A new discourse regarding the future of Gaza has slowly emerged in recent months, emanating mostly from Washington and Tel Aviv and involving several Arab countries, most notably Egypt.
U.S. and Israeli officials have been speaking in forked tongues. While justifying the killing and wounding of thousands of protesters at the fence separating Gaza from Israel, they are also speaking about the need to end the humanitarian crisis in the Strip – as if this crisis was not of their own doing.
So, what game are Israel and the US playing exactly?
Long before rounds of Egyptian-sponsored indirect talks began between the Israeli government and Hamas (and other Palestinian factions, save the Fatah Party, which dominates the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah), there has been an unmistakable shift in Israeli and U.S. attitudes regarding the future of Gaza.
On January 31, Israel presented to a high-level conference in Brussels ‘humanitarian assistance plans’ for Gaza at a proposed cost of $1 billion. The plan focuses mostly on water distillation, electricity, gas infrastructure and upgrading the joint industrial zone at the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel. The meeting was attended by Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, who is a member of a small clique of pro-Israeli officials in the U.S. administration entrusted with implementing Trump’s unclear vision, inaptly termed ‘the deal of the century.’
Another member of the same Israel-first group is Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, who has been working diligently, but mostly secretly, on his father-in-law’s ‘deal’ – a vague plan that is predicated on ‘regional peace’ and presumably abandons the old ‘peace process’ formula.
Kushner is known for his strong pro-Israel views and closeness to Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister, Netanyahu. Last March, he hosted top officials from 19 countries, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Gulf states supposedly to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
“Fixing Gaza is necessary to achieve a peace agreement,” a senior U.S. official who attended the meeting told Reuters. Yet, the U.S. continued to defend Israel’s right to use lethal force against peaceful protesters along the Israel-Gaza fence, and blocked UN efforts to provide any protection to unarmed Gazans.
That same bewildering language has continued. On July 23, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, one of the most ardent supporters of Israel in the group, chastised Arab states for not doing enough to help Palestinians, especially those in Gaza. “All of the words spoken here in New York do not feed, clothe or educate a single Palestinian child. All they do is get the international community riled up,” she said during an 8-minute tirade at the UN.
Clearly, there is a common thread between all of these declarations. Since the U.S. decided to defy international law and move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last December, it has been in search of a new strategy that circumvents the PA in Ramallah. The latter has been committed to the defunct two-state solution, bilateral negotiations and an interminable ‘peace process’ for nearly 25 years.
Throughout these years, the PA’s existence has been a top American priority. But when Trump finally made his country’s foreign policy an exact replica of Israel’s, the PA was discarded.
The new U.S. discourse resulted in moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem on May 14. At the same time, the U.S. launched a political war against UN organizations that support Palestinians. The most detrimental of these attacks was cutting funds for the UN agency that cares for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA. The most plausible reason behind the anti-UNRWA measure is to further isolate Palestinians and force them to accept whatever political scheme Washington and Tel Aviv have in mind.
PA President, Mahmoud Abbas, whose political apparatus in the West Bank is largely reliant on ‘security coordination’ with Israel, U.S. political validation and financial handouts, has little with which to bargain. His failure to achieve Palestinian unity has generally weekend his authority.
Meanwhile, unlike Fatah, Hamas has relatively greater political capital – as it has operated with less dependency on the Israeli-US-western camp. But years of relentless siege, interrupted by massive deadly Israeli wars propelled Gaza into a permanent humanitarian crisis.
Hence, without a united Palestinian front, Hamas found itself playing a regional game far greater than its political knowhow. It is no wonder that the group was keen to include other Palestinian factions in its indirect talks with Israel in Cairo as the fear of carrying the burden of the fallout of any future permanent ceasefire agreement must be overwhelming.
While a temporary truce was achieved and went into effect on August 15, a permanent truce is still being negotiated. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, citing Israeli officials, a lasting truce in Gaza would likely include a comprehensive ceasefire, opening all border crossings, expansion of the permitted fishing area off the Gaza coast, exchange of prisoners and MIA’s, the overhauling of Gaza’s destroyed economic infrastructure (with foreign funding) and continued talks regarding air and sea ports.
What is particularly interesting is that hardline Israeli officials, including ultra-nationalist leaders, like Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, supports the plan. Netanyahu, too is on board. Those who spoke out against it, like Education Minister, the extremist Naftali Bennett, who accused his government of ‘surrendering’ to Hamas, are being dismissed by Israeli media and other officials as opportunists without an alternative strategy.
Concurrently, Palestinian officials in Ramallah are fuming. ‘Chief negotiator,’ Saeb Erekat, whose job title currently holds little weight or relevance, accused Hamas of trying to “destroy the Palestinian national project,” by negotiating a separate agreement with Israel. The irony, of course, is that the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and later the PA have done just that with no remorse or accountability.
“Hamas carries the historical responsibility of aborting the Palestinian national project,” Erekat, asserting that the Gaza Strip is “a pivotal part of the [Palestinian] homeland.”
While Erekat’s statement, which echoes other angry statements made by top PA officials, carries an element of truth, he is upset not because of Hamas’s supposed squandering of Palestinian rights, but because the PA is suddenly being pushed from the center to the political margins. And with the loss of political capital, funds in PA coffers will also be reduced.
If indeed Gaza’s fate was of much value to PA leaders, why was the impoverished Strip subjected to repeated punishments by Abbas and denied urgently needed funds and salaries in addition to other measures? Protests against the PA’s policies toward the besieged Gaza Strip were violently suppressed.
Delinking the future of Gaza from the future of all Palestinians can, indeed, lead to dangerous and irreversible consequences. In U.S.-Israeli calculations, negotiating an easing of the siege on Gaza is a winning political card, aimed at dividing Palestinians further, silencing any meaningful resistance, and removing the Gaza Strip entirely from whatever political scheme the Trump administration has in mind.
This is undoubtedly cause for alarm, especially since Hamas’ options are quite limited. True, Gaza’s resistance made it clear to Israel that there can be no ‘military solution’ and that more wars will hardly alter the status quo in the Strip. However, repeating the same mistakes that the PLO committed in the past by signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, which led to the current Palestinian rift in the first place, will not bode well for Gazans, nor for other Palestinians.
Regardless of whether a permanent truce is achieved between Israel and the Hamas-led Gaza factions, the sad truth is that whatever grand illusion is harbored by Washington and Tel Aviv at the moment is almost entirely based on exploiting Palestinian divisions, for which the Palestinian leaderships are to be wholly blamed.