Karin Laub
The Statesman
October 26, 2010 - 12:00am

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — The Israeli general who controls the gates of Hamas-run Gaza says he is pursuing a complex and delicate strategy: enable exports and development in the impoverished Palestinian territory while somehow preventing the Islamic militants who rule it from getting credit for any progress.

In an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot said Israel seeks to work with Hamas' rival, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, to help revive the economy. Fayyad would set priorities for what Gaza needs and place his people at the borders, Dangot explained.

He said the Palestinian Authority — driven out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007 and currently involved in fitful peace negotiations with Israel — must "show the flag there, to show their existence — even if 100 meters (yards) from there is a Hamas checkpoint."

The new approach is just the latest of the twists and turns Israel's Gaza policy has taken since the Hamas takeover. Trying to contain and weaken an Iranian-backed entity on its doorstep, Israel has employed a wide range of tactics — from a punitive three-year border blockade to periodic cease fires to a brief and devastating war almost two years ago.

Israel imposed the blockade after the Hamas takeover of Gaza, allowing in only a limited selection of basic goods. But it came under pressure to ease the embargo after an Israeli raid of a Gaza-bound blockade-busting flotilla killed nine Turkish activists in May.

Dangot has since helped devise the more relaxed rules. Today, most consumer goods are allowed into Gaza, while many raw materials and building supplies remain restricted and exports are banned, with the exception of seasonal shipments of strawberries and cut flowers.

The general says he hopes to ease restrictions further. This could include allowing in more raw materials to crank up Gaza's key industries — textiles, furniture and agriculture — and to enable more exports by spring.

Cement, steel and other vital building supplies are only allowed into Gaza if earmarked for international aid projects, meaning the private construction sector — traditionally the engine of the Gaza's economy — is left on the sidelines. Dangot said he could envision arrangements in the future under which private builders could receive supplies, provided their projects are approved by Fayyad.

Fayyad said Tuesday his government was lobbying Israeli officials to allow in "more meaningful" goods and to allow exports out. Fayyad called on Israel to lift the embargo.

In the meantime, his government is working with United Nations agencies based in Gaza to "take advantage of whatever available opportunity to do things," Fayyad told the AP.

Hamas, for its part, has harshly criticized the Palestinian Authority for its coordination with Israel and has urged the West Bankers to instead seek a joint government that is closer to Hamas' hardline views opposing peace talks with Israel.

Israel broadly says its policies were dictated by security concerns, such as halting repeated rocket attacks; Gaza militants have fired thousands of rockets at communities in southern Israel in recent years, killing 7 Israelis and a Thai laborer since Israel withdrew its settlers from Gaza, according to Israeli government figures.

Yet officials also acknowledge that there is a political dimension in that Hamas must not be perceived as ruling successfully.

"We are fighting against a terror regime," said Dangot, who is called the military's coordinator for the West Bank and Gaza and is a pivotal player in policymaking toward the Palestinian areas. "You cannot be in a situation where Hamas gets credit for a policy" that improves the lives of people, he said.

At its most restrictive, Israel's border blockade prevented the import of seemingly random items from spaghetti to pencils. The policy did little to weaken Hamas politically but came under intense global scrutiny after the flotilla raid.

Did Israel have to wait for the criticism to ease the embargo? Dangot acknowledged that in "a few cases there were mistakes (and) some of them were not."

The international community has praised the easing of the blockade, but says more needs to be done to get Gaza's economy, battered by a decade of conflict and closure, back on its feet.

Dangot said the continued import restrictions are necessary because of concerns that cement, steel and other items could be diverted by Hamas to build bunkers and tunnels.


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