By Ray Hanania
Eight US senators have urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to provide aid to Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Trump administration has frozen nearly all the US’ bilateral aid to the Palestinian people. In 2018, the White House also cut funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which not only provides financial and food aid and jobs, but also basic health services.
The cuts were intended as a means to pressure the Palestinians to accept President Donald Trump’s proposed peace deal — a plan that would force Palestinians to surrender to Israel’s settlement expansion demands and accept policies annexing Palestinian lands for the exclusive use of Jewish-only settlements. Rather than negotiate, the Palestinians buried their heads in the sand and pretended the “deal” didn’t even exist, vexing Trump and giving Israel a stronger hand in dealing with Palestinian resistance.
Now, coronavirus has given Israel another card: The ability to suppress international concerns for Palestinians under the guise of fighting the virus. The needs of Palestinians, once a priority among the international community, have been pushed aside by many supportive nations, which are now dealing with the pandemic threat themselves. Palestine is just not a priority at the moment.
Johns Hopkins University maintains a tally of all coronavirus cases in each country around the world, and it shows that Palestine has recorded 134 cases of the virus, with only one death so far. But, because the incubation period for the virus is up to 14 days and because individuals must be tested to identify an infection, those numbers might be far lower than the reality.
The letter sent to Pompeo by the eight US senators, which was dated last Thursday, put the focus back on Palestinians’ needs in the face of the pandemic. They note that the Trump administration has offered aid to several foreign countries, including North Korea and Iran, and argue that the same offer should be made to the Palestinians.
Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation in a system of government that has been deteriorating since the collapse of the peace process. The West Bank and Gaza Strip have health care systems that are already overburdened, understaffed and lacking in adequate medical supplies. The coronavirus has created a new situation, in which the pressures on the Palestinian health system are even more extreme. The Palestinians and Israelis have set up a joint operations room to address the spread of coronavirus, but that may not be enough.
The letter points out that, according to the UN, 38 percent of Gaza residents live in poverty, 54 percent are “food insecure,” 35 percent of the Strip’s arable land and 85 percent of its fishing waters “are totally or partially inaccessible due to Israeli military measures,” and more than 90 percent of its water is “undrinkable.” It adds that about a third of “essential” medications are unavailable and, despite their ability to cross into Egypt, “Gazans remain isolated and cut off from the rest of the occupied Palestinian territory.”
The letter was signed by former Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren and seven party colleagues — Sens. Chris Van Hollen, Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Tom Udall, Jeffrey Merkley, Tom Carper and Sherrod Brown. It confronts Pompeo with five specific questions, including asking when the Trump administration will provide $75 million in economic support to the Palestinians that was mandated in America’s annual budget appropriation.
Warren and her colleagues also asked if the US is working with Israel to ease Gaza Strip border restrictions during the pandemic and queried what Trump is doing to coordinate UN and international relief aid to the Palestinians.
Pompeo has not yet responded to the letter, probably because of his pro-Israel leanings. He has, for example, previously made the absurd assertion that, by confiscating Palestinian lands and building settlements, Israel is advancing the cause of peace. This statement gave Israel the opportunity to make its rigid rejection of peace even more obstinate. Why should they compromise when the US favors meeting their most extreme demands?
Although it is unlikely that Warren and her colleagues will get the answers they desire, the letter clears the path for other legislators to join them in pressuring the Trump administration, which could weaken Israel’s dominant standing in the US.
The key, of course, is what the Palestinians will do. Will they do nothing, apart from denounce, reject and call the Americans and Israelis names, like they always do? Or might they see the letter as an opportunity to leave behind their self-destructive, head-in-the-sand approach and develop a strategy to build support?
Without a moderate Palestinian strategy to confront Israel, rather than the current policy of rejectionism, the senators’ letter will just get filed away and forgotten about. It is time for the Palestinians to act: Shut the door on extremism; end the embrace of fatalistic rejection and policies driven by emotion; and start leading. They should use this letter in a strategic way to strengthen the Palestinian position — something their political leadership has proven incapable of doing so far.