Israel turning back entire trucks with 'luxury' items inside

Integrating PA into Gaza aid efforts offers pilot to post-war governance, say experts

Report argues move would reduce bottlenecks, reliance on UNRWA while boosting West Bank economy; author says Israel, UN both responsible for hunger crisis, but former has more issues

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

A Palestinian civil defense team including members of the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Health and the Palestinian Red Crescent, pose for a group photo before they travel to Syria and Turkey, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, February 9, 2023. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian civil defense team including members of the Palestinian Authority's Ministry of Health and the Palestinian Red Crescent, pose for a group photo before they travel to Syria and Turkey, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, February 9, 2023. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

A new report from a group of Israeli policy experts recommends including the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza humanitarian effort in order to give Ramallah accountability over the process, and smooth its transition to eventually return to governing the enclave after the war.

Involving the PA in the humanitarian effort would ease some of the pressure on Israel, which doesn’t want to be responsible for distributing aid inside Gaza and is also seeking to limit the beleaguered UNRWA’s involvement in the process.

The Biden administration on Thursday welcomed the establishment of a new PA government, expressing its hope that the cabinet led by freshly appointed PA Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa will be able to implement the reforms necessary for the authority to eventually take over the reins in Gaza.

The US has not, however, spoken publicly about integrating Ramallah into the humanitarian process, which the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) report suggests would serve as a bridge to the administration’s post-war vision for Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thus far rejected efforts to include the PA in post-war planning, arguing that the more moderate foil to Hamas, which publicly backs a two-state solution, is actually no different than the Gaza-ruling terror group.

However, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and others in the security establishment have argued that the PA represents Israel’s least bad option for who can manage Gaza after the war, the alternatives being Hamas or a state of anarchy, according to an Israeli official. This view has yet to become policy because it is rejected by far-right members of the coalition whom Netanyahu needs to stay in power.

This handout picture provided by the Palestinian Authority’s Press Office (PPO) shows Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, with the newly appointed Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa, in Ramallah on March 14, 2024. (PPO / AFP)

Returning the PA to Gaza is an integral part of the post-war planning in Washington, which envisions Arab allies assisting in the reconstruction of the Strip and temporarily managing its security before passing the baton to a reformed PA, establishing a pathway to a two-state solution with Israel, which will be awarded a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries in the region to bolster a united front against Iran.

PA involvement can come in many forms, chiefly through the establishment of a direct aid route from the West Bank, says the report, written by IPF research director Shira Efron, analyst Jess Manville, and Economic Cooperation Foundation co-executive director Celine Touboul.

Food production facilities and factories to produce tents and other sorely lacking temporary shelter equipment could be established in the West Bank, which would have the added benefit of bolstering the Palestinian economy while also limiting aid transport to areas that are already under Israeli control. The shipments would not need to go through customs and other inspections as they do when coming from Jordan or Egypt, and Israel would still be able to inspect them in a more streamlined process.

The IPF report also recommends having the PA manage crossings in areas largely cleared of Hamas presence, such as Gate 96 in northern Gaza recently opened by the IDF. It urges the US to demand that the PA be responsible for managing the temporary pier it is building off the Gaza City coast to receive maritime aid shipments.

The PA’s unarmed civil defense force could also be tasked with clearing rubble from buildings destroyed in the Gaza fighting, West Bank-based medical teams could be brought into Gaza to support international field hospitals and PA employees can also be integrated into relief agencies’ water testing campaigns, vaccination efforts and blood drives in the enclave, the report proposes.

Government employees of the Palestinian Authority gather to return to work at the headquarters of the Palestinian Finance Ministry in Gaza City on November 29, 2017. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Most critically, the PA could be incorporated into mechanisms for monitoring goods and aid workers, to further place the onus on the PA to ensure a successful humanitarian operation.

While involving the PA in inspections already being conducted by Israel could slow the process, if done efficiently, it will better position Ramallah to eventually take over the process when it has finished undergoing necessary reforms, the report says. That way, Israel won’t end up being responsible for managing civilian affairs in Gaza, which it claims it has no interest in doing.

Hamas violently took control of Gaza in a 2007 coup, but the PA has remained the second-largest employer in the Strip, which puts Ramallah in a strong position to integrate into the humanitarian system.

This effort is lower stakes for Israel from a security standpoint but can serve as a test for granting the PA greater responsibility once the war is over, the report’s authors surmise, adding that the recommendations could be within the realm of what is politically digestible in Jerusalem.

Although the PA is historically unpopular and is unlikely to be fully embraced in Gaza, Ramallah is interested in gaining a larger foothold in the Strip, including on the humanitarian front, a senior Israeli official separately told The Times of Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Palestinians have their IDs checked at a passport control station run by the Palestinian Authority at the northern entrance of the Gaza Strip just after the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing, on November 1, 2017. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Chocolates, croissants and bikinis

Shira Efron, one of the report’s authors, held a briefing with reporters on Monday to share her other reflections regarding the current state of the humanitarian effort, as someone who has followed Gaza closely for years.

Efron has served as an adviser to both the UN’s Jerusalem office and the Defense Ministry after stints as special adviser on Israel at the RAND Corporation and senior fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Asked to weigh in on the debate between Israel and the UN regarding culpability over the lackluster humanitarian effort which has aid groups warning that famine is imminent in northern Gaza, Efron said both sides carry responsibility, though gave a longer list of problems on the Israeli side.

For starters, she disputed the Israeli claim that it has the capacity to inspect 44 aid trucks an hour at both the Kerem Shalom and Nitzana Crossings, saying that in practice, it hasn’t been able to inspect much more than 200 trucks per day — far from the amount needed to support a population grappling with massive food shortages.

As for the ongoing debate regarding the closure of Israel’s crossings on Saturdays, Efron also dismissed Jerusalem’s claim that this was part of an agreement it reached with the UN, saying that deal was only relevant at the beginning of the war when the UN was still building up its distribution capacity. It is now looking to deliver aid seven days a week, instead of the current five and a half days it is allowed due to the closing of Kerem Shalom.

Moreover, she pointed to Israel’s half-day closure of Kerem Shalom on the Purim holiday as an indicator that the hours of operation have more to do with the religious calendar than with outdated agreements reached with the UN.

Israeli soldiers stand by an Egyptian truck bringing humanitarian aid supplies into the Gaza Strip at the Kerem Shalom border crossing, February 6, 2024. (Menahem Kahana/ AFP)

The aforementioned senior Israeli official confirmed that candy, croissants, juice and cigarettes have been barred, explaining that it is part of Jerusalem’s policy to allow the minimum amount of humanitarian aid and to deny what it views as “luxury goods” while Hamas continues to hold onto 134 hostages.

While recognizing the complicity of large sectors of the Palestinian public in Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught as well as the sentiment in Israeli society in favor of strict limitations on aid, Efron said, “It’s in Israel’s interest to show that it has a fight with Hamas, and not with the Palestinian population.”

“Counter-insurgency means that you try and buy hearts and minds, and this is not the way to buy hearts and minds,” she said, adding that such rejections of individual products on trucks create bottlenecks by temporarily grinding the entire operation to a halt.

She described Israeli inspections more broadly as a bottleneck. “You can argue it’s not the main bottleneck at the moment, but it is a bottleneck.”

Israel says these reviews are necessary to prevent the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, which Hamas has long been prone to do.

Dr Shira Efron. (Diane Baldwin, RAND Corporation)

Moreover, Efron agreed with Jerusalem’s insistence that the UN has a major distribution problem, lacking trucks and workers capable of the dangerous task of delivering aid.

“They’re not armed and the UN won’t work with criminal organizations to secure the convoys, [so] they’re scared,” she said of many prospective UN aid staff.

Still, she said UN requests for more trucks, armored vehicles, satellite communication equipment, visas for aid workers and vetting of drivers can take months to be approved if at all by Israel.

Efron also called out Egypt for running a “black box” humanitarian process on its side of the border where there is no transparency or coordination regarding what’s arriving at the El-Arish airport. “There are thousands — not hundreds — thousands of containers [sitting in the city of] Alarish. There is no system of pre-recording what’s coming in… That’s why you end up with things like a truck full of bikinis,” which has little use for aid-desperate Gazans at the moment, she said.

Aid supplies for Gaza provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) arrives at the El-Arish airport in Egypt’s north Sinai Peninsula on October 15, 2023. (Ali Moustafa / AFP)

“Israel is correct that the UN is lacking capacity, and the UN is correct that Israel is not opening all the crossings that it can, that it’s very stringent with inspections — which is understandable given the security threat from Gaza — and that it’s not taking steps to allow the UN to improve its capacities,” Efron summarized.

“There’s a blame game and actually everyone is right, but the question is how we can constructively get out of it because all sides involved can do a better job,” she said.

She recommended a more civil discourse between senior Israeli and UN officials, noting that improved personal relationships at the top levels of both sides can be leveraged to better tackle problems on the ground.

Israel and the UN do not appear to be heading toward a rapprochement however, with Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Thursday tweeting at UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that he “should be ashamed” of himself, days after the latter visited the Rafah Crossing and declared that Israeli obstacles on aid were responsible for looming famine in Gaza.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrives at El Arish International Airport, Egypt, before visiting the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, March 23, 2024. (AP/Amr Nabil)


Guterres cited the UN-backed Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) report regarding hunger in Gaza, which further heightened global concerns regarding the humanitarian situation in the war-torn Strip.

Efron said there was no question that there is hunger in Gaza, but raised several concerns regarding the IPC report’s methodological limitations.

The report relied heavily on survey responses to text messages during a period when network coverage is limited; its survey sample was not geographically representative; and it relied on figures from the compromised, Hamas-run health ministry, she noted.

Most critically, the IPC report makes “future projections based on a relatively extreme scenario where there is intense fighting, limited aid supply and a ground operation in Rafah that does not take into consideration addressing the population’s needs,” Efron continued.

“In practice, the fighting has wound down substantially and the humanitarian supply has gradually improved and is still improving. And — there is not yet an operation in Rafah, and one is very unlikely to occur without safe evacuation of the population. This is not to say that an operation would not affect civilians and lead to displacement, but it’s not necessarily what the report predicts,” she added.

Much of the bad blood between Israel and the UN stems from UNRWA, with Israel long arguing that the relief agency for Palestinian refugees is compromised.

Video showing an UNRWA worker driving a white UN jeep, and abducting the body of Jonathan Samerano, who was killed by Hamas terrorists on October 7. (Screenshot)

Israeli officials are determined to block UNRWA from involvement in post-war Gaza, but Efron argued that such a goal is little more than wishful thinking given that the international community is determined to ensure its survival.

Eighteen countries suspended funding following allegations that 12 of UNRWA’s employees actively participated in Hamas’s October 7 onslaught during which close to 1,200 Israelis were massacred and another 253 taken hostage.

The majority of those nations resumed funding, and a pair of countries added their names to the donor list after not being on it before the war.

Efron speculated that pushing for meaningful reforms within the agency would be a more realistic route for Israel to take.

While such steps will be incredibly difficult, Efron said they could include limiting UNRWA’s activities to its original mandate so that it serves as a humanitarian relief agency, not a political agency that is deeply intertwined with Hamas and lobbying for a Palestinian right of return.

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