Security and Defense: The olive branch

‘Jerusalem Post’ exclusive: Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories discusses unit’s task helping Gaza and West Bank populace.

Eitan Dangot 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eitan Dangot 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
November 25, 2009, will always be remembered as a festive day for Eitan Dangot. He was called up to the 14th floor of the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv and in the presence of close friends and family was promoted to major-general and appointed coordinator of government activities in the territories (COGAT).
An hour though after receiving his new insignia, Dangot, who had been the defense minister’s military aide, was already up inside his office on the 15th floor, overseeing the implementation of the freeze on settlement construction that had just been approved by the cabinet. As head of COGAT – the military body responsible for coordinating civilian and security issues between the government, the IDF, the Palestinian Authority and international organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip – enforcing the moratorium on construction also fell under Dangot’s mandate. While enforcing the freeze was one of the key issues he had to deal with during his 10 months in office, most of his attention was directed toward the Gaza Strip.
There Dangot needed to stave off a humanitarian crisis, while ensuring that Hamas was not benefiting from supplies transferred into Gaza. In the West Bank, he was also focused on continuing efforts to improve the economy and quality of life.
THE JERUSALEM POST sat down with Dangot last week for a lengthy interview – his first since taking up his new post – on the same day that the International Monetary Fund issued a report claiming that the economy in Gaza had grown by 16 percent since Israel eased the blockade in the spring. For Dangot the report was proof of what he has been telling international diplomats for the past year – there is no humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. In addition, contrary to public thinking, the easing of the blockade started months before the botched commando operation aboard the Mavi Marmara in late May.
As evidence, Dangot pulls out a chart showing the number of trucks carrying food that have been allowed into Gaza via the Kerem Shalom crossing from as far back as 2006. Then, Israel was allowing in an average of 63 trucks a day of food. In 2007, the number was 67; in 2008, 71; and until June the average remained the same.
“The Palestinians in Gaza have for years been receiving the same amount of food which is sent in according to the amount they request,” he says. “Even now, with our more liberal policy, they are still asking for the same amount, which means they were never really lacking.”
This does not mean that the situation in Gaza was like the situation in the West Bank where Israel makes a clear effort to improve the economy by working together with the PA and by easing security restrictions to improve the quality of life.
Since Hamas’s violent takeover in 2007, Israel has been treading cautiously between ensuring that the people of Gaza continue to receive food and basic needs, and seeing that Hamas does not benefit from its assistance. COGAT is responsible for orchestrating this delicate balancing act.
“Ensuring the balance is difficult,” Dangot admits. “Our job though is to help the regular civilian population and what we do is ultimately for the simple Palestinian on the street, not for Hamas.”
Even before his appointment, Dangot had been involved in formulating policy vis-à-vis Gaza and Hamas for six years. In 2004 he was appointed military aide to defense minister Shaul Mofaz. He served in the same position under Amir Peretz throughout the Second Lebanon War and under Ehud Barak during Operation Cast Lead. Before that, he served in the Home Front Command and the Strategic Planning Division.
Upon entering his new post, Dangot saw what he calls an “opportunity” to expand the type of supplies allowed into Gaza. He immediately approved the transfer of clothes, shoes, hygienic supplies, wood and glass.
The catalyst was the overall change in the situation following Operation Cast Lead and the quiet that was restored to the South, slightly shattered recently with Hamas’s new strategy to fire rockets in an effort to torpedo the ongoing peace talks.
“I saw that there was an opportunity to expand our policies while at the same ensuring that Hamas is isolated and not allowed to develop an economy,” he says.
Under the new guidelines approved by the cabinet in July, everything is allowed in except for a blacklist of forbidden goods, mostly equipment and merchandise that has dual use – civilian and military. In the past, the system was the opposite – everything was forbidden except for an approved list. In late August, Dangot testified before the Turkel Committee which is investigating the Mavi Marmara operation for seven hours and described the situation in Gaza and why the socalled aid flotillas are nothing more than an attempt to strengthen Hamas.
“By causing a collision at sea, the flotillas help Hamas’s agenda. The Mavi Marmara did not have a single bag of food on it. Just weapons and anti-Israel propaganda,” he says, adding that the cargo in the other ships was mostly outdated. “The medicine had expired.”
The real humanitarian crisis in Gaza, he says, has to do with Gilad Schalit, who is still in Hamas captivity four years since he was abducted. “Our soldier is the real humanitarian crisis,” he says. “I meet with dozens of international organizations and Gilad doesn’t get to meet even one.”
Alongside overseeing the continued flow of supplies, Dangot is also working together with the UN, the World Bank and other international organizations to push forward dozens of projects. He has met with the US Mideast envoy George Mitchell, Quartet envoy Tony Blair, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and dozens of other foreign dignitaries and NGO representatives.
“They are a key partner to moving forward with various projects in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,” he says.
These projects include the renovation of a sewage treatment plant in northern Gaza and the construction of 151 housing units in Khan Yunis in the south. COGAT also recently okayed a flour mill to replace one damaged during Operation Cast Lead. In each of his meetings with the foreign NGOs, he stresses the need to involve the PA in the projects, part of a larger strategy to somehow get it back inside the Gaza Strip. This joins another initiative, revealed last week in the Post, to deploy PA officials at the Kerem Shalom crossing in the coming months.
“The world needs to make sure that it involves the PA in the projects,” Dangot says. “The moment the PA is involved, the Palestinian population in Gaza knows that the PA is involved.”
MOVING TO the West Bank, Dangot refers to the increased security coordination between the IDF and the PA as well as the easing of security restrictions, particularly the lifting of 27 roadblocks over the past two years. At the same time, he does not feel that PA security forces are prepared to receive complete control, particularly in Area A cities like Ramallah and Nablus.
While refraining from elaborating due to the sensitivity of the issue, Dangot says: “Retaining control of Area A by the IDF helps the Palestinians continue to build up their forces. We go into these areas less, but the responsibility still is ours.”
COGAT is not just about approving projects and coordinating the entry of supplies into Gaza, Dangot stresses. Following Operation Cast Lead, COGAT embarked on an ambitious project to assign what he calls “civil affairs officers” to each combat brigade and battalion.
“Today, each brigade and battalion knows who the officer is and doesn’t move without him,” he explains. “These officers are in contact with the civilian authorities and aid organizations on the ground and help the commander complete his mission by ensuring that the people who need assistance will continue to get it even though it is in the middle of a military operation.”
The hope is that with these officers in the field, mistaken attacks on UN facilities will be avoided and so will the international condemnations that ensue.
“A battalion needs intelligence on the enemy but also intelligence on what not to attack,” he explains. “COGAT’s job is to ensure that the commanders have all the knowledge that is available about their area of operations and that whoever needs help will get it.”