Trump should listen to urgent Gaza warning

The dire humanitarian crisis in the Strip poses a severe security risk to Israel
Illustrative: A Palestinian stands outside the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Illustrative: A Palestinian stands outside the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) headquarters in Gaza City, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

When Israel’s Chief of Staff issues a grave security warning to the country’s cabinet, all those who profess to be friends of Israel should pay careful attention — and that includes President Trump and his Mideast advisers. Unfortunately, our President seems not to be listening.

This is exactly what happened at the Israeli cabinet meeting on Sunday. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said that the Gaza Strip is on the verge of collapse because of a seriously  deteriorating humanitarian situation that has now turned into a crisis.

The potential implications for Israeli security are considerable, as Eisenkot made very clear in his presentation. The more the economy and the livelihood of people in Gaza already living in miserable conditions worsens, the greater will be the pressure on Hamas, which rules the area, to provoke a new military confrontation with Israel.

Israeli civilians would again have to scramble to take shelter from Hamas rockets and missiles, which can now reach most of the country including the main population centers of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as strategic targets like Ben Gurion Airport. Meanwhile the inevitable massive Israeli response would likely cost many Palestinian lives and immense damage to homes and vital infrastructure, making the tenuous humanitarian situation much worse.

The Trump administration has exacerbated matter by deciding to cut US payments to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees by some $110 million. This comes as retaliation for Palestinian non-compliance in the administration’s supposed peace mediation efforts. Those efforts are now effectively dead in the water after Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there. Last month, when Vice President Mike Pence visited Israel, Palestinian leaders refused to meet with him.

Israeli security experts like Eisenkot are well aware of the damage that Trump’s UNRWA decision could have and are urging the Trump administration not to follow through. The Chief of Staff in his briefing called on Israel to take substantial steps to head off a collapse of the situation in the Strip.

Last week, Israel put forward a billion-dollar plan for the humanitarian rehabilitation of Gaza, along with a request to the international community to fund it, at an emergency conference in Brussels. Israel is offering assistance in building infrastructure related to desalination, electricity and natural gas and the upgrading of the industrial zone at the Erez border crossing into Gaza.

So we have the absurd situation of Trump cutting aid to the Palestinians while Israel tries its best to persuade other countries to fill the gap – all with the aim of avoiding a war that nobody wants and nobody will benefit from.

Members of The US Congress are speaking out about this absurdity. A letter co-sponsored by Rep. David Prince (D-NC) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) has garnered 103 signatures and was made on Feb. 8. It calls on the administration not to cut aid to the Palestinians in general and UNRWA in particular.

“Alongside robust and expanding US aid to Israel, Congress has regularly appropriated funds to help bolster Palestinian quality of life and governance, both bilaterally and through contributions to UNRWA, and security in the region. This assistance also helps to improve the lives of millions of children in the Palestinian territories, where more than 50 percent of children live below the poverty line.,” the letter says.

“The deterioration in the near-term prospects for progress toward a negotiated peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would render a cut-off of US assistance all the more dangerous. Deliberately exacerbating the hardship of the Palestinian people and reducing the ability of their government to function would only contribute to the benefit of those who reject engagement. Extremist and anti-Israel groups would be all too eager to fill in the vacuum, deepening their hold in the region and expanding their destructive influence on the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the conflict,” it added.

This ought to be a no brainer for the Trump administration. It should realize that its policies risk causing great suffering to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Is that really what it wants?

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.
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