Security and Defense: A colonel of hope

On eve of retirement, Col. Nir Press tells 'Post' how role as Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration commander helped combat humanitarian crisis.

nir press 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy )
nir press 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Adjacent to the Erez crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip are a few small, one-story, white concrete office buildings within a fenced-off compound surrounded by three-meter walls and looming watchtowers. This is the Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA), where representatives of the IDF and government ministries work to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Their job has not been an easy one for several reasons, chief among them the Hamas takeover last June and the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit a year before that. But what has made their work even more difficult is the almost daily mortar shells that landed inside the CLA compound up until the current cease-fire went into effect. Over the past year, more than 200 shells pounded the base, many of them falling right next to the office of CLA commander Col. Nir Press, who, on more than one occasion, personally applied pressure to a soldier's shrapnel wound while waiting for medics to arrive on the scene. Under such incessant threat, other officers nearing the end of their careers might have decided to pack it in. But not Press, who - in spite of it all - says he understood that his job was of national importance, and that if not he, someone else would have to do it. "I always looked at things from a long-term perspective," he told The Jerusalem Post in an interview marking the end of his term as CLA chief and 26-year military career. "And I understood that the both we and the Palestinians are here to stay." Press, a former navy commander who served in several leading positions in the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories in recent years, is one of the few officers in the Southern Command whose job has not been to prepare for combat. He doesn't speak about Kassams and improvised explosive devices, but about the Palestinian economy and unemployment rates. He has served as commander of the CLA for the past three years, taking up the post the day after the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza was completed in the summer of 2005. He remembers the immediate aftermath well. "There was a feeling that things would now be different," he recalls. "Five thousand Palestinians entered Israel daily for work; the Karni crossing was operational; and the amount of merchandise going into Gaza was at its peak." This hope did not last long, however. With the Hamas victory in the 2006 elections and the kidnapping of Schalit six months later, the situation dramatically changed. PRESS'S role might be compared to that of a juggler. Indeed, for the past three years, he has had to juggle Israeli, Palestinian and international interests in Gaza. His directive from the Defense Ministry has been to prevent the emergence of a humanitarian crisis there. "This was the greatest challenge," he says. "On the one hand, we were fighting against an enemy. On the other, we never viewed the civilian population as our enemy, and did what we could to improve its quality of life so it would understand that Israel is not evil. We need to be able to create an alternative to terrorism via the economy, and this entails balancing between security and civilian needs." This has not been easy, he explains, due to Hamas's well-oiled media and propaganda machine which has succeeded in creating humanitarian "crises" out of thin air. For example, at the beginning of the year, following an attack on the Nahal Oz fuel depot, Israel decided to suspended fuel supplies to Gaza. This was only done, however, after all of the gas tanks on the Palestinian side - for cooking, driving and industry - had been filled to their maximum. Taking advantage of this as a PR opportunity, Hamas sent hundreds of people to gas stations in Gaza to stand with buckets in a long line, giving the impression that there was a fuel shortage in the Strip. Realizing the potential diplomatic damage this move could wreak, Press immediately contacted Palestinian newspapers and Gaza-based industrialists to explain that the tankers were, in fact, full, but that Hamas was purposely not drawing the fuel. As a result, internal Palestinian pressure mounted, and Hamas had no choice but to distribute the fuel. "Had we not done this, the world would have likely gone on the offensive against us," Press asserts. Another example was the release in April of a World Health Organization report sharply criticizing the IDF's screening of Palestinians seeking medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. Ambrogio Manenti, head of WHO in Gaza and the West Bank, called the policy "inhuman," adding that case studies of patients who died while waiting for permits to travel to Israel for treatment "show nonsense, inhumanity and, at the end, tragedy." Press responded by going on the offensive to prove that the WHO report was inaccurate and ignored the fact that, of the five case studies presented, two of the Palestinians were, in fact, treated in Israeli hospitals. The other three, he said, were all granted permits that were never used, due to internal Palestinian considerations. One such case involved 34-year-old Mona Nofal, who died of rectal cancer in November at Shifa Hospital in Gaza. The report claimed that Israel delayed granting her permits. Press pointed out that Nofal's requests were approved each time, and that she had been treated in Israeli hospitals in July, August and October. With growing unemployment rates in Gaza - estimates claim the number is as high as 50 percent - the possibility that the Palestinian population will soon achieve a higher standard of living is not on the horizon. This assessment is reinforced by predictions within the defense establishment that the current cease-fire won't last, and that, ultimately, Israel and Hamas will have a violent clash. Press says that in recent weeks Hamas has solidified its control over Gaza and taken over Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's bureau in Gaza City. "There needs to be a decision on the Palestinian side," he says. "Either they want Hamas to create an Islamic offshoot of Iran, or economic benefits and a better life. Until they opt for the latter," he concludes with dry understatement, "opportunities are limited."