Palestinians skeptical of humanitarian efforts in Gaza

Israel and the United States have indicated that they seek to ease the blockade on Gaza and improve the humanitarian situation in the coastal enclave, but Palestinians question their real intent.

al-monitor Palestinians protest on the Gaza side of the border between Israel and Gaza, June 8, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Amir Cohen.

Jun 19, 2018

Israel has made several statements promising to ease the stifling living conditions in the Gaza Strip. On May 18, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that White House special adviser Jared Kushner and US peace envoy Jason Greenblatt are expected to hold talks in the region this week. They will most probably be calling on Gulf states to inject around $500 million in the Gaza Strip to improve the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the besieged enclave.

In an interview with Israeli Walla news website on June 13, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov warned of another war in Gaza, stressing the dire need for urgent actions to prevent any “destructive” military conflict.

He stressed the need for improving the water and electricity situation in cash-strapped Gaza, calling for a new plan aimed at creating new jobs and developing trade and economy.

Meanwhile, on June 7 at the International Conference in Support of the Intifada, Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, expressed his movement’s readiness to deal positively with any real initiative to end the decadelong Israeli blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip.

For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press statement June 4 that Israel was weighing several possibilities to avoid a collapse of the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

The latest wave of calls and statements urging the relaxation of the siege on Gaza indicates that political efforts are underway between Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Gaza and Cairo, as well as Washington and Doha. These efforts aim to defuse a potential military confrontation that could break out amid the deterioration of the living situation in the Gaza Strip.

“Our people are entitled under international law to live in freedom and dignity. The Israeli blockade on Gaza is a flagrant violation of this right,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor. “Gazans want to live like other peoples of the world. We do not want to remain at the mercy of partial relaxation of the siege. We want the siege to be fully lifted, to be allowed a free movement of goods and individuals. The return marches will continue until they achieve their objectives, including the lifting of the siege imposed on Gaza.” He was referring to the Great Return March demonstrations that began on March 30.

Hamas is well aware that Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe and fears this tragic situation would drive Gazans to take to the streets. An internal popular movement could derail Hamas’ main endeavors against Israel outside the Gaza Strip, forcing it to focus on controlling the security situation at home.

The outburst of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza might encourage Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to further tighten the blockade on the besieged enclave in a bid to thwart Hamas' efforts. If caught in such a predicament, Hamas would be forced to accept any solutions, even temporary, that may ward off the specter of any internal explosion in Gaza.

Al-Monitor talked to Mohammed Abu Jiab, the editor-in-chief of Al-Eqtesadia newspaper in Gaza. “It is unlikely that Israel takes serious steps to address the crises in Gaza before scoring victories against Hamas, such as getting back its captured soldiers.”

Abu Jiab noted that pumping cash and bringing in power generators to Gaza may not lead to an improved situation for the people of Gaza. He explained that these measures are for temporary relief. “All plans aim to prevent the collapse of the Gaza Strip since such a scenario will result in chaos that harms the security of Egypt and Israel,” he said.

But a Palestinian official close to President Mahmoud Abbas told Al-Monitor that any humanitarian aid for the Gaza Strip must pass through the PA, all other aid measures would entrench the separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank. “Anything else would be a political maneuver to push for the establishment of a separate state in Gaza. This is something we reject.”

In an article on June 8, Israeli Maariv newspaper revealed details of a reported humanitarian plan for the Gaza Strip, with the contribution of Israel, the United States and Jordan. This plan consists of injecting millions of dollars into Gaza’s markets and banks, the establishment of a Palestinian industrial zone in Sinai, building a desalination plant and distributing thousands of generators to Gaza's hospitals and schools. The article noted that Israeli political and security departments greenlighted these measures.

On June 1, the Israeli army Southern Command recommended that the Israeli government ease the stifling living conditions of the residents of Gaza, out of a fear that further deterioration in the security situation could develop into an extended military confrontation. The recommendation called for granting work permits inside Israel to residents in the Gaza Strip.

Saleh al-Naami, a Palestinian researcher of Israeli affairs and lecturer at the Islamic University of Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “There has been a major shift in the Israeli positions on the issue of easing the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Israel had always set Hamas’ disarmament as a precondition for any measure easing the economic and humanitarian situation. The recent escalation between the resistance and Israel on May 9 might have softened the Israeli positions.”

Remarkably, in a statement to Voice of Palestine radio station in Ramallah on May 21, Azzam al-Ahmad, a member of the PLO Executive Committee and a member of the Fatah Central Committee, had warned that the measures aimed to ease the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza fall within the scope of the US administration’s “deal of the century.” He argued that the political objective behind these measures is to bypass the Palestinian leadership. Ahmad also pointed to the involvement of unnamed Arab countries in this political maneuver.

Therefore, the PA’s position opposing any relaxation of the siege on Gaza under the pretext of punishing Hamas and seeking to pressure its residents to revolt against it may hinder any humanitarian initiatives. With its punitive measures against Gaza since April 2017, the PA is seen by some as contributing to the siege on the enclave.

For his part, Atef Adwan, the head of the Economy Committee in the PLC, told Al-Monitor that lifting the siege on Gaza requires only a signed decision by Israel and the PA. “The recent meetings, such as Israel’s Cabinet meeting on June 10 and the Washington meeting on March 14 to discuss easing the siege on Gaza were intended to calm and anesthetize the Palestinians.”

He added, “I do not expect to see any relaxation of the siege in the near future. Israel and some international parties want us to stop the return marches in exchange for minor improvements in Gaza. I told foreign intermediaries — I will not disclose their identities — that Israel is demanding Hamas to offer concessions on the return marches and the captured Israeli soldiers in exchange for easing the siege of Gaza.”

The Palestinians in Gaza are seeing their situation at the heart of decision-making circles in Israel, the region and the international community. But they also realize that the relaxation of the siege is not easy. Hamas, the PA and Israel have their separate objectives and goals, and the Gaza Strip's population will remain the first victim of their differences, with no solution in sight.

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