Can US help rebuild Gaza without rehabilitating Hamas?

Biden administration says it wants to use post-war opportunity to strengthen the PA; past efforts have failed to benefit Gazans and prevent terror rulers from rearming

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Members of the Izz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group, march in Gaza City on May 22, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
Members of the Izz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group, march in Gaza City on May 22, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Perhaps because he was speaking on background, the senior US State Department official briefing reporters Monday was willing to reveal cracks in America’s confidence in its ability to help rehabilitate Gaza without allowing its Hamas rulers to benefit.

Acknowledging “significant challenges” to the goal being advanced by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his trip this week to the region following an 11-day military conflict between Israel and Hamas, the senior official added, “as we all know in life, there are no guarantees.”

The Biden administration will not be the first US government to grapple with the post-war reconstruction of Gaza over the past decade and a half, and its determination to ensure that funds donated to the Strip do not reach its Hamas rulers has also been affirmed by predecessors. But identifying and implementing effective mechanisms for diverting aid to bypass the terror group rulers of Gaza has proven far more difficult in practice.

For now, US officials are speaking broadly of the goal and refraining from getting into specifics as they hold the first meetings with the relevant parties on the matter.

US President Joe Biden speaks about a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, in the Cross Hall of the White House, May 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“The United States is committed to working with the United Nations and other international stakeholders to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and to marshal international support for the people of Gaza and the Gaza reconstruction efforts,” said US President Joe Biden in remarks following Egypt’s brokering of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that took effect early Friday.

“We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority — not Hamas, the Authority — in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal,” Biden said.

The State Department official briefing reporters several days later added that Egypt and the Gulf states would also be involved in the UN-orchestrated effort that the US was getting behind.

Speaking at a Tuesday press conference in Jerusalem at the tail end of his stop in Israel, Blinken admitted that “asking the international community, asking all of us, to help rebuild Gaza only makes sense if there is confidence that what is rebuilt is not lost again because Hamas decides to launch more rocket attacks in the future.”

A source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that the United Arab Emirates, in particular, has made clear to the US and the UN that it will not contribute to the reconstruction of Gaza unless it receives assurances that its aid won’t go toward the rearmament of Hamas.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) speaks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on May 25, 2021, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. (Alex Brandon / POOL / AFP)

Back to the drawing board

To provide such assurances to donors, the US will have to build on existing rehabilitation efforts that have failed to both significantly aid Gazans and keep Hamas in check.

After the 2014 Gaza war, the UN, Israel and the PA established to the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) to allow entry of construction materials into the coastal enclave.

The mechanism carefully vetted projects in Gaza, with Israel and the PA allowed oversight over who received materials, where they were used and how much was transferred. The United Nations sought to ensure that the goods reached their intended recipients.

But the mechanism was deemed wildly ineffective by aid groups that lamented that it added layers of bureaucracy, thereby delaying and increasing the cost of reconstruction. Israel, meanwhile, liberally used its veto power to prevent the entry of construction materials it deemed could end up being used for Hamas tunnels.

A Palestinian policeman waves on a truck as it enters through the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip on September 1, 2020, after a Qatari-mediated deal with Israel. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

“The GRM broke down because money wasn’t forthcoming and UN oversight was limited,” said Dennis Ross, a former US envoy to the Mideast under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

He recommended that a new international mechanism replace the GRM in which donated goods are monitored through their entry into the Strip, with tracking devices placed on delivery trucks and cameras installed at warehouses. Ross said international monitors should be placed on both sides of the crossings, as well as further into the enclave, and that while US forces need not be among them, Washington could still play a role in monitoring electronically from afar.

More crucially though, the longtime senior diplomat said, Egypt’s Rafah crossing into Gaza, which is used primarily for pedestrians, should be open for goods as well, with additional monitoring capabilities installed there too, thereby relieving the stress at Israel’s lone goods crossing, Kerem Shalom.

Ross said that if Hamas were to still move forward with efforts to divert the aid, “you have to stop the reconstruction efforts immediately and the international community must shine a spotlight on it,” adding that the mechanism will require enough transparency for such an exposure of Hamas transgressions to be possible.

Dennis Ross speaks at the Zionism 3.0 conference in Palo Alto on September 18, 2016 (Michelle Shabtai)

“They coerce their public, but they’re not indifferent to their public,” the former Middle East envoy said of Hamas, suggesting that the terror group could be swayed.

Ross, who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, did not fault the Biden administration for not yet delving publicly into such specifics, as “they should first do their homework, talk to the Israelis and get the international community on board.”

Bags of cash

Regardless of how intensive the monitoring mechanisms become, they are rendered all but meaningless if another aspect of Gaza’s lifeline over the last several years goes unchanged.

With Israel’s approval, Qatar since 2018 has on a near-monthly basis provided millions of dollars in cash to Gaza’s Hamas rulers to pay for fuel for the Strip’s power plant, allow the group to pay its civil servants, and provide aid to tens of thousands of impoverished families.

“Honestly it’s bananas given the extreme vetting that all assistance goes through [as part of the] GRM or [USAID assistance to Gaza] when Qatar, at Israeli urging, is just giving suitcases of cash to buy quiet. What did you think it was buying?” admonished Joel Braunold, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, on Twitter earlier this week.

“So [as] we are about to put all the risk and challenge on [the] humanitarian community again, please let us remember that we have no idea where the Qatari cash ends up. None. It can be used to buy whatever,” added Braunold, who has worked closely with Israeli and Palestinian civil society organizations.

Palestinians receive financial aid from Qatar at a post office in Gaza City, June 20, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“But what if you replaced that economic infusion with a different one?” proposed Ilan Goldenberg, the chief of staff to the State Department’s special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations during the Obama administration, in his own Twitter thread. “Let more Gazans out of Gaza and let them work in Israel where they can make higher salaries and bring that cash home.”

“Since these people would all undergo thorough screening by Israeli security services, the cash you would be sending back into Gaza will go almost entirely NOT to Hamas,” he wrote, adding that the proposal would be “far from a solution to Gaza’s problems, but a good step.”

Following the latest Gaza war, Israel appears to be reconsidering its approval of the Qatari cash transfers. The Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday that Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi are pushing for the funds to be transferred through the PA, rather than directly to Hamas.

The proposal would fall in line with what the senior State Department official envisioned for Gaza reconstruction — that if carried out effectively “will get us on the pathway eventually to reintegration to some extent of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.”

Palestinians walk with luggage at the Rafah border crossing’s departure area to travel from the Gaza Strip into Egypt, on February 9, 2021 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

PA President Mahmoud Abbas told Blinken Tuesday that his government “stands ready to work directly in order for the reconstruction of Gaza” and that the members of any future unity government, including Hamas, will “abide by international legitimacy resolutions that are known for everyone.”

But Abbas has in the past balked at proposals to re-establish the PA’s control in Gaza after it was violently ousted by Hamas in a 2007 coup. The PA president has conditioned a return on Hamas disarmament, which the terror group has long refused to consider.

Ross speculated that Abbas “should have an interest in wanting to show his relevance,” but admitted that might not be enough on its own, given that Hamas will not give up its weapons.

Goldenberg, in an Israel Policy Forum webinar Tuesday, suggested that encouraging the Palestinians to move forward with elections — called off in April by Abbas — would help boost the legitimacy of their leadership and contribute to reconstruction efforts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his office in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. Israel’s ambassador to the US Gilad Erdan is at left. (Matty Stern/US Embassy Jerusalem)

But Ross argued that the PA should first be pushed to institute reforms aimed at fighting corruption and promoting rule of law before it moves forward with elections.

Nonetheless, the former Middle East envoy said that both Israel and the US had best learn from the “mistakes” that allowed for the sidelining of the more moderate PA for the Hamas terror group.

“You can say the PA hasn’t acted in a way that makes peace more likely, but they’re not ideologically rejecting it the way Hamas is,” Ross argued, pointing to Israel’s security cooperation with Abbas’s forces in the West Bank, which has long been touted by IDF generals and could never be replicated with Hamas forces in Gaza.

Blinken, too, struck an upbeat tone on the prospect of emboldening the PA in Gaza after his meeting with Abbas, telling reporters that if the reconstruction process is done right, “far from empowering Hamas, [it] has the potential to undermine it.”

But as much as the Biden administration wants to strengthen the PA, none of its recently announced aid for the Palestinians can go to Abbas’s government directly due to laws passed by Congress barring such assistance so long as Ramallah doesn’t reform its welfare program, which includes payments to security prisoners who have killed Israelis.

Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel in December that they were working on amending the payment mechanism, but are also hoping that Biden will agree to deem as unconstitutional, legislation labeling the Palestinian Liberation Organization a terror group. However, there hasn’t been any movement on either issue since.

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