Security and Defense: Coordinating around September

Both sides are well aware of the potential for violence, and that each has plenty to lose.

Eitan Dangot 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eitan Dangot 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last year, Nicola Khamis, a Beit Jala city council member and owner of Jala Foods, decided to establish an independent production line to manufacture desserts. Based on rice pudding, the small individually packaged desserts come in different flavors – raspberry, chocolate and vanilla – and have become quite a hit throughout the West Bank.
On Tuesday, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.- Gen. Eitan Dangot stood in the parking lot of Jala Foods’ headquarters eating one of these desserts and chatting with the prominent Palestinian businessman.
Khamis established his business decades ago and quickly became the chief distributor of all of Tnuva’s dairy products in the West Bank. His company has grown in recent years; today it employs close to 300 employees and represents additional Israeli companies throughout the Palestinian territories.
As head of COGAT, the military body responsible for coordinating civilian and security issues among the government, the IDF, the Palestinian Authority and international organizations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Dangot regularly visits Palestinian towns and cities and meets with locals to hear their assessments, requests and complaints.
On Tuesday, in addition to Jala Foods, he visited a nearby cement construction company and sat down with a group of top Palestinian businessmen from the tourism industry.
On the surface, the meetings themselves seem strange for an IDF general to be holding at a time when the current governments in Jerusalem and Ramallah are in complete disconnect and PA President Mahmoud Abbas is moving forward with plans to submit a proposal to the United Nations later this month to ask for recognition for a Palestinian state.
But that is the inherent paradox in Dangot’s position. While he is a senior official from the Israeli establishment, he is also the man entrusted with facilitating Israeli economic assistance to the PA, coordinating between the IDF and PA security forces and advancing large-scale infrastructure projects throughout the West Bank together with other countries and international NGOs.
Dangot was appointed COGAT head in November 2009, but even before then, he had been intimately involved in formulating Israeli policy vis-à-vis the PA as the military secretary of three consecutive defense ministers – Shaul Mofaz, Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak.
Before that, he served in the Home Front Command and the IDF’s Strategic Planning Division.
During his meetings Tuesday, Dangot asked the businessmen about the current sentiment on the Palestinian street and what they expected would happen following what Israelis have gotten used to calling “September,” but what really refers to the period in October or even November following the UN vote on the PA statehood bid.
One Palestinian, a known hotelier, said that Israel did not need to be afraid of September.
“There is nothing to be scared of,” he said. “The Palestinian people care about their pockets, what is inside their wallets and their livelihood.”
The Palestinians took advantage of the meeting to raise issues related to the tourism industry. One of them wanted Israeli approval to build a hotel on the Dead Sea, something the PA’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat has raised before, and was told that such a gesture would likely have to wait for a final peace settlement.
Another businessman wanted permission to build new hotels on West Bank land defined as Area C, which is under Israeli security and civilian control. Options were discussed at length for hotels in Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah. The owner of a large travel company based in Bethlehem asked Dangot to enable more Palestinian tour guides to enter Israel and more Israeli tour guides to enter Bethlehem.
“This is the holy land for both of us,” the owner of the travel company said. “Both sides can gain from working more together.”
Dangot could not agree more.
“Both sides stand to lose a lot if the situation escalates [because of September],” he said. “The people who are trying to escalate the situation want violence, blood and causalities to serve their cause. The PA leadership does not want violence, but there are other elements who do.”
PREDICTIONS IN the IDF of what will happen after the UN vote are split. Some senior officers believe that the Palestinian street will enlist with a movement for independence and will rise up against the army with marches toward checkpoints and settlements.
In the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), there is a belief that the Palestinian street is tired from the first and second intifadas, and while thousands of people might participate in demonstrations, they will not resort to extreme violence like in 2000. At the same time, the Shin Bet fears that if violence erupts in the West Bank, Hamas and other terrorist groups will try to ride the wave and increase their efforts to carry out attacks inside Israel.
Dangot’s job is to prepare for a wide range of scenarios, and at the same time to try and continue working with the PA to ensure economic growth sustainability in the West Bank and stave off a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.
He told The Jerusalem Post he was not concerned about the challenges Israel faced from September.
“I am rational,” he said, “which means that we will need to wait and watch and see how the situation develops on the ground.”
COGAT, he continued, is an integral part of the country’s entire preparations for what will happen after September, but for now it appears that it will continue working together with the PA and Palestinian businesses even after the declaration of statehood.
He was, however, critical of the PA for delaying essential infrastructure projects that could benefit the Palestinian people by creating new factories and jobs.
One project is an industrial park near Jericho that has been in the works for two years, but the Palestinians are now refusing to build – even though Israel has given its approval – since one of the roads to the park runs through Area C. The PA has asked Israel to change the status of the road to Area A, but Israel has said that the issue will be dealt with under a final peace agreement.
Other stalled projects are industrial parks near Bethlehem and Jenin.
“There are non-economic considerations at play here, and unfortunately projects that can provide hundreds of jobs are not moving forward even though we have given all of the permits,” Dangot said.
After a meal of humous, felafel and labana cheese, Dangot bade farewell to his hosts and the Palestinian businessmen at the construction company and Jala Foods.
Now it is time to wait and see what this month of September will bring.