Why Israel's Netanyahu encouraged suitcases of cash for Gaza

Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies say he was trying to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu's critics, citing his own words, say he was trying to buy — and thwart — peace.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu
(Image credit: Ronen Zvulun / Pool / AFP via Getty Images)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "not only tolerated" years of monthly cash payments from Qatar to the Gaza Strip, up until Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, "he had encouraged them," The New York Times reported Sunday. 

The payments, which Israel knew "helped prop up the Hamas government" in Gaza, continued even as the Israeli military obtained detailed battle plans for a Hamas invasion and observed "significant terrorism exercises" in the Palestinian enclave, the Times reported. For years, "Israeli intelligence officers even escorted a Qatari official into Gaza, where he doled out money from suitcases filled with millions of dollars."

The cash payments have been an open secret in Israel — as Last Week Tonight's John Oliver discussed in the second half of a November look at the symbiosis between Hamas and Netanyahu.

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Through interviews with more than two dozen officials in Israel, the U.S., Qatar other Middle Eastern governments, the Times "unearthed new details" about the Gaza payments and the steps Netanyahu took to "keep the money flowing" despite the controversies it sparked in his governments. Allowing the billions of dollars in payments, the Times reported, was a "gamble" by Netanyahu that a "steady flow of money would maintain peace in Gaza" and "keep Hamas focused on governing, not fighting."

Netanyahu's critics say he wasn't just trying to "buy quiet" from Hamas but also prop it up to weaken the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, which governs in the West Bank, as a means to thwart talks on Palestinian statehood. 

Netanyahu told Politico in late November that the payments were "to avoid a civilian humanitarian collapse" in Gaza, and the idea he wanted to build up Hamas is "ridiculous" and "a big lie." But he has been talking about keeping Hamas strong to weaken the Palestinian Authority and lessen pressure to negotiate a two-state peace since at least 2012, publicly and in private, the Times reported. 

At a 2019 Likud party conference, Politico noted, Netanyahu said, "Anyone who wants to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state needs to support strengthening Hamas."

The top Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, made his own heavily researched gamble that attacking Israel and taking hostages would force hostage-averse Israel to release thousands of Palestinian prisoners and agree to a permanent cease-fire, The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday. "If Hamas has miscalculated, Sinwar could be overseeing the destruction in Gaza of the U.S.-designated terrorist group — and lose his own life."

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