It is tough to mince words when relaying just how bad the situation is in Gaza. No matter how you parse it, it is not a place where anyone would choose to live or even to be stuck temporarily. Whether it is the four hours of electricity a day, the brackish and polluted water, the sewage running through the streets, the 45 percent unemployment rate despite a 97 percent literacy rate, the inability to leave due to the closed borders on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides, or the lack of cash to purchase goods, Gaza is incredibly grim. Despite the tiny pockets of normalcy represented by hotels catering to journalists and diplomats and by the remaining tunnel millionaires, nobody should fool themselves into thinking that the overwhelming majority of Gaza’s two million residents have anything resembling a normal existence. There are a number of factors contributing to all of this, from the Palestinian Authority sanctions designed to bring Hamas to its knees by squeezing Gaza’s economy and crushing its already low standard of living, to Hamas’s own corruption and diversion of resources to terrorism, to the Israeli and Egyptian blockades. What is staggering is that in the midst of this situation, the Trump administration is inexplicably poised to make things worse.
The only thing that is keeping Gaza afloat in any appreciable sense is the intervention of outside actors. For any economy to work, people need income to purchase goods, with that money then going to build commerce and industry, and creating a cycle. President Abbas’s decision to cut wages to the 60,000 PA employees in Gaza by 50 percent created a financial crisis in light of the fact that the public sector is the largest employee in Gaza. The private sector has no ability to generate jobs due to the import and export restrictions and the fact that the 6,000-7,000 Palestinians allowed to leave Gaza per month are mostly medical or humanitarian cases as opposed to workers who could then bring money back in. One can be enormously critical of the culture of reliance on foreign aid and donations that has taken hold in the PA – let alone the enormous corruption and diversion of much of that aid to line officials’ pockets – and still understand that Gaza is entirely dependent on foreign intervention because the confluence of various actors have made it impossible for Gaza to have any self-sustaining economy.
When President Trump decided in January to cut American funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) – the body in charge of overseeing Palestinian refugees – in half, many people cheered due to UNRWA’s role in perpetuating the Palestinian sense of eternal victimhood and its often-blatant anti-Israel bias. The problem, however, is that UNRWA runs food programs in Gaza, and more critically, runs the schools that cater to the 270,000 school-age children in Gaza, and the cessation of American aid raised questions as to whether the schools could remain open past the academic year that just ended. To add to the pending disaster, the Trump administration recently but quietly implemented a freeze on every dollar of American aid being spent in the West Bank and Gaza while it undertook a review of that aid. This applies to everything; not just the aid that the U.S. gives to UNRWA, which has always been controversial given UNRWA’s problems, and not just the money affected by the Taylor Force Act that will directly benefit the PA, but to every economic project being run by USAID and even to the heretofore sacred money allocated to training the Palestinian security forces and supporting security coordination between Israel and the PA. Given the battle between the White House and Abbas following the December 6 Jerusalem announcement, it is overwhelmingly likely that the end result of this review will be that the U.S. eliminates all aid to the West Bank and Gaza in a gamble that it will end the PA boycott of the Trump administration, finally lead Hamas to collapse, or both.
It is vital to grasp the implications of this. The end of American aid entirely means 270,000 Gaza school children on the streets all day come September, since the only other organization with any capacity in Gaza is Hamas and it is not equipped to pick up the slack of such a massive undertaking (which may be a blessing in disguise). It means the end of both U.S. and United Nations food programs in Gaza. Moving to the West Bank, it means the end of joint water projects that Jason Greenblatt has proudly and publicly touted. It means the end of American-financed infrastructure projects that the White House has pointed to as the key to improving Palestinian lives as a substitute for creating a Palestinian state. It is the end of any American influence on the PA security forces, which not only Israel but Trump himself has proclaimed a shining success, saying in May 2017, ““We must continue to build our partnership with the Palestinian Authority Security Forces to counter and defeat terrorism. I also applaud the Palestinian Authority’s continued security coordination with Israel. They get along unbelievably well… I was actually very impressed and somewhat surprised at how well they get along. They work together beautifully.” Most importantly, it takes those statistics at the top of this article and makes them even more horrific, transforming Gaza from a horribly unpleasant place to one that is overrun by famine, communicable diseases, and more than a quarter million adolescents and teens sitting around all day with nothing to do but cause trouble.
The twisted irony of all this is that Greenblatt and Jared Kushner are this week embarking on a trip to the Middle East in an effort to raise money for humanitarian and economic aid to Gaza at the same time that the White House in which they work is purposely about to cease all of its own financial backing for these very same initiatives. In other words, the administration understands the dire need to save Gaza immediately, but only if someone else pays for it. This is the distillation of Trump’s foreign policy in a nutshell. For those who lamented “leading from behind” in the Obama administration, this is an approach that words cannot adequately capture in such a pithy way, but “leading” is nowhere in it.
Hamas is a terrorist organization that is holding the bodies of Israeli soldiers, digging attack tunnels into Israeli territory, and organizing violence on the border. The PA is deliberately causing a financial crisis in Gaza and limiting its electricity supply. UNRWA may be despised by Israelis across the entire political spectrum more than any other non-governmental institution that exists due to its role in sustaining a Palestinian refugee environment and turning a blind eye to terrorism, and it needs to be phased out. All of these things are true, and none of them alters the fact that a complete and sudden cutoff of American aid to the West Bank and Gaza will lead to an epic disaster in Gaza that Israel will have to clean up. Foreign policy often consists of looking at a menu of increasingly unpalatable choices and selecting the one that will cause the least damage. The Trump administration is about to pick up that menu and instead choose the absolute worst item.