Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu Clutches At Straws – Analysis


Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu clutches at straws as he seeks to increase the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza while attempting to create building blocks for a compliant post-war Palestinian administration of the Strip.

Mr. Netanyahu’s problem is that Gazan clans hostile to Hamas, Arab states, and even private military and security companies have rebuffed his requests for assistance.

Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war, its rejection of a post-war resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its refusal to adhere to international law, and its lack of empathy for the plight of innocent Palestinian civilians compound the prime minister’s problem.

To be fair, Hamas is no less cynical about innocent Palestinians bearing the brunt of the Gaza war.

Similarly, Western nations and Gulf states have allowed political concerns to override humanitarian needs in their reluctance to fund the controversial United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the foremost humanitarian organisation in Gaza, following Israeli allegations that 12 of UNWRA’s 13,000 employees in the Strip participated in Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel.

“If the Gulf states choose not to follow through with pledges of additional support, then UNRWA’s continued ability to operate may be at risk. The Gulf states would be unlikely to shoulder the financial burden of humanitarian and economic aid for Gaza so long as their own geostrategic interests are not clearly served in the process,” said Middle East scholars Hasan AlHasan and Laith Alajlouni.

“The international community has promoted the agency as the service provider of all relief and employer of thousands of Palestinian refugees. No humanitarian actor can fill the gap; UNRWA provides logistics, storage, and transport to other nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies,” added Tiara Ataii, a former UNRWA aid worker.

Last week, Israel raised the stakes by proposing to the United Nations that UNRWA’s assets be transferred to another agency like the World Food Program (WFP) or a new entity that would be created from scratch.

Under the plan, UNRWA personnel would gradually be transferred to the organisation’s successor starting with an initial batch of up to 400 staffers, nowhere near the number needed to distribute the amount of desperately needed humanitarian aid.

Israel’s willingness to re-engage UNWRA staff, which it accuses of, by and large, supporting Hamas, suggests that the real driver of Israeli animosity towards the organisation is its contribution to Palestinians maintaining their national identity.

The reluctance of Gulf states — including Qatar, the main ceasefire and prisoner exchange mediator between Israel, the United States, and Hamas — to ensure UNRWA funding stems from a coincidence of Israeli and Gulf interests in preventing Hamas’ survival and undermining President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestine Authority, even if Arab nations condemn how Israel seeks to achieve its goals.

To be sure, Qatar, which hosts senior Hamas officials, may be more double-minded. Yet, if actions speak more than words, Qatar has pledged a measly US$25 million to UNWRA for 2024.

Beyond UNRWA, prominent and well-connected Israeli journalist and Middle East expert Ehud Yaari, argued that “the people with the big money, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are not willing to deal with the Palestine Authority. They detest President Abbas. They refuse to deal with him, and they urge him, like the Americans do, to reform…the Palestine Authority.”

Mr. Abbas demonstrated his resistance to reform by recently appointing Muhammad Mustafa, a close associate, a US-educated economist, and a former World Bank official, as prime minister.

Last week, Mr. Mustafa announced his new government, primarily populated by less-known technocrats.

Mr. Mustafa appointed himself in a dual role as foreign minister and kept the outgoing interior minister, Ziad Hab al-Rieh, in place. Up to eight of his 23 ministers hail from Gaza, but it’s unclear if any of them still reside in the embattled Strip.

“All of the indications are that this government is completely under Abu Mazen’s thumb. There’s nothing to show that there will be a change of policy,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Mr. Abbas, using the president’s nickname.

With the Palestine Authority having lost much of its legitimacy as a result of corruption, its inability to address Palestinians’ multiple daily life problems, and its failure to stand up to Israel, Hamas, and three other Palestinian factions charged that Mr. Mustafa’s appointment highlighted the gap between the Authority and Palestinians.

The four groups asserted Mr. Abbas appointed Mr. Mustafa without seeking a national consensus.

Meanwhile, the Palestine Authority was reportedly negotiating a reform of its policy of providing financial support to militants incarcerated by Israel and their families.

The reformed policy would base stipends that Palestinians receive on financial need rather than the length of a prisoner’s sentence. Israel has charged that the stipends encourage violence.

The reform is likely to be unpopular among Palestinians at a time when the status of Palestinians in Israeli prisons is a central element in the Qatari-led efforts to achieve a Gaza ceasefire and prisoner exchange.

In a just published report, the New York-based Israel Policy Forum suggested that involving the Palestine Authority in aid distribution could help ease bottlenecks and facilitate the Authority’s return to Gaza, 17 years after Hamas took control of the Strip.

In support of Israel’s determination to eliminate Hamas as a political and military force and opposition to the Palestine Authority, Mr. Yaari, the Israeli journalist, suggested that the administration and reconstruction of post-war Gaza could be managed by a Palestinian agency, presumably populated by technocrats and possibly Gazan clans, linked but not subordinated to the Palestine Authority.

Under Israeli tutelage, the administration would be supervised by the World Bank and audited by international auditing firms.

Nevertheless, on the principle that one wrong does not just justify another, the cynicism of Hamas and members of the international community in prioritsing politics and geopolitics above desperate humanitarian need does not justify Israel’s playing politics with ensuring that Palestinians have the basics to sustain life, particularly given that its actions determine what happens on the ground.

Last week, the International Court of Justice issued new provisional measures, ordering Israel to increase the provision of essential humanitarian goods to Gaza and land border crossings to address what it said were worsening living conditions in the war-ravaged Strip.

In January, the court ordered similar measures as part of its finding in favour of South Africa’s assertion that Israel’s conduct of the war plausibly falls under the scope of the Genocide Convention.

“Deliberate use of aid/food as a pressure tool or neglecting to take all necessary steps to mitigate the impending catastrophic hunger will have disastrous consequences for all involved parties and could be considered a war crime,” said anti-Hamas Palestinian American activist Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib in a lengthy tweet.

“Multiple things can be true at once: hundreds of food trucks are, in fact, going into the Gaza Strip daily, and lots of aid that is supposed to be for free is instead being sold at different markets, and yes, there’s even shawarma in a few places! At the same time, hundreds of thousands of civilians are unable to afford food or have no access to it and are therefore experiencing severe to intermediate hunger that’s compromising their health and well-being,” Mr. Alkhatib said.

“I’ve been observing continuous weight loss with my brother’s children and wife, and he has better access to food and aid than others in Gaza; imagine the hundreds of thousands who don’t have such access and are suffering horrendously,” the activist added.

Israel, while maintaining its attempts to use the flow and distribution of aid to shape post-war Gaza, has in recent days increased the amount of humanitarian goods into Gaza, even if it has not opened multiple land crossings to facilitate the flow.

“Prices in the Gaza food markets have dropped in the last few days over 50 per cent because whatever the convoys bring becomes part of a black market, mainly by Hamas,” Mr. Yaari said, while denying that Gaza was in the grip of famine. Mr. Yaari suggested the price drop resulted from Israel allowing more food to enter the Strip.

Even so, the Palestine Red Crescent said five people were killed and dozens wounded by gunfire and a stampede during an Israeli-sponsored aid delivery on Friday. It was one of the latest incidents involving Israeli-sponsored humanitarian aid convoys in Gaza.

The Red Crescent said the incident happened after thousands of people gathered for the arrival of 15 trucks of flour and other food at Gaza City’s Kuwait roundabout distribution point.

Witnesses said unidentified gunmen and/or Israeli troops who were shooting in the air to disperse the crowd killed three of the dead. The other two, they said, died in the ensuing stampede or by moving trucks. It was unclear whether the gunmen were Hamas fighters or clansmen.

Israeli officials had hoped that an agreement to allow a US-led Arab peacekeeping force to take control of Gaza would help pave the way towards a Palestinian administration of the Strip that would comply with Israeli demands.

Mr. Netanyahu hopes that Gazan clans rather than Hamas or Mr. Abbas’s Authority will fill the power Palestinian power vacuum in Gaza once the guns fall silent. It’s unclear whether the clans would be acceptable to a most Palestinians or Arab states.

In a recent statement, several clans rejected cooperation with any power not endorsed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Palestine Authority’s backbone. Various clans have clashed with Hamas or Mr. Abbas’ Al Fatah movement in the past.

In Mr. Netanyahu’s mind, the Arab force would initially be tasked with securing a temporary pier off the Gazan coast that the US hopes to have built in about a month and for escorting humanitarian convoys in Gaza.

“Such a move will build a governing body in the enclave that is not Hamas and will address Israel’s growing problem with the U.S. when it comes to the humanitarian situation in Gaza,” a senior Israeli official said.

Arab diplomats said they would not entertain the Israeli proposal if there were no credible pathway to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that involves the creation of an independent state.

They insisted that a request for troops would have to come from a Palestine Authority that regains control of Gaza, and even then, there was no certainty that Arab states would be amenable.

“Nobody will come to police Gaza. Not the Arabs, not the Europeans, Americans, nobody,” Mr. Yaari said.

Arab states would “be seen…as occupying forces (see Iraq and Afghanistan and how that ended) and would export the security risk to the nations sending those forces,” added Ghanem Nuseibeh, a UK-based businessmen with ties to the UAE and chairman of Muslims Against Antisemitism.

In a similar vein, Emirati political scientist Abdulkahleq Abdulla predicted that an end to the Gaza war would politically change little despite the carnage it wracked.

“The Israel-Gaza war…does not represent a tipping point for the Middle East… (Israel’s) brutal occupation will harden further, with more annexations expected, as a majority of Israelis reject international calls for a two-state solution. The country will remain stubbornly defiant, refusing to learn the hard lessons from Hamas’s October 7 attacks,” Mr. Abdulla said.

That may complicate but not necessarily prevent post-war Arab cooperation with Israel, despite widespread public support for the Palestinians and anger at Israel.

Journalist Yaari argued that Israel and Gulf states shared an interest in Gaza that extends beyond the territory’s post-war governance structure. Both would like to see a port built in the Strip that would serve the, for now stillborn, US and European-backed India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC). 

The corridor, perceived as an alternative to China’s infrastructure and technology-driven Belt and Road Initiative, would link Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and India to Europe. It was announced on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi in September, only weeks before the Gaza war erupted.

“The port can be a big boost to the rebuilding of Gaza,” Mr. Yaari said.

James M. Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog.

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