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Following 10 days of intense rocketry and bombardment, a Gaza ceasefire negotiated by US, UN, Egyptian and Qatari diplomats is in place, and Israel has refocused on its central preoccupation: who should lead the country. Notwithstanding a Belarusian-manufactured distraction claiming Hamas had threatened an airliner (it had not), Hamas has maintained a triumphant posture, boasting of the ‘humiliating defeat’ of Israel. Business as usual has resumed.
The damage within Gaza, meanwhile, is devastating. Per the UN, 14,000 residences and 86 education or health facilities were damaged during the fighting. Food and fuel are in desperately short supply. The average water supply to the Gaza population decreased by between 25–50%, and 40% of Gazans do not have access to water; sanitation for all 1.2 million Gazans is affected. Urgent repairs are required to restore basic infrastructure. The electricity supply is down to 4–7 hours per day, compared to 12 hours per day pre-conflict, and one hospital is no longer functioning due to lack of electricity.
At the same time, the internal displacement of people – such as the 77,000 Gaza residents who crowded into UNRWA-run schools to escape the bombardment – has increased the risk of spreading COVID-19, which is expected to be a major upcoming challenge. The Kent strain of the virus reached Gaza in April and, due to overcrowding, is spreading fast. Gaza’s only COVID-test-processing lab was damaged and temporarily shut down on 17 May by an Israeli airstrike on a neighbouring building. The lab resumed operations on 20 May, and nearly 37% of the tests it processed in the first week after it restarted work were positive. Border crossings continue to be opened sporadically, hindering entry of medical supplies. Palestinian officials have estimated it will cost around $150 million to repair the damage to industry, power and agriculture in the already impoverished enclave.
Alongside the protagonists, the US, Egypt, Qatar, the EU and the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Tor Wennesland, have been engaged in talks to rebuild Gaza, and all consider the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) the ‘legitimate’ party with whom to discuss the process, rather than Hamas. Furthermore, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during the latter’s visit in late May that Israel will only agree on rebuilding Gaza when a joint mechanism is formed to ‘prevent Hamas from gaining extra power’.
Ashkenazi presented Blinken with a plan to provide aid to Gaza while drawing a distinction between ‘basic humanitarian aid, such as water and electricity’ and reconstruction funds. He made similar comments during a meeting with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – who also visited the region – calling on interlocutors to declare Hamas a terrorist organisation ‘in order to weaken its sources of funding’, and to help bring about the release of Israeli soldiers and civilians in Hamas captivity. Israel is working hard to keep close liaison with Egypt on reconstruction.
Previous aid to Gaza
Prominent donors to Gaza are well known. The Norway-chaired Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, a body established in 1993 to coordinate the delivery of international aid to the Palestinians and subsequently the PA, has coordinated large aid packages for Gaza’s reconstruction since 1999, with European and international donors providing more than $2 billion for this purpose since the 2014 conflict. Officials in those countries have expressed frustration at discussions about money being transferred to Gaza ‘without real oversight capability and without a broader political-political process’. EU plans may become more apparent soon, after the foreign ministers of Hungary and Portugal (which holds the EU presidency until 30 June) visit Israel.
Since 2012, Qatar has invested $1.4 billion in the enclave, according to Qatar’s foreign minister. 50% of what is now nearly $30 million per month pays for fuel for PA-run electricity generation; another part ‘goes to 130,000 of the poorest families in Gaza, each of whom get $100’. Still more goes to UN Development Programme operations, including the ‘Cash for Work’ programme.
Following the cessation of fighting, Egypt and Qatar have offered packages of half a billion dollars each for reconstruction and support to Gaza. The US announced it was ‘in the process of providing more than $360 million of urgent support for the Palestinian people’. This includes $75 million ‘in additional development and economic assistance for the Palestinians’, $5.5 million of which was earmarked for ‘immediate disaster assistance for Gaza and a little over $32 million for UNRWA's emergency humanitarian appeal’. US Secretary of State Blinken raised the importance of reconstruction efforts in Gaza with almost every interested interlocutor. The UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund said it had released $22.5 million for humanitarian efforts; more is likely to be forthcoming as needs manifest.
There are operational challenges to providing aid into Gaza, several of which are bureaucratic. Construction materials and commercial goods only enter Gaza through the Western Kerem Shalom/Karem Abu Salem crossing under the aegis of the Israeli Airports Authority and must be cleared by layers of bureaucracy; people must transit through the Eastern Erez crossing. Egypt controls the Rafah border crossing, though this is not often usable. Egypt has previously hinted that it would open Rafah more often were the PA to provide security in Gaza, instead of Hamas.
Any funding for reconstruction is channelled through the PA’s Ministry of Finance, in conjunction with the UN office in Gaza. Materials and building plans also require approval from Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) unit responsible for civilian matters in the occupied territories. COGAT inspects all materials and separates out those deemed dual-use (serving both civilian and military purposes).
The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM) is a tripartite mechanism created by Israel, the PA and the UN after the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel, which the Israelis refer to as Operation Protective Edge. The mechanism allowed for the movement of millions of tons of construction material into the Gaza Strip under Israeli supervision and vetting to prevent aid from being stolen and repurposed by Hamas, with the UN operating as the facilitator of international humanitarian assistance. Yet the GRM has stalled since 2017 and has been quietly sidelined, as its oversight mechanisms were judged to be causing so much holdup to goods that it tended to spark more conflict than it solved.
Israeli Defence Minister Gantz has said he is in favour of reviving the GRM – although, when asked why things would be different now, if the GRM didn’t stop Hamas from diverting cement and other products to build tunnels and manufacture arms over the past seven years, Gantz responded: ‘That’s why we took out their factories, the R&D people and their ability to develop and manufacture’.
New ideas and old motives
The demand for aid will be high. One interim idea that deserves attention (from Ilan Goldenberg, who heads the Middle East Security Programme at the Center for a New American Security) is to give greater numbers of Gazans permits to work inside Israel, to get cash into the hands of (vetted) Palestinians. He argues that longer term, reconstruction funds will go towards rebuilding infrastructure and focusing on improving electricity, water and health. However, reconstruction alone is not enough. Gaza’s economy is strangled because it cannot connect with the outside world, and without capital or skilled labour, any economy is severely constrained. Israel has addressed this problem in recent years by allowing Qatar to bring in millions of dollars of cash in bags to pay public sector salaries. The money lands in Ben Gurion airport and is driven into Gaza. Once it reaches Gaza this cash spigot is largely directed by Hamas; it acts, as Goldenberg aptly puts it, as ‘a combination economic stimulus package and payoff, which kept Hamas satisfied enough to keep the peace until a couple of weeks ago while also helping the strip’s economy’. The IDF has apparently recommended allowing vetted workers into Israel from Gaza in the past.
The US believes that a mechanism can be created to transfer funds and promote projects in the Gaza Strip without Hamas involvement – one that will operate through the PA, the UN, Egypt, Jordan and others. Administration officials have claimed that ‘the involvement of the PA in the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip will strengthen it in both the West Bank and Gaza, and this is one of the main goals of the same mechanism’. In Israel, opinions are divided about the chances of success of the US initiative: some think there is an almost nil chance in light of Hamas opposition – and, according to some, its growing influence in the West Bank – while others feel any initiative involving the US has more chance of being realistic and acceptable to all parties.
As always, discussion of ways and means that regards Hamas as, at best, an inconvenience to be circumvented and at worst, simply pretends it does not exist, gives Hamas’s leaders (and their Iranian backers) constant opportunity to remind stakeholders of its capability to issue rocket-backed blackmail. Dire warnings against ‘violating’ the Al-Aqsa mosque, promises of responses in kind to further Israeli attacks, and now further threats of escalation should Israeli authorities not allow Qatari funds to enter Gaza by the end of next week put the ceasefire under ever greater pressure. The Jerusalem Day flag march, now rescheduled a month later to 10 June, is a looming flashpoint that has gifted Hamas another opportunity to warn of ‘consequences’ should the march pass through the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City. Hamas has learned that sticking to ultimatums, such as the one issued a month ago on 10 May, works.
A final note
Trite statements such as ‘the status quo is unsustainable’ and ‘the next six months will be critical’ conceal the reality: Gaza policy, both internal and external, is today a complex, bureaucratic mess that has been built up over decades of violence, extremism, political failure, lack of imagination, and prioritisation of cynical interest over long-term gain.
There are some hints of difference. A new Israeli leadership creates the potential for slightly different priorities, though a reversion to type remains plausible. The threat of spiralling conflict that reared its head within Israeli cities may focus minds to find a more sustainable solution, as service chiefs warn against growing incitement to violence.
But to date, given the regional interests and inputs at hand, the status quo of a constantly repeating cycle of violence has proven relatively sustainable, as parties with real control on the ground remain willing to pay the high cost in civilian lives, lost livelihoods, missed opportunities and failures of governance to maintain and broaden their stake holdings. Without understanding the drivers of decision-making on all sides, and the security dilemmas that truly govern the situation, Groundhog Day may be the most likely outcome.
Alexander King is an analyst who has worked in the Middle East for more than a decade.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: The wreck of a large apartment complex destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Beit Lahia, Gaza on 13 May 2021. Courtesy of Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo