Following the recent war between Israel and Hamas, the Biden administration has put an emphasis on rebuilding the Gaza Strip, promising the terror group won’t benefit. Some experts say Washington’s approach will fail to bear fruit.
Rebuilding Gaza was the first agenda item U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken mentioned when he met Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Rome on Sunday. It’s a recurring theme for Blinken, who brought up reconstruction of Gaza at every stop during his two-day visit to the Middle East in late May, days after the last bombs fell in “Operation Guardian of the Walls.” He stressed that rebuilding Gaza must be done in such a way that Hamas, which runs the coastal enclave, won’t redirect the aid to its military effort.
Blinken was echoing President Joe Biden, who shortly before a May 21 ceasefire said the U.S. would seek to quickly rebuild Gaza “in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal.”
The administration is funneling money to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In April, it had announced it was restoring $150 million to the U.N. agency. Following the Gaza conflict, Blinken said the U.S. would inject almost $33 million for “UNRWA’s emergency humanitarian appeal,” again ensuring “Hamas does not benefit from these reconstruction efforts.”
Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, who has studied UNRWA for two decades, said, “UNRWA is a case study of the client hijacking the service provider because the majority of UNRWA employees are Palestinians.” (UNRWA employs 28,000 Palestinian staff members, according to its website.)
“The international [employees] who come in — they are indoctrinated by the local employees, and if they don’t buy into the dogma and the orthodoxies of the agency, they’re pushed out or fired,” he said, noting the recent case of UNRWA’s director of operations, who became persona non grata in Gaza after saying Israel’s bombing appeared “precise,” contradicting the Hamas position that Israel was committing “war crimes.”
UNRWA has been in ‘a crisis mode for many years’
Established in 1949 with a mission to help Palestinian refugees with direct aid, employment and, eventually, integration into neighboring countries, UNRWA is the main conduit for humanitarian aid to Gaza, providing education, healthcare and other basic services. It relies on donor countries for its budget, of which the U.S. has traditionally been the largest contributor. In 2021, UNRWA estimated its budget needs at $1.5 billion.
UNRWA has come under heavy criticism for years, foremost for its practice (unique in the world) of treating “refugee status” as an inheritance. The original number of refugees has thus ballooned, from the 700,000 who fled Israel in 1948, to 5-6 million today. UNRWA itself has trouble keeping up. The number of refugees listed in its 2020-2021 Programme Budget is 5.53 million. A press release on the U.N. site appealing for funds increases that number to 5.7 million. This was the main reason cited by the Trump administration when it blocked all U.S. contributions to UNRWA in August 2018. A State Department spokesman said at the time that UNRWA’s “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries is simply unsustainable and has been in crisis mode for many years.”
Yona Schiffmiller, director of research at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based group that analyzes activities of non-governmental organizations, takes issue with UNRWA’s anti-Israel curriculum. “What I think makes UNRWA particularly egregious has to do with all the incitement that comes through it,” he said. “We’ve seen really important and damning information about what’s in the curriculum, what’s in the textbooks UNRWA teaches to Palestinian students. And I think that’s the biggest strike against them, that UNRWA is essentially a vehicle for radicalizing and inciting the next generation.”
Kobi Michael, senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and editor of the institute’s periodical Strategic Assessment, who co-authored a 2020 report on UNRWA, said, “UNRWA is a very problematic organization. It is fully controlled by Hamas. Hamas uses the facilities of UNRWA for weapons storage and to launch rockets. All of the local employees of UNRWA are Hamas people. Nobody’s allowed to work in UNRWA without the permission of Hamas.”
Schiffmiller said the problem extends beyond UNRWA, as other humanitarian aid is diverted to the war effort against Israel. He cited a lack of oversight by donors as to where the aid is actually going, and in the case of Gaza, Hamas’ manipulation of aid organizations and their resources.
“There’s all sorts of ways – taxation, extortion, outright theft – that Hamas gets its hands on both aid and materials, which is obviously a concern when we’re talking about cement and rebar and things of that nature, but also money and in-kind contributions as well,” Schiffmiller said.
“After the 2014 war, we found Hamas in May 2021 with capabilities it didn’t possess seven years ago,” he said.
‘It didn’t stop Hamas from extensive tunnel building’
Israel hasn’t yet released all the statistics relating to May’s conflict. Michael Armstrong, an associate professor of operations research at Brock University in Canada, told JNS that Hamas launched more than 4,300 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, which he estimated to be “more than 90 tons of explosive warheads. That’s perhaps double the total weight of those fired during the 2014 operation, and nearly the equivalent of three B-52 bomber payloads.”
After 2014, Israel, the U.N. and the Palestinian Authority established monitoring and tracking processes to ensure materials entering Gaza went to civilian projects and not Hamas. Called the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism, nearly 3.5 million tons of construction material entered the Strip under its auspices since September 2014. This didn’t stop Hamas from extensive tunnel building. Israel destroyed 62 miles of Hamas’ underground “metro” during the conflict.
INSS’ Michael suggested an alternative way to rebuild Gaza — creating an international consortium that could “minimize or marginalize as much as possible the control of Hamas over the money and over the other materials that will be supplied.” If there’s international agreement about what humanitarian aid verifications need to be in place, it could lesson Hamas’ ability to use the aid, he said. But he noted that even with international controls, any funds are “a form of assistance to Hamas” because they allow the terror group to reallocate the budget it would otherwise have dedicated to civilian aims for military purposes.
Michael questioned the reconstruction of Gaza in the current situation, saying, “Since ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in 2009, all of these experiments at reconstruction have failed.” The international community shouldn’t rebuild Gaza, he said, “until [Hamas] will take upon themselves some significant responsibilities that will be proven, not only declarations. That they will change their behavior in the sense they will commit not to build more military infrastructure.”
Schiffmiller said NGO Monitor has proposed a series of reforms, essentially involving an overhaul of current aid organizations, robust tracking of material, frequent reporting and the creation of a special Knesset subcommittee to make sure the reforms are carried out.
Romirowsky’s proposed solution is introducing non-Palestinian administrators in Gaza.
“If you had American forces, if you had Israeli forces, other groups that you can trust to administer this aid, that would be better,” he said.