Israel must 'get creative' to allow more aid into enclave

‘PA not strong enough to lead Gaza reconstruction,’ US senator says after visit

Chris Murphy says he raised US objection to terror stipends with PA premier, discussed possible path forward on issue; Democratic lawmakers express optimism after Bennett meeting

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

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-C.T., center, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., right, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-C.T., hold a press conference at the military airbase in Beirut airport, Lebanon, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. A delegation of four U.S. senators visiting Lebanon promised to work on easing Lebanon's crippling economic crisis.  They later traveled to Israel and Tunisia. (AP Photo/ Hassan Ammar)
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-C.T., center, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., right, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-C.T., hold a press conference at the military airbase in Beirut airport, Lebanon, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. A delegation of four U.S. senators visiting Lebanon promised to work on easing Lebanon's crippling economic crisis. They later traveled to Israel and Tunisia. (AP Photo/ Hassan Ammar)

The Palestinian Authority is not strong enough to play a major role in the ongoing Gaza reconstruction efforts, a senior Democratic senator said during a Friday briefing on the recent Congressional delegation trip he led in the region.

“My sense is that the PA is not in a strong enough of a position in Gaza right now to be able to administer the reconstruction in the way they had been in the past, so we’re gonna have to put together some international consortium,” said Chris Murphy, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism.

The PA has had almost no influence in Gaza since the Hamas terror group violently seized the territory in 2007 from PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah, leading Israel and Egypt to institute a stifling blockade which they say is to prevent the smuggling of weapons, but has also decimated the economy.

Murphy noted that Egypt — which is brokering ongoing indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas in Cairo to solidify a long-term ceasefire following the last major conflict in May — has also been involved in reconstruction efforts, but lamented that this has largely been limited to “clearance of debris and rubble” from the Strip.

“It’s taken too long for the international community to come to the table with a workable plan on Gaza reconstruction,” Murphy said.

He added that part of what he and the three other Democratic senators with him did during their meetings in Israel last week pushed Jerusalem to “get creative” about how the effort can be advanced and how more humanitarian aid can be allowed into the enclave without strengthening its Hamas rulers.

Members of Palestinian security forces stand guard at the closed-off Rafah border crossing to Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 23, 2021 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Murphy also noted the “donor fatigue” in the international community where countries are wary of coughing up billions of dollars to reconstruct, only to see buildings in the enclave leveled by Israeli strikes in subsequent rounds of fighting.

The Qatari envoy to the Gaza Strip, Mohammed al-Emadi, speaks during a press conference in Gaza City, on May 14, 2019. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Hours earlier on Friday, Qatar’s envoy to Gaza Mohammed al-Emadi announced that efforts to send aid from his country to the Strip, including to employees of the Hamas government, had failed after the PA backed out of an arrangement that would see them play a role in the transfer of the money.

Qatar pledged $500 million for Gaza following the May 10-21 conflict that began with intense rocket fire into Israel and prompted heavy Israeli retaliatory raids.

Al-Emadi said that a mechanism agreed earlier in the week where PA banks would transfer the money to Hamas employees was no longer an option. He said the banks had refused to take part, fearing they could be targeted by sanctions for transferring money to a terror group.

The collapse of the deal was likely to further inflame tensions between Israel and Hamas, which has frequently stepped up provocations in a bid to pressure Israel to allow in money.

Pushing PA on elections, ‘Pay-to-slay’

Murphy was in Israel last week along with Senators Chris Van Hollen, Jon Ossoff and Richard Blumenthal. The four lawmakers also met with PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah.

In this photo released by Lebanese government, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, third left, meets with Sen. Chris Murphy, D-C.T., second left, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., left, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-C.T., third right, Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., second right, and U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea at the presidential palace, in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Official Government via AP)

In addition, they made stops in Lebanon, Tunisia and Greece where they met with other senior lawmakers. The lawmakers are all on the more progressive end of the Democratic Party in the Senate, which has not shied away from criticizing Israel’s military and civilian presence in the West Bank, but is far more supportive of the US-Israel relationship than their progressive colleagues in the House of Representatives.

Murphy was joined in Friday’s press briefing by Van Hollen and Blumenthal.

Van Hollen said that during their meeting with Shtayyeh, the PA premier told them that Ramallah would move forward with the holding of parliamentary elections within six months of receiving an assurance from Israel that the latter would allow Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem to participate. The senator called the demand a “reasonable” one.

Parliamentary elections were scheduled to take place last April followed by a presidential vote in July. Both were canceled by PA President Abbas, who claimed that the reason for doing so was Israel’s refusal to allow balloting in East Jerusalem. However, analysts have overwhelmingly concluded that Abbas was more motivated by concerns that his Fatah movement would suffer significant losses to rival Hamas.

Israel avoided publicly taking a position on East Jerusalem balloting ahead of the scheduled election. In the past, Israel has come out in principle against the idea, but agreed to compromises on the matter during the last Palestinian election in 2006.

Blumenthal also reflected on a meeting with young Palestinian students and business leaders, lamenting how he was told by Shtayyeh that 53 percent of Palestinian college graduates are unemployed. The senator said that during his meeting with the PA prime minister he “emphasized the importance of opening space for the younger generation” in Ramallah’s leadership, in what appeared to be a subtle criticism of the PA’s current government, which is widely accused of corruption.

The senators also raised with Shtayyeh the Biden administration’s opposition to the PA’s welfare system, which includes regular stipends to jailed terrorists who have killed Israelis and other security prisoners, and to the families of those killed while carrying out attacks.

Ramallah has pledged to reform the policy, but has also appeared to tie the concession to the Biden administration’s scrapping of 1987 legislation that deems the PLO and its affiliates a terror organization.

Murphy said the PA’s “Pay-to-slay” program has made it impossible for the US to directly aid Ramallah without violating federal law, adding that the senators discussed the matter in-depth with Shtayyeh and that they had found “perhaps a pathway forward.”

Rebuilding bipartisan support for Israel

The senators spoke far more optimistically about their meetings in Israel.

“I was very excited and inspired by the commitments made by the prime minister [Naftali Bennett] and the foreign minister [Yair Lapid] to a different approach to the US, a genuinely bipartisan approach,” said Blumenthal.

“One of the greatest threats to the bonds between our two nations has been the attempt to drive a partisan wedge in this country between Israel and the US. The previous Israeli administration and the [previous] US administration in effect promoted that wedge and the prime minister made very clear that he wants the US-Israeli relationship to be completely bipartisan,” Blumenthal added, in a shot at the previous governments led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former president Donald Trump.

He noted appreciatively Bennett’s repeated use of the word “pragmatic” to describe his new government during their meeting last week.

Blumenthal said he assured Bennett that he would act to ensure that Congress provides sufficient funds to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system following the May conflict with Gaza terror groups, adding that the defense aid to Israel is “vital in combatting Hezbollah, Hamas and other terror threats,” including Iran.

Van Hollen highlighted Lapid’s repeated use of the phrase “do no harm” during their meeting to describe the government’s approach to the Palestinians, even as Bennett opposes a two-state solution. The senators did not mention Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, which Bennett has pledged to continue.

Murphy also said he was “impressed” by the new government, while noting that as a supporter of the two-state solution, it is an “odd coalition.” However, he said the delegation had “candid conversations” on the matter with both Bennett and Lapid, and praised the “significant steps” the government has recently taken, easing restrictions on Gaza as well as several gestures aimed to improve quality of life for Palestinians in the West Bank.

The senators reiterated that they raised US President Joe Biden’s plan to reopen a US consulate in Jerusalem after Trump shuttered the de facto mission to the Palestinians in 2019.

Israel has pushed back on Biden’s plan, with Lapid warning that it would destabilize the coalition and Bennett insisting that Jerusalem is only Israel’s capital, and does not belong to other nations.

However, the senators downplayed the disagreements between the sides on the matter. Blumenthal said the issue was one of “timing more than anything else” adding that he believed “it will be worked out” and “going forward that it is resolvable.”

“It’s helpful to look at the overall goals that we share. One is to make sure that this current government is sustained and succeeds,” he argued. “So not only do we tolerate disagreements, but we listen [to one another] as friends.”

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