Money will not fix the problem in Gaza, Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas warned on Monday, despite the largesse of donors in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt. Abbas was addressing a donor conference at which Western and Arab governments arrived bearing pledges of $5.2 billion for the territory devastated by Israel’s 22-day offensive almost double the amount requested by the Palestinian Authority. But the beleaguered leader pointed out that rebuilding Gaza was fundamentally a political challenge. Indeed, facilitating any progress for the Middle East’s most intractable conflict will require that the Obama
Administration revisit two articles of faith of the Bush Administration: a
refusal to accept Hamas as a legitimate representative of a substantial
section of the Palestinian population; and a reticence to apply pressure on
a reluctant Israel to take steps that may break the impasse.
Getting help to Gaza poses a series of interrelated political challenges.
For starters, there’s no formal cease-fire in the conflict that brought
about Gaza’s devastation. Egypt had managed to bring the two sides to the
brink of a deal two weeks ago, before internal political dynamics prompted
the Israelis to back out at the eleventh hour. So even as donors discuss
rebuilding Gaza, Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli military strikes
continue, and may even escalate. Last weekend Israel declared that rocket
fire could provoke it once again to unleash its vast destructive power on
Gaza, casting a shadow over any reconstruction effort.
More urgently, the Israelis have restricted humanitarian aid into Gaza,
prompting U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to warn at the donor
“The situation at the border crossings is intolerable. Aid workers do not
have access. Essential commodities cannot get in.” He and French President
Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized the need for Israel to open the crossings.
Following a recent visit to Gaza, Senator John Kerry had to lobby Defense
Minister Ehud Barak to allow in shipments of pasta, which the Israelis did
not categorize as a humanitarian essential. Reconstruction is also
impossible without concrete, glass and metals, all of which Israel has
barred from entering Gaza, on the grounds that these could somehow be used
to create weapons.
But Israel is in no mood to be told to ease up on Gaza: Prime
Ministerdesignate Benjamin Netanyahu last weekend urged Western countries
to refrain from sending funds to the territory while rocket fire continued.
The border crossings were to have been opened under the cease-fire deal
brokered by Egypt, which included mechanisms to prevent Hamas from using the
crossings and the organization’s tunnel system to smuggle new
weapons into Gaza. But the truce remains in limbo, now that Israel has
insisted on first securing the release of a soldier held captive in Gaza
since 2006 . Relief and
reconstruction efforts remain almost paralyzed by the unresolved security
Then there’s the question of governance in Gaza. Hamas has emerged from
Israel’s offensive in an even stronger political position than ever among
Palestinians and in the wider Arab world. And that’s a massive problem for
the U.S., which has spearheaded an effort to choke off Gaza’s economy in
the hopes of toppling Hamas. The U.S. and other donors have insisted that any
money allocated to Gaza should go through either international
organizations or the Palestinian Authority in order to be kept out of the
hands of Hamas. The Islamists may be willing to go along with that, as long
as the aid is not linked to efforts to oust them. “We don’t want the money
to be deposited in Hamas bank accounts, nor the accounts of [its
government],” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, criticizing his
organization’s exclusion from Monday’s conference. “We want the money to
reach the beneficiaries, those whose homes and institutions were
The only way Abbas can operate in Gaza, of course, is with the
consent of Hamas. Recognizing the failure of efforts to topple Hamas through
economic and military pressure, Egypt has brought the rival Palestinian
factions together to negotiate the creation of a unity government. That
project has the backing of the entire Arab world and also the tacit approval
of key U.S. allies in Europe. But last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned
that unless Hamas formally recognizes Israel and renounces violence, “I don’t think [a unity government] will result in the kind of positive step forward either for the Palestinian
people or as a vehicle for a reinvigorated effort to obtain peace that leads
to a Palestinian state.” Still, U.S. skepticism is unlikely to prevent the
creation of a Palestinian unity government, which would restore Hamas’
position as a key component of the Palestinian Authority. And if, as
expected, a unity government agreement involves new
elections in the West Bank and Gaza within the next year, the smart money
right now would be on Hamas winning any such poll.
Clinton traveled from Sharm al-Sheikh to Israel for a listening
tour. She’s unlikely to find much encouraging about what she hears. The
Obama Administration has made a priority of securing a cease-fire in Gaza to
enable reconstruction and pressing for a two-state solution
to the conflict. But Israel’s incoming government, which is not yet
finalized, is led by a hawkish politician who refuses to endorse the
principle of a two-state solution. Netanyahu says “the Palestinians should
govern their own lives without threatening ours,” by which he means that
Israel’s security demands preclude independence for the
Palestinians. A Palestinian state, Netanyahu argues, would have to forgo
the right to maintain an army, and accept Israeli control of its airspace,
electromagnetic spectrum and border crossings. Needless to say, he’s
unlikely to find any Palestinian takers for those terms.
Despite the donor conference, the reality confronting the Obama
Administration is that the principal players on both sides of
Israeli-Palestinian conflict don’t share its vision, and that imperils
everything from rebuilding Gaza to achieving a political settlement to the
conflict. Something will have to give.
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