My Word: Normalization and gifts with strings attached

Just as nobody who has lived through the coronavirus crisis of 2020 will ever forget it, so too did the summer of 2014 become etched into Israeli collective memory.

A HAMAS CIVIL servant in Gaza displays US dollar banknotes after receiving her salary paid by Qatar, in December 2018. (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)
A HAMAS CIVIL servant in Gaza displays US dollar banknotes after receiving her salary paid by Qatar, in December 2018.
A favorite story by late Israeli satirist Ephraim Kishon came to mind this week. It features a gift-wrapped box of chocolates that is passed from one person to another until, having traveled around the country, it arrives back where it started. When the box is finally opened, the contents are found to be moldy.
The circumstances in which I recalled the tale were not as funny as Kishon’s story of human foibles and failings. Last week, there were several news reports that a cargo plane bearing the logo of Etihad Airways had landed at Ben-Gurion Airport to deliver medical aid and supplies to the Palestinian Authority. It was the second such airlift of supplies to the Palestinians to arrive via the United Arab Emirates’ airline, but the PA turned down the shipments. Reportedly, PA head Mahmoud Abbas was upset the donations had been sent via the Tel Aviv airport in a possible act by Abu Dhabi-based rival Mohammed Dahlan to embarrass him and that they indicated a form of normalization between Abu Dhabi and Israel. The Gulf states might be literally wasting their money.
I don’t know what happened to the shipments but my curiosity was piqued when I received an unsolicited newsletter from Africa For Palestine, an organization formerly known as BDS South Africa. It began “Dear Friends and Comrades” and shared a photo and story titled: “Palestine hands over personal protective equipment (PPE) to South African schools.” Since I’m neither a friend nor a comrade but I am cynical journalist, I wondered whether this could be a case of regifting.
Last Friday, in an opinion piece in Hebrew in the mass-circulation daily Yediot Aharonot, UAE Ambassador to the US Yousef al Otaiba warned that if Israel extends its sovereignty to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), it could ruin its normalization efforts. “Annexation will certainly and immediately upend Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and with UAE,” wrote Otaiba.
He said he feared that annexation (part of the Trump peace plan) would “ignite violence and rouse extremists. It will send shock waves around the region, especially in Jordan whose stability – often taken for granted – benefits the entire region, particularly Israel.”
And he has a point. Moving ahead with the sovereignty plan – under which Israel would hold the 30% of the area where the Jewish communities are concentrated and cede 70% to the Palestinians for a future state – is likely to be followed by Palestinian violence. On the other hand, the Palestinians are unlikely to turn into the Middle East’s equivalent of Canadians even if the circumstances remain the same. Or even if they get an independent state alongside Israel. Normalization, from the Palestinian Authority’s viewpoint, is taboo.
A FRIEND in the US recently asked me what’s Israel’s secret in handling the coronavirus crisis. It’s no secret, I replied. There are two main factors. The first is having universal free healthcare, which means that people are not afraid to be tested and treated. The second factor is the resilience that comes with having lived through emergency situations in the past.
As I have noted before, fighting COVID-19 is the first war I remember when Israel is on the same side as the rest of the world. We’re more used to situations like six years ago, when one moment we were happily preparing for a summer of fun, and the next we were running for shelter from barrages of rockets from Gaza.
That year, US secretary of state John Kerry made a last push for an Israel-Palestinian peace treaty (and a Nobel peace prize). In a familiar pattern, any talk of peace was accompanied by a wave of Palestinian terrorism that included, in June 2014, the kidnapping and murders of three Israeli teenagers: Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel.
Just as nobody who has lived through the coronavirus crisis of 2020 will ever forget it, so too did the summer of 2014 become etched into Israeli collective memory. First there was the period of unprecedented unity as the country came together during the 18-day search for “Our Boys.” Then, upset that terrorists on parole from prison in exchange for abducted soldier Gilad Schalit had been re-arrested, Hamas launched rockets and mortars in an effort to gain their freedom. When that failed, it launched an all-out war – and the world swiftly condemned Israel for defending itself in Operation Protective Edge. The bodies of soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed and snatched via terror tunnels during a UN-sanctioned ceasefire, are still being held by Hamas.
This was the war when the Iron Dome anti-rocket system became the game changer, allowing Israelis to carry on living near-normal lives despite the thousands of rockets that were launched on the country during the two-month conflict.
The threats and rockets are like a nasty virus that do not disappear. Hamas this month renewed its eco-terrorism campaign of balloons carrying incendiary devices, demanding what amounts to protection money. Not protection against COVID-19. Protection in the Mafia-sense of the word. When it did not receive what it wanted, a rocket was launched on Monday night from Gaza on Israel. It landed in an open area close to the border and caused no physical injuries but should be taken seriously, nonetheless. Eager to come to the rescue, Qatar promised to deliver another cash payment to the Gaza Strip.
Nothing is simple in the Middle East. The UAE and Qatari aid should be seen as part of the rivalry between the PA and Hamas and the rift between the Emirates and Qatar.
But gifts have strings attached. This week, there was speculation that the US might withhold assistance to Jordan as leverage to secure the extradition of Ahlam Tamimi, who helped carry out the Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing in Jerusalem in August 2001 in which 15 people were killed, two of them American citizens. Tamimi, who smiled when she learned the victims included seven children, was also released as part of the Schalit exchange in 2011 and has been living in the Hashemite Kingdom since then.
Every dead Palestinian terrorist becomes a martyr; every prisoner, a hero. The PA with its pay-for-slay policy – rewarding acts of terror – furthers violence, not peace. Similarly, the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement does the exact opposite of encouraging normalization. BDS South Africa can present itself in new gift wrap, but it doesn’t change its dangerously moldy content.
A report by Palestinian Media Watch last August noted that the PA had paid the family of the Sbarro suicide bomber and the seven terrorists who helped orchestrate the attack $910,823 in monthly payments. All donor countries, organizations and individuals who have given money to the PA should be asking themselves where their gifts ended up: Has the money been used to better the lives of ordinary Palestinians or is it being used to foster more hatred, violence and the suicide of “martyrs”?
Do cash gifts from Qatar ensure some kind of peace in Gaza or encourage more mob-style threats?
Right now, the Palestinians are receiving the message that a policy of intimidation and non-normalization brings in more money. Donor beware: It might buy a limited period of quiet, but it does not buy peace. Rewarding Palestinian violence and intransigence only boosts the chances of more conflict.
At the heart of Israel’s post-Six Day War situation stands the title of a book Kishon published in 1967, after the Arab world again tried to wipe the Jewish state off the Middle Eastern map: “So Sorry We Won!”