US emphasis on PA in Gaza reconstruction risks ‘backfire’
A State Dept official had previously said a goal of the aid structure was ‘reintroducing and reintegrating’ PA in Gaza.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has completed a tour of the Middle East, promising to work towards “equality” for Palestinians, while assuring Israel that its longtime support would remain unwavering following an 11-day escalation with Hamas, the Palestinian faction that runs the besieged Gaza Strip.
The Biden administration has said the US would “partner” with the Palestinian Authority (PA), along with the United Nations, Egypt and Gulf countries, to funnel aid to Gaza, promising to “work with our partners closely … to ensure that Hamas does not benefit” from the $360m it pledged for reconstruction and Palestinian development.
The PA, which is dominated by the Fatah party, remained largely on the sidelines of the recent escalation in violence. The PA has exercised limited authority in Gaza since Hamas took control of the coastal enclave in 2007, following a brief civil war between Fatah and Hamas after the latter won the 2006 elections.
While the PA governs parts of the occupied West Bank, some observers have questioned the US emphasis on dealing with the governing body. Fatah showed solid support over Hamas in March polls, but that was before President Mahmoud Abbas again postponed elections in April, a move that was met with outcry.
The PA was later accused of inaction amid protests over the forced expulsion of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem and the crackdowns by Israeli security forces at the Al- Aqsa Mosque compound. The site is revered by Muslims and Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.
After an Israeli police crackdown at the site left hundreds of Palestinians wounded on May 10, Hamas issued an ultimatum demanding Israeli forces leave the area. After the deadline expired, the group fired several rockets towards Jerusalem and Israel launched air raids on Gaza shortly afterwards.
The intervention has allowed Hamas to “position itself as not only the main, but really the sole force of resistance to Israel and to the occupation, very much in contrast to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which is increasingly seen as just a weaker and weaker by most Palestinians,” Julie Norman, a lecturer in international relations at University College London, told Al Jazeera.
Prior to Blinken’s trip, a State Department official told reporters in a background briefing that the administration sought to “structure” aid delivery to Gaza in a way that “begins a process of hopefully reintroducing and reintegrating the Palestinian Authority into Gaza”.
But such an aspiration, Norman said, “is not particularly feasible and has the potential to backfire”, with Hamas expected to experience a surge in support among some segments of Palestinians in the wake of the violence, in which Israeli strikes killed at least 254 people, including 66 children, in Gaza, and widely damaged infrastructure, educational and health facilities.
At least 12 Israelis, including two children, were killed by rocket attacks carried out by Hamas and other armed groups based in Gaza.
Western powers have long engaged with the PA as the de facto representatives of the Palestinians, with the US and EU considering Hamas a “terrorist organisation”. The most recent Israel-Hamas ceasefire was reached through Egyptian mediators who shuttled between Tel Aviv and Gaza.
“In terms of their actual popularity, support and ability to do much on the ground, the PA is very limited right now,” Norman told Al Jazeera. “It’s going to be a very uphill battle for the US to have the PA be the main conduit for this aid and for restoring strength to Palestine or to Palestinians.”
She added: “And it could just further cleave the Fatah-Hamas divide in a way that could make things even harder in the future.”
‘Absolutely no sense’
On Wednesday, the head of the political wing of Hamas in Gaza also accused the US of seeking to widen the divide between Hamas and the PA in its statements on aid delivery.
“We will never fall for this trick and lash out at each other,” Yahya Sinwar said, saying the group would not touch a “single cent” of international aid to rebuild Gaza.
But the prospect that international aid will not benefit Hamas “makes absolutely no sense”, said Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
“Even if the money is not directly sent to Hamas, the reconstruction of Gaza to the extent it’s going to take place is actually going to benefit Hamas because they’re the administrative rulers,” he said.
In previous reconstruction efforts, aid has been administered through convoluted mechanisms that slowed reconstruction while failing to completely circumvent Hamas.
Meanwhile, the continuing blockade of the coastal enclave by Israel creates myriad challenges to rebuilding.
But even if the US can achieve its goal, Hamas does not need to benefit directly from reconstruction or development to maintain its current political support, said Imad Alsoos, a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Berlin.
While there has been little in the way of reliable polling since the escalation, Alsoos said he has witnessed a marked increase in support for Hamas, notably in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“As a person who has studied Hamas for the last 20 years, I have never seen Hamas enjoying popular support in the way they are enjoying it now,” he said.
Alsoos added the US elevation of the Palestinian Authority in the wake of the fighting, including through development aid, reopening of the US consulate-general and the call for greater Palestinian rights, is an attempt to “isolate” Hamas from its political gains in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“They want to delink Jerusalem and Sheikh Jarrah from Gaza,” he said. “This is the political strategy.”
And while Blinken, during his trip, called on all parties to “use the space created” by the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire to address “a larger set of underlying issues and challenges”, Hashemi said he saw little in the way of meaningful change in the deeper US approach.
Instead, he said, Washington appears to be pursuing a “BandAid solution” that would likely lead to the same pattern being repeated in the future.
“This is the fourth Israel-Hamas war,” he said. “Gaza gets destroyed, and then it’s rebuilt again. And then we’re back to the beginning.”
He added that with US foreign policy remaining “closely calibrated with what Israel wants and does not want”, a shift in the current paradigm remains unlikely.
“The United States is not going to talk to Hamas because they’re a ‘terrorist organisation’ and they’ve done ugly things, but at the same time the United States is in deep negotiations with the Taliban over shared interests,” he said.
“There’s no intellectual or moral consistency here so none of this adds up,” he said.
With the United Nations launching a humanitarian appeal for Gaza on Thursday, the cycle is expected to create “reluctance from other countries to donate extensively”, said UCL’s Norman.
“After 2014, there was a big campaign to try and get countries to donate to rebuilding Gaza,” she said. “That conflict lasted almost a month and a half, and, like this one, caused widespread destruction and devastation in Gaza, to the extent that the rebuilding (from 2014) hadn’t even finished.
“Many assume that another conflict like this is probably going to happen again in the near or long term,” she said. “We’re not sure when but it’s not unlikely it will happen again.”