Who will save Gaza?

Despite celebrating the Trump administration cutting off assistance to UNRWA, Israel knows that without US funding the organization will be paralyzed, making a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip a matter of time.

al-monitor Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah attends a session of the International Donor Group for Palestine at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Jan. 31, 2018. Photo by REUTERS/Francois Lenoir.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar


Topics covered

unrwa, israeli politics, hamas, gaza strip, gaza economy, gaza

Sep 17, 2018

The international donor group for Palestine, the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (AHLC), will meet in New York at the end of September to discuss the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip. It will be the first such meeting to be attended by Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Brig. Gen. (res.) Kamil Abu Rukon as well as Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi. It was planned a few months ago as a routine gathering but in light of the American cut in assistance to UNRWA, it has become an emergency meeting to find financial alternatives. According to senior members of Israel’s Civil Administration, UNRWA is likely to collapse in the coming year. One official told Al-Monitor that if successful, the meeting could prevent another war between Israel and Hamas.

The planned get-together in New York highlights the paradox in the relations between Israel, Hamas and the Donald Trump administration. Several Israeli ministers applauded Washington’s decision to cut UNRWA's funding. Nevertheless, Israel is now counting on global funding to save the Strip from collapse.

Israel’s security chiefs, including IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot, who has been reprimanded for his gloomy forecasts regarding the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Strip, try not to talk publicly about the issue. Nevertheless, we learned a lot from a recent radio interview by Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, the former head COGAT, chief of the Military Intelligence Research Division and former director of policy and political-military affairs in the Ministry of Defense. “Sharp cutbacks in UNRWA’s budget will lead to the firing of teachers, the closing of health clinics and schools. As a result, more and more people will wander aimlessly on the streets,” Gilad argued. “That means that security will suffer. When you want to dismantle something, you need to create an alternative. Therefore, a competing organization should be founded to replace UNRWA, instead of throwing thousands of people to the streets.”

Israeli politicians are rejoicing over the US moves, at least publicly, but the military leadership is not hiding its consternation over the possible ramifications of the change. This apparent contradiction calls for a further inspection of these two different positions. The military espouses a long-term vision that tries to avoid unnecessary armed conflict with Hamas. The political echelon is concerned about its voters and support base, and offering magical solutions to the Gaza crisis.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, for example, called UNRWA a "terror-supporting organization" that "employs Hamas terrorists and uses its schools to hide rockets."

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman questioned any connection between the state of Gaza’s economy and the achievement of peace and quiet in Gaza and in Israel. He called any humanitarian assistance to the Strip an “illusion.”

Although Liberman authorized COGAT’s Abu Rukon to participate in the New York talks, the minister does not believe that campaigning for donations for the Palestinians should be Israel’s job. This past February, Liberman said, “It is nonsense to say that we’re raising money for Hamas. It was decided in the past that we’ll participate in the AHLC. We don’t want to harm the population that does not participate in terror, but we won’t pay their taxes either. Hamas spent $260 million on beefing up their military and on missile production and is not willing to redirect one shekel from its military empowerment program to the health or education system, or on improving water and electricity infrastructure. So we should finance them? No chance.”

And so the only thing left for the Israeli team to do is to dispense advice and prepare plans for various projects. A meeting was held at the beginning of September in Brussels in preparation for the New York meeting, attended by representatives from COGAT and the Foreign Ministry. They presented, and not for the first time, projects to improve the humanitarian situation in the Strip. At least some of the plans are limited in scope, as a sort of an emergency response to the situation. More could be developed if and when a long-term arrangement is achieved between Israel and Hamas. Some of the projects presented by representatives of the Civil Administration in Brussels were: founding an oncology ward for children in Gaza, establishing the Karni Industrial Zone, installing solar panels on the roofs of residential houses, improving the electrical supply (running an electricity line from Israel that would double the supply to the Strip), creating infrastructure for natural gas and making it easier to ship agricultural products from Gaza to the West Bank.

These original ideas have the potential to create thousands of job openings and improve the Strip’s infrastructure. However, it turns out that most of these ideas remain just that: ideas on a paper.

A Civil Administration source who talked to Al-Monitor confirmed that these projects, which were unveiled in Brussels and slated to be exhibited in New York, had already presented in depth to the AHLC by Hanegbi and former COGAT head Yoav Mordechai, but nothing came of them. Now those same projects will be trotted out again with some changes and improvements, the fruit of intensive preparative work over recent weeks, on the heels of Trump's financial blows on the Palestinians.

The assumption in Israel is that the odds are still low that these projects will actually be adopted. The New York meeting will include representatives from the United States, the European Union, Norway, Holland, the United Kingdom, Japan, the UN, the World Bank, the Middle East Quartet and Israel. Occasionally, representatives of certain Arab countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia also join these kinds of meetings. All those countries pride themselves on being called “the donor countries,” even though they are not necessarily in a hurry to donate to the Palestinians.

On the other hand, Qatar actually does contribute quite a bit of money. However, its representative, Mohammad al-Amadi, operates independently, in close cooperation with UN Emissary to the Middle East Nikolay Mladenov.

What Israel really wants is to find organizational alternatives to UNRWA for taking care of Gaza’s needy. But would it be possible to establish such organizations quickly? And who will head them, when Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and no one lifts a finger without Hamas’ OK?

The prevailing assessment in Israel is that due to its dwindling budget, UNRWA will now focus on providing basic foodstuffs for the residents of refugee camps and be forced to abandon its schools, youth clubs and senior centers. The collapse of these systems will leave thousands of former employees dependent on UNRWA’s food services.

It seems that no one knows how to save Gaza. Without UNRWA, the bomb will be ticking much faster.

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