Coronavirus: Israel must help Hamas without creating a security threat

SECURITY: The Gaza corona conundrum

A Palestinian woman, wearing a mask as a preventive measure against coronavirus, looks out of a car upon her return from abroad, at Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Palestinian woman, wearing a mask as a preventive measure against coronavirus, looks out of a car upon her return from abroad, at Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Within weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has turned two classic Middle East enemies — Israel and Hamas — into strange and unofficial partners in a common battle to prevent a serious outbreak of the disease in the highly populated and impoverished Gaza Strip.
There is no known direct communication between Israel and Hamas. But Israel’s control of two of the enclave’s three borders places it in a crucial position to facilitate the passage of assistance to Gaza, even as it must ensure that Hamas does not use the cover of the illness to engage in further attacks.
“We are all fighting the same enemy, which is a global enemy... the corona,” said Col. Iyad Sarhan, the commander of the Coordination and Liaison Administration for Gaza, which operates under the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).
Sarhan is charged with the implementation of the government’s civilian policy toward the Palestinians in Gaza, which since the outbreak of COVID-19 has earned Israel praise from the most unlikely of places, the United Nations.
The Gaza rocket that fell into an open field in southern Israel and the IDF retaliatory strike that occurred on the last weekend in March was a sharp reminder that the pandemic has not erased the enmity between Israel and Hamas. Even as it helps Gaza combat corona, Israel must ensure that Hamas is not exploiting the situation to gain a military advantage against the IDF.
At issue is saving lives and the fear of a potential high death count, given that the Gaza health system was on the verge of collapse prior to the outbreak of the disease.
For both Hamas and Israel, there are also secondary issues at stake. A serious COVID-19 outbreak could threaten Hamas rule. Hamas has been in charge of Gaza since it overthrew Fatah in a violent coup in 2007. For Israel, such an outbreak would become a public relations nightmare, given that the international community holds it responsible for the fate of the Palestinians in the Strip.
“Hamas has no tools to handle this crisis,” said Col. (ret.) Michael Milshtein, who heads the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. He was also the adviser to former COGAT head Maj.-Gen. (ret) Yoav (Poli) Mordechai.
“If Hamas will feel that its own regime in Gaza is threatened, it will have no problem putting some pressure on Israel, even by military means,” Milshtein told The Jerusalem Post.
A serious COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza “is a very problematic and even a strategic threat” to Israel, Milshtein said.
Hamas is “afraid not only from the spread of the virus but also from potential conflict that is going to take place in Gaza because of the coronavirus, Milshtein said.
Hamas will try to channel any popular unrest by Palestinians in Gaza so that it is aimed at Israel, even if that means a renewal of hostilities, he warned.
Israel is under pressure from within to use the COVID-19 situation, to gain concessions from Hamas, particularly with respect to the return from Gaza of two civilian captives and the remains of IDF soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oren Shaul. Both soldiers were believed to have been killed during the 2014 Operation Protective Edge.
At a press conference on Wednesday Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said he is open to talk of such linkage.
“The moment there is talk of the humanitarian world in Gaza - Israel also has humanitarian needs, which are mainly the recovery of the fallen," Bennett said.
"And I think that we need to enter a broad dialogue about Gaza’s and our humanitarian needs. It would not be right to disconnect these things... and certainly our hearts would be open to many things.”
Left-wing activists have called on Israel, in light of the coronavirus, to remove all the border restrictions on the entry and exit of goods that it put in place in 2007. Israel did so both for security reasons and to pressure Hamas, to end its Gaza rule. The restrictions walked a fine line, to keep a Hamas-ruled Gaza from flourishing economically, while at the same time ensuring that there was no humanitarian crisis.
The left-wing group Gisha — Legal Center for Freedom of Movement this week called on COGAT to lift restrictions on “food security” by expanding the type of dual-use items it allows in for the farming and fishing sectors.
Sarhan said that Israel’s primary focus now is on saving lives.
“We are doing everything we can to prevent an outbreak of the disease,” Sarhan said.
The situation in Gaza differs from that in the West Bank, where Israel can work directly with the Palestinian Authority. Israel has no direct ties with Hamas, so it partners instead with the international community, primarily the United Nations, which is the main coordinator for international assistance.
“Gaza presents a very different kind of challenge,” he said.
Israel has helped transfer equipment from the international community, including World Health Organization testing kits and protective gear, as well as disinfecting materials, lab equipment, repair parts for medical equipment and alcohol jell.
“Israel has met all of the Palestinian requests for medical assistance,” Sarhan said. Some “80 truckloads of medical equipment and medicine” have gone in, he said.
“International assistance is very important,” he said.
Sarhan clarified that Israel is not communicating with Hamas, and the requests are made through a third party.
The trucks enter Gaza through its main commercial crossing at Kerem Shalom, which is operated by the Defense Ministry and COGAT. It has remained open for the transfer of medical equipment and regular goods in and out of the Gaza Strip.
The pedestrian crossing at Erez is closed to most regular foot traffic, but it has remained open for non-corona medical patients who need lifesaving treatment in Israel.
The Palestinians in Gaza have strictly controlled Erez and the pedestrian crossing at the Egyptian border at Rafah, he said. Anyone who enters Gaza has to immediately enter one of the 28 quarantine centers that have been set up in the Strip.
To date, there are only 12 known cases of coronavirus infections in Gaza. They are quarantined, and their point of contact with the disease is known, data that leave Sarhan with hope that containment is possible.
Sarhan said he believes that the data are correct and reflect the situation within Gaza. It is more difficult to assess the situation there because the IDF does not operate in Gaza as it does in the West Bank.
The IDF has gone over scenarios of what would happen if the disease were no longer contained.
Such an outbreak “could happen suddenly," Sarhan said. “We are continually assessing the situation, so we can be prepared,” he said, but he did not share any of those assessments or possibilities.
“We are working with many partners. We hope that we do not get to that situation [of an outbreak],” he said.
“We see that the 12 who were stricken are not seriously ill and are being treated,” he said.
In the past Israel has linked in some cases restrictions at the crossings with Hamas actions, but when it comes to the corona crisis, Sarhan said, there is no linkage, because this is humanitarian assistance.
There had been an initiative to take steps to improve the economy prior to corona, including increasing permits for merchants, he said.
Sarhan said that in light of the coronavirus and the accompanying financial crisis, it is important that the Gaza economy continue to function.
There is a world economic crisis, which has plunged Israel into a 25% unemployment rate, and Gaza has also been impacted, Sarhan said.
Israel has taken steps to help the Gaza economy, including assisting factories manufacturing protective gear, so that it can send that equipment to markets outside of Gaza.
At present, he said, “There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” Every request, economic or medical, that would prevent one has been considered on its merits, he said.
Sarhan explained that in spite of the depth of the crisis and the dangers it poses, Israel is not considering reassessing its policy of border restrictions put in place to combat Hamas’s forced rule.
"Those who still rule in the Gaza Strip are terrorist organizations which do not love Israel. Where we can make it easier with regard to civilian issues without creating a security risk, we have approved requests. We are making it easier where we can. We have done this in the past, and we are doing it now.
“There are things that for years we have not allowed to enter,” but which have now been authorized to go in, Sarhan said. This includes certain raw materials, medical equipment and products for the fishing industry.
“But it is impossible to forget the security situation,” he said, adding that it is important for that situation to remain stable.
He asked the civilians in Gaza to also do their part to ensure that the virus is contained by staying home.
“I call on the population in the Strip to listen to the health edicts. This event will not last a week or longer, but could last for three or four months. Patience is needed,” he said.