Qatar and the United Nations announced on Thursday that they had signed an agreement to return some Qatari subsidies to the Gaza Strip, marking significant progress in the ongoing talks to bolster the ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas terror group.
Qatar and the UN will channel $100 salaries for 100,000 impoverished Gazan families — $10 million in total — each month through the UN and the UN World Food Program, Qatari envoy to Gaza Mohammad al-Emadi said in a statement.
This arrangement was approved through the end of 2021.
According to al-Emadi, the money will be distributed beginning in September. The funds do not include payments to Hamas civil servants, who also received cash from Qatar before the May conflict between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the new mechanism “ensures the money reaches those in need, while maintaining Israel’s security needs.”
“Under the new mechanism, financial aid will be transferred to hundreds of thousands of Gazan people by the UN directly to their bank accounts, with Israel overseeing the recipients,” Gantz said.
Under the somewhat convoluted arrangement, Qatar will deposit the funds each month in a UN bank account in New York, from which it will be transferred to an unspecified Palestinian bank in Ramallah and from there to a branch in the Gaza Strip. The Gaza branch will then issue the $100 stipends to the recipients in the form of reloadable debit cards.
Though Israel will oversee who receives these cards, once they are used to withdraw cash, Israel’s formal control over the process ends, and that relatively untraceable money can be transferred freely.
As a result, Middle East analysts and observers have expressed skepticism that Qatari money can be distributed to Gazans without it eventually falling into the hands of Hamas, the de facto ruler of the Strip.
The first $10 million for this program will be deposited in the UN bank account in New York next week. By the end of September, Israel expects that all of the first payment will be distributed to the recipients in the Gaza Strip.
Since the May war, Israel has blocked the payments, insisting on safeguards that none of the money will reach Hamas. Under the system before the war, some $30 million in cash was delivered in suitcases to Gaza each month through an Israeli-controlled crossing.
In the aftermath of the fighting, Israel has also maintained heightened restrictions on Gaza, significantly limiting imports and exports and complicating the reconstruction of the battered enclave.
During the recent 11-day war, Israeli airstrikes and Palestinian rockets caused at least $290 million worth of damage to the Gaza Strip, international assessors reported in early July.
The Israeli government has also sought to condition any easing of restrictions on progress in talks to reach a prisoner exchange with Hamas. The terror group currently holds two Israeli civilians, as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. Hamas hopes to swap them for thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.
For four months, Israel and Hamas have held indirect negotiations. The failure to make serious progress has occasionally sparked rising tensions between the two sides.
On Monday, southern Israel was hit with the first rocket fire since the May round of fighting between Israel and Hamas, although no Palestinian group took responsibility. Two days later, faction leaders in the Gaza Strip threatened to escalate with Israel unless their conditions were met.
“An explosion and escalation are inevitable if the status quo persists,” senior Islamic Jihad official Khalid al-Batsh said in a statement on Wednesday.
That day, the various terror groups in Gaza announced plans to hold a large protest along the border on Saturday. On Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces stepped up its defenses along the border in preparation for the demonstration and out of concern that it may lead to further violence.
Israel did not respond to Monday’s rocket fire in its usual manner of striking Hamas targets inside the Gaza Strip. Earlier that day, Israeli authorities also loosened some restrictions, including allowing over 1,350 Gazan traders the opportunity to exit and permitting cement and tires into the enclave.
Nonetheless, without a comprehensive agreement to facilitate reconstruction in Gaza, observers say that a future escalation of hostilities is inevitable. The Qatari subsidies, meanwhile, had emerged as one of the major stumbling blocks in the talks to strengthen the fragile ceasefire.
The Qatari projects in the past funded fuel for Gaza’s only power plant and hospitals to shore up the enclave’s damaged healthcare system. They also brought in hundreds of millions in cash payments to 100,000 poor Gazan families and to Hamas’s civil servants.
But following the May battle between Israel and Hamas, Israeli officials have vowed not to return to the status quo ante, which they view as too favorable to Hamas.
“The suitcases of dollars are something we inherited and need to stop,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told the Israeli cabinet in early July.
The Palestinian Authority had hoped to sign a separate agreement between Ramallah and Doha to transfer the Qatari funds. But the deal fell through after Palestinian banks registered opposition, fearing international sanctions should they pay out salaries to Gazans affiliated with Hamas.
In a meeting with UN envoy Tor Wennesland on Thursday, PA premier Mohammad Shtayyeh rejected the notion that the UN would serve as the conduit for the Qatari cash.
Aid must go via “one address — the Palestinian National Authority,” Shtayyeh said in a statement carried by his office.
“The UN is a partner and complement to the [PA’s] efforts, they are not a substitute for it,” Shtayyeh said.
Israel and Egypt have placed Gaza under a tight blockade for over 15 years, which they say is necessary to prevent an even greater threat to their security from Gaza’s Hamas rulers. The restrictions have been tighter ever since the May war between Israel and Hamas.
Rights groups lament the blockade’s effect on Gaza’s civilian population. Over a decade and a half of sanctions have left the enclave impoverished. Around 57 percent of Gazans are under the poverty line, the UN reported in 2017.
AP contributed to this report.