Israel's Mistake: German Minister Denied Entry to Gaza Strip

A Commentary by Christoph Schult in Jerusalem

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel was denied entry to the Gaza Strip on Sunday. Once again, it would seem, Israel has failed to strike the correct diplomatic tone. And it shows that the country cannot deal with criticism.

German politician Dirk Niebel (left) visiting a development project in the West Bank this week. Zoom
DPA

German politician Dirk Niebel (left) visiting a development project in the West Bank this week.

One thing should be made clear from the start: Over the years, German Development Minister Dirk Niebel has never passed up an opportunity for headline-grabbing populism. As a leading member of the Free Democrats (FDP) -- Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition partners -- he supported his party's untenable calls for tax cuts. He was also a co-author of a party position paper which called for the abolition of the position of development minister. Once they joined Merkel's government last autumn, Niebel was handed the Development Ministry.

Thus, when Niebel, currently on a trip to the Middle East, was prevented by Israeli authorities from entering the Gaza Strip to check up on the progress of a sewage treatment plant being funded by Germany, it seemed fair to ask what exactly his intentions were. Indeed, his ensuing critique of the Israelis, one could imagine, may have been intended for the voters back home.

His FDP, after all, is plagued by poor poll numbers and criticism of Israel is well received by many in Germany. Furthermore, Niebel has never been shy about headline grabbing at others' expense. Expansive verbosity is not foreign to him.

That is one aspect of this story.

But one must also ask: Did Israel treat Niebel correctly? And there is only one answer to that question: No. Niebel, as it happens, is not at fault.

'A Manipulative Fashion'

The object of his Gaza Strip visit was the site of a €12 million waste water treatment plant. Israel denied permission, however, because "Hamas uses such visits in a manipulative fashion in order to show that its diplomatic isolation in the international arena has been broken," according to an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

But it is hard to say exactly what helps Hamas. It seems likely that Israel's storming of the pro-Gaza fleetat the end of May helped Hamas more than Niebel ever could have done by visiting Gaza, particularly since the German politician had no plans to meet any representatives of Hamas anyway.

Furthermore, Israel's policy seems inconsistent. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been allowed into the Gaza Strip as have Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson justified their visits by saying that they are "representatives of a union of states."

But even they had to fight for a long time to get permission to travel to Gaza. Even former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, representing the Quartet on the Middle East (a diplomatic foursome made up of the United States, the UN, the EU and Russia), had to make several attempts before he got permission for a visit. Indeed, a Niebel visit to the Gaza Strip didn't seem at all out of the question. Israeli officials and the German Embassy were negotiating his visit until immediately prior to Niebel's arrival.

It's the kind of backwards logic that Israel has deployed for years with regard to its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Rice is allowed in, pasta is not. Cinnamon: Yes, Coriander: No. Under pressure from the international community, Israel had to relax such regulations recently.

It is also important to note that Niebel is anything but a detractor of Israel. As a young man, he was a volunteer on a kibbutz, Kfar Giladi on the border of Israel and Lebanon. He has also defended Israeli military actions more than once in the past. He is currently the vice-president of the German-Israeli Society. Niebel is a friend of Israel.

German-Israeli Relations in Crisis

One cannot see what happened to Niebel over the weekend in isolation. The Israelis are testy because they have noticed that, over the last few months, many good friends of their nation have begun to drift away. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel all belong to that group.

German-Israeli relations are in a state of crisis. The arrogance of the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to blame. Via his security advisors, he let Merkel know that she was not to say anything publicly about the Israeli settlements policy during Netanyahu's visit to Berlin. He represented a critical telephone call as a positive chat. And he declined a prisoner exchange that had been put together by Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the BND, which could have brought captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit home from the Gaza Strip. Israeli Trade Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, interviewed in the current issue of SPIEGEL, described the latter as "a mistake."

The goals of the Gaza blockade include bringing Shalit home and isolating Hamas -- but not to punish the civilian populace of the coastal area. What has happened is exactly the opposite. Israel has not just denied a visit by a German minister. For months it has also been blocking the entry of building materials necessary for the construction of the German waste water treatment plant.

Either with a view toward populism or because he is genuinely upset, Niebel rubbed salt into the wound. He has not called off his visit altogether, as he said he would at first -- that would have been a real scandal. Instead he went to Israel. But he did not remain silent, as the Israeli administration expected him to. He came and he spoke out about his concerns.

It is a lesson that Israel must learn: Real friends can be critical of one another.

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