Members of the international community will convene in Rome tomorrow to discuss the implications of the Trump administration’s decision to cut American aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The reduction of American funds deepens the UN agency’s core budget deficit to approximately €200 million. The conveners of this extraordinary session (Sweden, Jordan, and Egypt) are rightly concerned that the move jeopardises the UNRWA’s existence and risks a blowback on the ground within the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and in Palestinian refugee camps around the region.
UNRWA forms a bedrock of the Palestinian economic and social environment within the Gaza Strip (where it supports approximately 80% of the population) and the West Bank, as well as within refugee camps in neighbouring countries. It is responsible for providing education and health services as well as running relief and social programs for the dispossessed Palestinian population.
In the past, even minor cuts to UNRWA services have led to protests and strikes. Given the agency’s importance from both humanitarian and stability standpoints, the Trump administration’s attempts to leverage aid cuts to pressurise Palestinians into problematic negotiations are both ill-informed and dangerous.
The Gaza Strip is where these implications are most acute. The coastal enclave has been a target of Israeli-imposed economic isolation measures – with varying degrees of intensity – for decades. As a result it appears to be perpetually teetering on the edge of catastrophic collapse.
Cutting UNRWA funding would certainly make the economic situation in Gaza worse, vastly increasing the suffering of Palestinians in the strip as well as threatening to undermine stability. The situation continues to be quite precarious, as evident from the attack on Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s convoy yesterday.
Façade of humanitarianism
Despite vehement rhetoric against Hamas from Israeli politicians, Israel’s security establishment has long recognised the value of maintaining Hamas in power as the entity that could stabilize the Gaza Strip, effectively police ceasefires, and keep more radical salafi-jihadi groups in check. The potential collapse of Hamas’s government, whether indirectly as a consequence of UNRWA’s defunding or otherwise, would create a vacuum that could easily be filled by actors who are less committed to calm within the Gaza Strip.
For this reason, Israeli security officials have in recent years called for efforts to ease the pressure on Hamas by loosening restrictions on border crossings and by addressing Gaza’s humanitarian challenges. A year after the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza, Israel’s State Comptroller issued a report berating the Israeli government for failing to alleviate Gaza’s humanitarian challenges and expanding the likelihood of an escalation.
Israeli and American policymakers are now heeding this advice, and calls for addressing Gaza’s humanitarian challenges are today making headlines. Israel has recently begun putting more support behind efforts to provide Gaza with Israeli gas to alleviate the chronic electricity shortage, and it has been on a diplomatic campaign in European capitals to raise international funding for a $1 billion “Marshall Plan” for Gaza.
On Tuesday, the White House hosted a brainstorming session to address Gaza’s needs. This conference came on the heel of an impassioned editorial, penned by the US special envoy for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt in the Washington Post, in which he blamed Hamas singlehandedly for the dismal state of affairs in the Gaza Strip. Mr Greenblatt called on the international community to wake up to the humanitarian tragedy in this coastal enclave, a paradoxical message given all that the Trump administration is doing to cut UNRWA’s funding.
At the conference, Jared Kushner reportedly presented to the attendees a menu of projects that they could support and invest in to address Gaza’s suffering, from desalination plants to gas pipelines. The attendees were told to “leave politics at the door.” Such statements are disturbingly disingenuous.
There is of course a pressing need to tackle the suffering that afflicts residents of the Gaza Strip. Palestinians in Gaza receive as little as four hours of electricity per day, a reality that makes the operation of vital machinery, be they life-saving medical equipment or sewage treatment plants, a luxury. Medicine supplies are running dangerously low and food continues to be managed by Israeli “civil administrators” to allow a minimum amount in while averting starvation. Gazans are entrapped in this strip of land, unable to leave, whether for urgent medical care or to be reunited with their families.
But while humanitarian action is crucial, it must be remembered that Gaza’s suffering is the result of political decisions. For more than a decade, the Gaza Strip has been under a stifling Egyptian-Israeli blockade, ostensibly in response to Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Yet since as early as the 1950s, decades before Hamas’s creation, Gaza has been the target of Israeli isolation policies and military repression for demographic, military and political reasons.
Focus on the politics
We are now witnessing the culmination of years of enforced de-development and disintegration. Focusing solely on the humanitarian aspect is akin to placing a band aid on a gash while pushing the knife deeper still.
While the Trump administration attempts to position itself as a benevolent government looking to alleviate the suffering of Palestinians, those attending the UNRWA conference in Rome would do well to understand this broader reality. As well as addressing the shortfall in UNRWA funding, and supporting infrastructure projects such as pipelines to sell Israeli gas to Gazans, international donors must simultaneously consider using their political levers to alleviate Gaza’s suffering in a more sustainable way. This means tackling the political context.
There are several things they can do, including calling on Israel and Egypt to lift their joint blockade of Gaza, and taking measures to reverse their policies to isolate the Strip and its Islamist rulers. Israel should also be pushed to take greater financial responsibility for Gaza as the Occupying Power.
But there is one area where policy is particularly relevant and urgent: Gaza Marine.
Off the coast of Gaza are Palestinian gas fields that were discovered years before Israel’s own gas bonanza. Yet while Israel has already begun enjoying the benefits of its gas reserves, Palestinian gas remains stranded. The EU should wield its diplomatic power to push for production from Gaza Marine by the Palestinian Authority (PA). This can be done in a manner that alleviates Israel’s security concerns through an international supervisory force that protects the gas instalments and ensure proceeds do not end up in Hamas’ coffers.
Gaza Marine is key to providing Palestinians with energy sovereignty and ensuring a sustainable future for Gaza. Access to their own gas supplies would also provide Palestinians with a source of internal revenue that would reduce the need for international assistance (including EU aid which amounts to €6 billion since 1993). This would also help mitigate Palestinian vulnerability to political blackmailing of the sort the Trump administration is currently pursuing through its cuts to UNRWA.
European willingness to fight for Palestinian jurisdiction over their natural resources (in accordance with international law) is also a powerful litmus test of EU commitment to Palestinian sovereign rights more generally. It would serve to demonstrate that Europeans are truly invested in putting their substantial weight towards altering the reality on the ground in a sustainable manner, one that is in line with international law, rather than acting to subsidize Israeli violations of these same laws.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.