The recent decision of Egypt to keep open its Rafa border crossing to the Gaza Strip for the remainder of the holy month of Ramadan has helped ameliorate tensions in Gaza following Hamas’ deadly confrontation with Israeli troops last week, and attention is now focused on efforts to ease the humanitarian crisis there.
A task force comprised of experts from the Brookings Institution, the Center for New American Security [CNAS] and the Israel Policy Forum has already held two meetings and will be meeting again in another week or two to consider both immediate and long-term strategies for addressing the desperate conditions in Gaza. Its 2 million Palestinian residents inhabit 141 square miles, making it one of the most densely populated areas of the world. Some 65 percent of residents live in poverty, 44 percent are unemployed and the majority of young people don’t work.
The work of the task force comes as the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat reported this week that several Western nations have agreed to permit the United Nations to provide humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip independent of Hamas. According to the report, the U.N. is expected to approve a series of projects worth $600 million in the Gaza Strip over the next five months. And Hamas is said to have agreed to cease attacks against Israel in order to receive the aid.
In addition, Israel has also taken steps this week to ease the humanitarian crisis, reportedly allowing Gazans to enter Israel for work (200,000 were once allowed in each day), expanding the approved fishing areas on the beach, and improving water, electricity and fuel infrastructures in the Strip.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) considers half of Gaza’s population to be refugees and provides them with such things as education, a social safety net and health services. But with the United States’ decision in January to withhold $65 million of its $125 million in annual aid, UNRWA officials have said it is questionable whether schools would reopen in the fall for 300,000 students in Gaza. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the water in Gaza is not safe to drink, medical supplies are in desperate need, electricity is provided only about four hours a day, and sewage water runs in the streets and pours into the Mediterranean. The situation is so dire that a 20-year-old Palestinian, shouting “damn the government,” set himself on fire last Sunday to protest Hamas’ failed and repressive rule. His family is quoted as saying his wife is expecting their first child and he has “no money for a doctor, diapers or milk.” Although suicide is forbidden by Islamic law, there were reportedly dozens of suicides last year in Gaza.
One of the first things the task force must decide is how to deal with Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Canada.
“Do you ignore Hamas or find a way to bring it along over time?” asked Ilan Goldenberg, policy adviser of the Israel Policy Forum and a senior fellow and director of the Middle East Security Program at the CNAS. Or, he said, “Is the moment to engage with Hamas once it has renounced violence and agreed to a long-term hudna [cease-fire]? These are some of the questions we have to ask ourselves.”
What happens once Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is no longer the key player in the West Bank? What would happen if there were a change in government in Israel or if there is a fourth Hamas-Israel war? These are other factors that must also be considered, Goldenberg said.
Among some ideas already suggested is providing water filtration kits to residents. Goldenberg said this was tried once before but it failed because no training was provided and the kits got dirty and could no longer be used.
Daniel Kurtzer, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005 and is another member of the task force, said in an interview that small desalination units might also be considered for Gaza.
“The cost is not prohibitive,” he said. “But it would need a regular electricity supply. … There is no dearth of creative ways of at least alleviating some of the humanitarian distress. The task force will come up with ideas and will then have to get someone” to implement them.
Asked if it would not be possible to raise money to send to Israel’s electric company so that it could keep providing electricity to Gaza throughout each day — thus bypassing Hamas — Kurtzer replied: “It sounds so reasonable, but everything is looked at through a political lens. Even a go-fund-me page or a zillionaire who comes in and buys electricity for Gaza — each stakeholder would look at it to see if it hurts the other side. … It’s cutting off the nose to spite the face. Any amount of assistance will help, but Hamas does not want to give Israel credit for doing anything positive.”
Just last week, Hamas refused to permit two trucks filled with Israeli medical supplies from entering the Gaza Strip even though last Monday medical personnel in Gaza claimed more than 1,300 Palestinians had been wounded by Israeli gunfire as they charged the border fence separating Gaza and Israel. It said another 61 Palestinians, including 50 Hamas members and three members of Islamic Jihad, had been killed.
But not everyone believes the humanitarian situation in Gaza is extraordinary.
“I don’t think there’s a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that is Israel’s responsibility to deal with,” said Ira Sharansky, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who is not a member of the task force. “Conditions there are about the same as a typical African country. … There is a cultural barrier between American Jews, Israel and Gaza, and Gaza’s political DNA is so antagonistic to Israel that there is no communication. If American Jews think they can jump over that hurdle, I think they’re dreaming.”
He pointed out that earlier this month under the guidance of Hamas, Palestinian rioters twice in one week attacked, vandalized and damaged the Kerem Shalom border crossing connecting Israel to Gaza, even setting it ablaze on May 4. Fuel and gas pipes that provide fuel to Gaza were damaged. Each day, according to Israeli authorities, Israel allows 800 trucks of supplies — including medication, food and building materials — to enter Gaza through this crossing.
“They want their people to suffer so that the world will give them what they want,” Sharansky said. “I can’t imagine what they think the world will do. Arab countries have tired of the Palestinian issue.”
But Goldenberg said task force members expect to travel to Egypt, Israel and Jordan to gather information for what promises to be a “full evaluation” of what can be done to help the people of Gaza.
Kurtzer said that once the task force comes up with ideas for addressing the humanitarian crisis, it would seek to mobilize international support.
“But nothing can be delivered without support from Israel, Hamas and Egypt,” he said. “Even if we have a great plan that costs nothing, you need a buy-in [from those three].”
Shibley Telhami, a non-resident fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings and a member of the task force, agreed that it is “hard to separate humanitarian from political issues.”
“For the task force, the big challenge will be navigating the complex political reality of the competing interests that are external and internal to Gaza while serving the humanitarian needs of the people,” he said. “A lot of attempts have failed not because of money but because of the competition of the political interests. To my mind, that is the biggest challenge.”
A key to resolving the economic crisis in Gaza is the Hamas’ attitude towards Israel. Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, said if Hamas would only “renounce violence against Israel as a means to achieving its political objective,” he would counsel Israel to lift its blockade of Gaza.
Noting that Israel has also demanded that Hamas “surrender its weapons and recognize Israel,” Ben-Meir, who is not a member of the task force, said that would not happen without negotiations.
“Israel has to recognize that Gaza is a separate entity that must be dealt with,” he said.
Telhami said he believes the “biggest thing we can do now is re-fund UNRWA. I know the stigma associated with it in Congress and the administration, but the U.S. provides about one-third of UNRWA’s budget and UNRWA is doing things nobody else can do in Gaza.”