In some ways, the life of Isaac Rotenberg symbolized the rise and success of the State of Israel.
Deported with his family to the Sobibor death camp as a teenager, Isaac was one of the fortunate few who escaped during the October 1943 uprising at the camp. After the war, he made his way to British Mandatory Palestine. Despite all he had suffered, despite the loss of most of his family and his own frequent brushes with death, Isaac was compelled to take up arms again, this time as a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence.
After the new state’s existence was secured, he and his countrymen set about building new lives. He married, raised two children, and helped found the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. Isaac was a plasterer by profession, but when he reached retirement age in 1993, he was too devoted to the principle of old-fashioned hard work to turn his attention to shuffleboard or poker. Which is why, on the morning of March 29, 1994, he was fixing the tiles in a floor in a building in Petah Tikvah.
Two of the other laborers on the site were Abu-Moussa Ali Atiya and Shabbi Qassam Hazam, residents of Gaza who traveled to Israel each day for construction jobs. When Isaac’s back was turned, Atiya and Hazam attacked him from behind with axes. He lingered in a coma for two days, before dying.
Every terrorist attack leaves Israelis horrified and shaken, but the fact that Isaac had managed to survive such incredible ordeals, only to die at the hands of his own co-workers, was especially unnerving. That wound was reopened two years ago, when the State Department pressed Israel to release a number of imprisoned terrorists as a gesture to the Palestinian Authority (PA)—and one of Isaac’s murderers, Atiya, walked free.
The murder of Isaac Rotenberg by Gaza workers was cited this week in response to a proposal by a former U.S. State Department official that Israel should increase the number of Gazans it admits each day to 100,000, from the current level of 5,000.
The proposal was made in a recent Washington Post op-ed by David Makovsky, who until recently was a senior aide to Martin Indyk, the Obama administration’s envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The article was coauthored with former PA official Ghaith Al-Omari. The authors argued that Egypt could bring greater stability to Gaza by assuming more of a leadership role there, which among other things would enable Cairo “to ask Israel to take steps such as allowing 100,000 Gazan workers into Israel, matching the number of West Bankers already working there.” According to Makovsky, Israeli jobs for Gazans would make them less hostile to Israel and would undermine Hamas’s control of Gaza.
Makovsky and Al-Omari, who are now senior fellows at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, see their proposal as a path to a more peaceful Middle East. Israeli government officials with whom I spoke see things differently. They see the number 100,000 as arbitrary, a figure that is based neither on Israel’s security needs nor the number of available jobs.
Israeli officials say that the number of Gazans admitted should be decided by Israel’s security experts, not according to the criterion of simply matching the number who are admitted from the West Bank. These officials note that Israel’s security apparatus in the West Bank is so wide-ranging that it can effectively weed out workers with terrorist backgrounds—but Israel has no presence or influence in Gaza, and thus no way to screen out workers who might be security risks.
The Israeli government officials say that a modest number of skilled construction workers from Gaza would be beneficial to Israel, but only if they pose no security danger—and not in numbers anywhere near 100,000. The officials note that Israel has in recent years admitted numerous temporary workers from Portugal, Rumania, Thailand, and other countries. Some of those workers may lack all the preferred skills, but at least Israelis presumably don’t have to worry about them committing terrorism.
IDF Lt.-Col. (res.) Meir Indor, the leader of Israel’s Terror Victims Association (known in Hebrew as Almagor), is critical of the 100,000 Gazans proposal.
“There were many instances in the past in which Gaza terrorists entered Israel disguised as workers, or came in as workers and then found an opportunity to murder Jews,” he told JNS.org, pointing to the murder of Isaac Rotenberg, among others.
“It’s very easy for State Department officials or think tank pundits to sit in Washington and tell Israel how many Gazans it should admit,” said Indor. “But they will not suffer the consequences when their proposals explode, which happens pretty often in this very dangerous part of the world. We Israelis will be the ones who end up paying the price.”
Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author of 15 books on Jewish history, Zionism, and the Holocaust, including “The Historical Dictionary of Zionism.”