to the tight restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of the Strip imposed by Israel and Egypt, Lapid suggested: “The closures haven’t stopped the smuggling and production of weapons. Last night, we once again struck Gaza after yet another rocket was fired, and residents ran to their shelters. We need to change direction.” The foreign minister also rejected the dichotomy that Israel could either reoccupy Gaza or contain the situation by engaging in sporadic bouts of conflict with Hamas and its fellow terror groups. “Those are two bad options,” he said. “That’s not a reality we can accept.”

Two-stage solution

Lapid’s Gaza plan would take place in two stages:

  • In the first phase, which would have precise benchmarks within a set time frame, Israel would work with the international community to tackle Gaza’s humanitarian crisis.
  • “The electricity system will be repaired, gas will be connected, a water desalination plant will be built, significant improvements to the healthcare system and a rebuilding of housing and transportation infrastructure will take place,” Lapid said. Israel would, at this stage, maintain full control of the supply of electricity and water to Gaza.
  • In exchange, Hamas would, however, need to commit to long-term “quiet”. “The security formula during the first stage is simple, and Prime Minister [Naftali] Bennett has already outlined it: In exchange for quiet, we are willing to give more than before,” Lapid said. “If the quiet is breached, Hamas and the other terrorist organisations need to know that the response will be harsher than before.”
  • The international community would also need to help prevent a Hamas military build-up by preventing arms smuggling and the deployment of an oversight mechanism to stop humanitarian funds from getting into the hands of terrorist groups.
  • The second stage of the plan, which would go ahead if the first phase proved successful, would see more far-reaching plans to revitalise the Gazan economy.
  • Among the projects Lapid promoted as part of the second stage were a transport link to connect the West Bank and Gaza; industrial and employment zones near the Erez Crossing; and joint economic projects involving Israel, the PA and Egypt. Israel also pledged to encourage international investment from the EU, US, the IMF, the World Bank and the UAE.
  • Gaza’s economic isolation would also be lessened by the construction of an artificial island seaport off of the coast. Such a seaport had been at the heart of a Gaza plan issued in 2015 by Labor MK Omer Barlev, who now serves as public security minister in the government.

A warning to Hamas…

Lapid also made clear that Israel was not softening its stance towards Hamas. “The international community and the people of Gaza need to know that Hamas terrorism is what’s standing between them and a normal life,” the foreign minister suggested. “We need to tell Gazans at every opportunity – Hamas is leading you to ruin. No-one will come and invest real money, and no-one will try to build an economy in a place from which Hamas fires and which Israel strikes on a regular basis.” If Hamas continued to attack Israel thus halting the plan, Lapid warned, “we will know and the international community will know, and mostly the people of Gaza will know, that Hamas refuses to improve life in Gaza because the only thing they care about is killing Jews”.

… and a hand to the PA

Lapid also continued recent efforts by the Israeli government to bolster the PA. “The representative body of the Palestinians isn’t Hamas, but the Palestinian Authority,” he argued. “Israel won’t hand out prizes to radical terror organisations and weaken the authority that works opposite us in an organised manner.” Lapid’s remarks came two weeks after defence minister Benny Gantz met with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the highest-level meeting between Israel and the PA in over a decade. Under Lapid’s plan, the PA would reassume responsibility for border crossings between Israel and the Strip during the first stage of the initiative and would take over civil and economic affairs in Gaza in the second phase. Speaking at the conference, Gantz also sought to shore-up the PA. “We have a political dispute with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, which must be resolved, but we share a common desire for peace and security for all those who live between the sea and Jordan. It is for this reason, that I decided to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, who has been working against terrorism over the years, in the interests of his people and his national vision. In these challenging times, coordination with the Palestinian Authority and strengthening the Palestinian economy is dozens of times better than strengthening Iranian proxies on our borders.”

Two-state talk 

While the unity government – a coalition of parties stretching from the left to hard right of the Israeli spectrum – is ideologically split on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lapid reiterated his long-standing support for a two-state solution and suggested his Gaza plan would assist its prospects.

  • “The solution presented here doesn’t address the two-state solution, but my opinion on the matter is well known: Israel needs to act to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and to negotiate with it with an aim of achieving a two-state solution,” Lapid said.
  • Lapid conceded that “the political conditions – in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority – don’t allow for diplomatic progress at the moment”. However, he argued, “in Gaza, we can, and we should, act now”.
  • “In a wider context, the kickstarting of a wider process in Gaza will create better conditions for future negotiations if and when the situation allows for it. We have seen in the past that rounds of fighting in Gaza hurt the chances of returning to the negotiating table,” he added.
  • However, a spokesperson for Bennett, who opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, side-stepped questions as to whether the prime minister supported the principles of a plan to strengthen the PA toward a two-state solution. “Bennett agrees with the economic strengthening of the Palestinian population. This has been his stance for years. As defence minister, he authorised the Defence Ministry to examine the island idea proposed by [former finance minister] Israel Katz,” they suggested.

Rockets and money

After Lapid’s speech terrorists fired rockets from Gaza towards Israel on Sunday evening for the third consecutive night.

  • Both were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system. In response, the IDF launched a series of airstrikes on Hamas targets early on Monday morning, hitting four bases, including an underground tunnel and weapons storage and production facilities.
  • The rocket attacks underline the fragile nature of the ceasefire concluded between Israel and Hamas after May’s 11-day conflict.
  • On Monday, subsidies provided by Qatar via the United Nations were due to begin entering Gaza to provide cash payments to 100,000 impoverished families. Since 2018, $30m in cash has been transferred via Israeli-controlled crossings into Gaza.
  • May’s conflict, however, led Israel to halt the flow of Qatari funds to pay Gaza-based civil servants, some of whom are Hamas members. A deal by which the money would have been deposited in banks in the West Bank broke down late last week when the PA, fearing it would be exposed to lawsuits alleging support for terrorism, pulled out of an agreement struck with Qatar and the UN.

Promising steps

A group of US Democratic party senators who visited Israel and the West Bank last week on a delegation praised the new Israeli government. “They’ve made significant, promising steps in the last few months, whether opening up a high-level dialogue with the Palestinian Authority or beginning to open up pathways for humanitarian relief into Gaza,” Senator Chris Murphy suggested. “We pressed them to do more, but we’ve met with Israeli leadership that seems very pragmatic and very willing to try to work with both parties in Congress to address a pathway toward, at the very least, a meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians,” Murphy added after meetings with Bennett and Lapid.

What happens next

Observers fear that the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas is under heavy strain and that a new round of fighting could be imminent. Hamas has previously unleashed rocket attacks and violence as a means to force Israel to allow cash payments from Qatar to enter Gaza to pay its members.