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Shai Cohen: “Israel is more than willing to facilitate the life of the civil population in the Gaza strip”

Since the press leak during the Zurick meeting we are discussing the Turkish-Israeli reconciliation. I wanted to ask Shai Cohen, the Consul General of Israel in Istanbul, about the latest developments in the region as well as the reasons and outcomes of these negotiations. I want to thank him especially as I know he does not talk to any journalists right now and accepted my request
Karel Valansi

Since the press leak during the Zurich meeting, we are discussing the reasons and possible outcomes of Turkish-Israeli reconciliation. In what stage are the negotiations?
The Zurich meeting has anchored three Turkish conditions which are the apology, the compensation and the Gaza issue. According to some reports in the media, which I cannot confirm, there are Israeli conditions which is the condition of withdrawal of lawsuits that have to do with the Mavi Marmara incident. The condition that is already met by Israel more than two years ago is the apology. Regarding the compensation, there is an understanding that was decided upon, I cannot confirm the amount. There is an understanding that the compensation should be paid to the families of the victims of the Mavi Marmara, and also the mechanism has been agreed upon which is a fund that should be established in Turkey regulated by Turkish authorities where the money will flow to and from there, according to the Turkish authorities’ decision –It is not an Israeli decision, it will be in Turkish official hands-  it will be divided between the families. This is the second condition.

And the Gaza blockade…
The so-called third condition is the whole issue of Gaza which is much more complicated. There is still way to go by both sides. There is a sea blockade over the Gaza strip, it is not a secret. The sea blockade is legitimate according to the international law. There has been international legal analysis and monitoring of the sea blockade and those been approved as legitimate by the international community officially. So there is no question what so ever about the legitimacy of the sea blockade. On the other hand, via land there is no blockade at all. Between 400 to 700 trucks a day go into the Gaza strip through the Kerem Shalom crossing point with goods of all types including building materials, humanitarian assistance, civil goods, food, fuel and so on. There is interconnection between the Gaza strip and Israel for electricity and water supply. Moreover, ships that carry goods to the Gaza Strip, they practice downloading in the port of Ashdod. There, there is a monitoring system then they are loaded on trucks and carry down to the Gaza Strip via Kerem Shalom crossing point. As far as we understand, the Turkish will, is to ease the situation in Gaza for the welfare of the Palestinian population whether it is medical or social or for construction purposes. Good percentage of building materials that goes from Israel into Gaza on trucks are from Turkish origin. Mainly concrete and steel. And also Turkey participates in many projects of reconstruction of the Gaza strip. So as far as we understand, the Turkish purpose is to show the efforts made by the Turkish authorities in order to facilitate the situation of the Gaza population. If we talk about facilitating the life of the civil population in the Gaza strip, Israel is more than willing to cooperate with. And also to help Turkey be seen as a major contributor to the welfare of the Gaza population. If we reach such a formula, the third issue which is Gaza will already be under solution.

Are we talking about facilitating the entry of Turkish goods into Gaza?
Transportation of Turkish goods is already happening. Maybe we can discuss issues that Turkey would like to introduce into Gaza or to increase the flow of some of the goods, to facilitate Turkish physical operations in Gaza for example the Turkish Hospital that have been constructed. There are many particular issues that could be discussed between Israel and Turkey for the welfare of the Gaza population. If that is the direction, I believe that we can reach a formula in order to do that and also to show publicly what Turkey is doing in Gaza.

What about the Israeli conditions?
We don’t like to use the term condition for reconciliation but there are certain issues that we demand from the Turkish side. The first one is of course abolishing the logistical support to Hamas. Hamas is considered as a terror organization by Israel and by other Western states like the U.S., Canada, the E.U., Egypt. Therefore, Hamas has to renounce its military way of conducting the matters, abolish the articles in its Magna Carta from 1987 that call for the destruction of the state of Israel and accept the agreements already signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. If and when all these criteria are met by Hamas, then we might be talking about Hamas as an interlocutor. But so far it is not the situation.
Another thing is the lawsuits. Lawsuits against Israeli officials that were part of the Mavi Marmara incidents would like to see active official Turkish role in preventing such legal procedure to be carried on, because it is non confidence building measure. We will not be able to allow Israeli high officials in past or in the present to be subject to international investigation or persecution by different courts around the world. It will be contradictory to the spirit of reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. The main idea is to leave the Mavi Marmara behind but with these lawsuits it will only achieve the contrary; lack of confidence and obstacles for future cooperation and collaboration.

There is also IHH in the equation of the Mavi Marmara
We don’t intervene in internal Turkish affairs. All I can tell you about IHH, whatever this organization does or says should be considered illegitimate as it is outlawed in the U.S. Germany, Nederlands, Israel… Even before the Mavi Marmara incident which in a way is an IHH operation lets not forget that, it was found out officially and publicly that they were financing Hamas in different ways. Their rhetoric is still the same, therefore I don’t have a reason to believe that their attitude is objective when it comes to Turkish-Israeli relations. I would exclude IHH from the equation. I hope they are not able to influence Turkish official attitudes in the future.

In Turkey there is a perception that all the region is destroyed and all the people is suffering. On the other hand, I know that this is limited to some areas. The life goes on, there are malls and sport clubs as well. What is the situation in Gaza?
In certain places there were massive destruction, in other places there was no destruction at all. On the contrary, we have information about night life in different places in Gaza. Hotels, restaurants and casinos are opening. But it is true that in certain neighborhoods reconstruction should be still intensive.
The international community is assisting Gaza with really a lot of means. We are talking about hundreds of millions or billions of dollars every year to the Gaza strip for this kind of assistance. But Hamas always finds a way to charge taxes or cut commission from what enters Gaza. They did it before with 1000 tunnels from Sinai, they see the good and cut 20% of commission. This was before the tunnels were destructed by us and by the Egyptians. Now they have income from goods that enter on the trucks, and they cut the same commission as well.
Hamas is the ruler and also has the responsibility for the welfare of the Gaza population, it is not Israel or Egypt which has border in Sinai with the Gaza strip. It is not even the international community who is very active in international projects; Qatar, Persian Gulf states, European Union states, the U.S. and Turkey. It is Hamas’ responsibility to make sure that all of these international assistance is channeled for the benefit of the Gaza population. From the practical point of view, there should not really be a humanitarian crisis there. We have doubled the number of trucks that entered Gaza on a daily basis in spite of Protective Edge from 280 to sometimes 700 daily. International reconstruction is going on.
We wish we could have real monitoring mechanism, international-regional does not matter, in Gaza that would see exactly how to divide the goods and all the benefits that come from the international community in general, in order to equilibrate the usage of all those facilities. Although 33 tunnels from Gaza to Israel were destroyed by Israel in the last operation, we know that they are going on building new tunnels as we speak and we are very sorry to note that these tunnels are built using those construction materials that entered Gaza. Someone also should pay attention to the fact that Hamas is continuing its military build up reconstructing tunnels, smuggling or trying to smuggle more and more weaponry into the Gaza strip all the time. This has never stopped.  

Shira Ben Tzion (Deputy Consul General): I want to add a word about the UN project of transparency where you can see all the projects on Gaza that have been developing. There is full transparency about how much sacs of cements go to each project, and you can see how much does Hamas actually use it for hospitals, mosques, schools or to build new attack tunnels which is exactly what it does. In this link you can see minute by minute all these transactions.

Why Israel wants to mend ties with Turkey?
Especially in the last year or two the region has become such complicated that two democracies that remained in the Middle East which are Israel and Turkey should shake hands and cooperate in relevant fields in order to prevent escalation and bring back stability to the region. I always say, the only thing that separates physically Turkey and Israel is Syria by all it means, not only geographically but also from the strategic point of view. Both democracies, both share the same interest of curtailing terrorism, and today terrorism is regarded as extreme jihad terrorism that menaces everybody. There are regional objectives to be achieved. Like diversification of energy resources, economic development, water management, all of these are common interests. When you look at the global picture and you see so many common interests that Israel and Turkey share, you wonder how come we still have this quarrel about an incident that happened more than five years ago. It is about priorities and proportions. The Mavi Marmara incident should be minimized to the maximum as all of the regional interests that I mentioned are huge.

Why do you think Turkey wants to mend ties with Israel?
I think for the same reasons. They say Russia, but I tend to believe that Russian-Turkish relations would be normalized much sooner than everybody expects. I participated to several major international conferences in Istanbul in the last 2-3 months; energy, regional economy, economic development, counter terrorism… And everybody talks about two things; Turkey becoming a regional economic hub, speaking about energy also for energy supply. And the second thing is the need for everybody but for Turkey in particular to diversify its energy resources. It is an official Turkish policy to diversify energy therefore this is a window by which it should be looked at; diversification of energy and the need to regional cooperation for regional sustainable economic development. When you look at Israel you look at a very young nation with high rate of growth, with successes in many different fields. It is in the same region with same interests, why not cooperate and benefit from each other?

If an agreement is reached between Turkey and Israel, a strategic long term agreement such as natural gas could be reached as well in the near future?
The energy issue is a strategic issue by definition. My personal view is that it should happen one way or another eventually for the benefit of the whole region. Natural gas supplies are the future of the supply of energy to the whole region including Israel, Turkey, both Cyprus, Greece, Europe, maybe Egypt and of course the Palestinians, Jordanians. It is clean energy. It is obvious that it will be used in the future as well very intensively. It is good for everybody.

There is a discussion in Turkey that Israel is stealing Palestinian gas…
This makes me laugh because how Israel can steal gas from the Palestinians when it is not even located close to Palestinian so-called territories? Second thing Gaza and West Bank are interconnected with Israel for energy, water and food supply. It is Israeli electricity that is provided to the Palestinian territories. How can we steal gas from the Palestinians if we give them electricity?

Israeli relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia are getting better. If we add to this equation Turkey, it will be a group of ‘frennemies’ that could cooperate against the empowerment of Iran.
Iran should be contained. We feel easier that the neighbors of Iran lately are taking action in order to prevent Iranian activities in the region such as promotion or supporting of terrorist organization such as Hezbollah, Hamas. Nuclear agreement has been reached they are doing what they have to do according to the agreement, everybody is very happy.  But there are many other Iranian activities that are not included in this agreement. There are now new sanction issues on the ballistic missile project of Iran. Gulf states are becoming more and more concerned about how to deal with the other Iranian threats. We are happy that it is on the agenda of the international community. Israel has common interests with Turkey and Saudi Arabia and other states in the region. Assad is the only one who benefits from this axis Iran and Hezbollah and all the Shia complex. Look at Yemen, Bahrain threatened by Iranian subversion attempts. They control the Persian straits and they already closed twice last year. 40 % of the world oil supply passes from there. Jordan, Kuwait, UAE should also be concerned from the same issues as Israel, Turkey. Energy is one of them. I believe that eventually these interests should prevail. And not the other regional sectarian rivalries. But I am not naïve, I know that in our region, for centuries maybe, this sectarian rivalry exists and maybe it is too optimistic to cease to exist in our generation.

BDS, recognition of Palestine in European parliaments, branding goods from settlements are major problems Israel is facing in the international arena. How is Israel dealing with that?
This is high diplomacy. We operate in political and diplomatic channels in order to try to change those resolutions. We don’t believe that it is beneficial for Israelis and the Palestinians what is happening in the E.U. vis a vis the de facto separation they are creating between Israel and Palestine. What the E.U. is doing by these resolutions is very problematic because it is direct intervention in the final political solution of peace negotiations that should be enacted directly between the Israelis and the Palestinians. What message they give for the Palestinian Authority? Why should they dialogue with Israel any more if in European parliaments such decisions are made? Someone else is working so hard for us they will say, let’s continue with our BDS and incitement, delegitimization of Israel…

How do you explain the knife intifada?
We don’t like to use the term intifada here because it is not similar to the other two intifadas that we had. Both of them were organized, with headquarters giving orders to the field… Here you see very sporadic cases of stabbing, of shooting, each time in a different place mostly by teenagers. But it is not organized. On the other hand, it is an ongoing terrorism on a daily basis that we see for four months with thirty deaths already and dozens of injured on the Israeli side. We call it lonely wolf phenomena because it is youngsters incited mainly by the social media. It can be seen as a very modern type of organization using the internet as a method of inspiration. Terror conducted through the digital world. But also in the mosques, we know that certain imams are using incitement methods in their speeches.

On January 7th the Turkish Jewish community reopened the historical Iştipol Synagogue in Balat but ten days later we found out that there were written “Terrorist Israel, there is God” on the wall…

On one hand, we condemn it and think that these things should not happen anymore in our world and especially here where there is such an effort by central government and local governance in general to reopen synagogue which is very important for Jewish heritage. This deed is actually trying to spoil everything. On the other hand, I would not recommend to pay too much attention. We know that Turkish authorities are not tolerant to such activities. We are certain that they will do their best to prevent such activities in the future, and find the responsible for that. What I am happy to say in the same breath is that we don’t see much such activities here in Turkey. It is much more contained here than other places that unfortunately suffer from anti-Semitic on a daily basis like France, the UK. Here, such physical demonstrations of anti-Semitism are very rare and I hope it will remain rare in the future. 

Shalom Newspaper 27 January 2016


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