Netanyahu defends Qatari cash infusion to Gaza
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended allowing Qatar to transfer millions of dollars to Hamas-run Gaza despite criticism from within his own government over the move aimed at restoring calm after months of unrest.
The Israeli-authorised money transfer appeared to be part of talks that would see Islamist movement Hamas end months of often violent protests along the border in exchange for Israel easing its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Border protests have been much calmer the last two Fridays, the day they usually peak.
Netanyahu’s remarks late Saturday were his first on the issue since Israel allowed the money transfer to the enclave controlled by Hamas, which Israel, the United States and European Union consider a terrorist movement.
Naftali Bennet, Netanyahu’s education minister and right-wing rival, compared the cash flow to “protection money” paid to criminals.
“I’m doing what I can, in coordination with the security establishment, to return quiet to the southern communities, but also to prevent a humanitarian crisis,” Netanyahu said, referring to Israeli towns near the Gaza border and deteriorating conditions in the enclave.
Netanyahu said the Israeli security establishment supported the move and that ministers in his security cabinet approved it.
“We held serious discussions,” he said ahead of his flight to Paris to join world leaders marking the centenary of the end of World War I.
“I think we’re acting in a responsible and wise way,” he said.
“At this time, this is the right step.”
On Friday, Palestinian civil servants began receiving payments after months of sporadic salary disbursements in cash-strapped Gaza, with $15 million delivered into the enclave through Israel in suitcases.
– ‘Submission to Hamas’ –
A total of $90 million is to be distributed in six monthly instalments, Gaza authorities said, primarily to cover salaries of officials working for Hamas.
Qatar has also said it would hand out $100 to each of 50,000 poor families, as well as larger sums to Palestinians wounded in clashes along the Gaza-Israel border.
Netanyahu has faced political pressure within Israel, including from opposition head Tzipi Livni, who called it the premier’s “submission to Hamas,” which would strengthen the Islamist movement.
General elections in Israel are due in a year but could take place earlier, and Netanyahu is widely seen as wanting to avoid a war that holds unpredictable risks before then.
But the Gaza cash is also being used by his political opponents on the right and left against him.
“You might buy short-term quiet, but you accustom the other side to applying violence as a way of advancing its interests,” Bennett, a member of the security cabinet, told public radio Sunday.
Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he had opposed “transferring the money to Hamas”.
The cash influx was also criticised by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, which saw it as undermining reconciliation efforts with rivals Hamas and its attempts to return to power in Gaza.
Netanyahu said in his comments that when “you take leadership measures, there’s always a price”.
“If you can’t pay the price, you can’t lead, I can pay the price.”
The cash transfer was the latest Qatari assistance to Gaza approved by Israel in recent weeks.
The Gulf emirate has also started buying additional fuel for Gaza’s sole power station, allowing outages to be reduced to their lowest level in years.
Egypt and the United Nations have been brokering indirect negotiations for a long-term truce with Israel, against which Hamas has fought three wars since 2008.
Deadly clashes have accompanied the major protests along the Gaza-Israel border that began on March 30, generating fears of a new war between Hamas and the Jewish state.
At least 221 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, the majority shot during protests and clashes, since the protests began, while others died in tank fire or air strikes.
One Israeli soldier has been killed along the Gaza border in that time.