Using US aid to undermine Hamas is ‘unwise’, experts say

US Secretary of State Tony Blinken meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah (Reuters)

Ali Harb

Middle East Eye  /  May 26, 2021

Humanitarian assistance to Palestinians will undermine Hamas and prop up the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, said US officials.

The administration of US President Joe Biden is openly talking about using humanitarian aid to Gaza to undermine Hamas – an approach that experts say may hamper relief efforts without achieving its stated goal of weakening the Palestinian movement.

“If we do this right, reconstruction and relief for the people of Gaza, far from empowering Hamas, I think [it] has the potential to undermine it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday.

“I say that because Hamas thrives, unfortunately, on despair, on misery, on desperation, on a lack of opportunity.”

Days earlier, a US official spoke of using and dispensing the aid in a more deliberate way, not only to weaken Hamas, but to do so to benefit its Palestinian rivals in the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA).

The same official said at a briefing that Washington was in touch with the PA, Gulf countries and the UN to channel the aid to Gaza without Hamas’s involvement.

“We’re trying to structure things… in a way that diminishes Hamas’s abilities, strengthens the people of Gaza, begins a process of hopefully reintroducing and reintegrating the Palestinian Authority into Gaza and is in partnership with the United Nations,” the official said according to a transcript provided by the State Department.

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC, said if humanitarian aid were aimed against Hamas, it would “blunt” any possible good intentions of helping Palestinians.

“It’s basically an unwise approach that will end up negating the objective. If our objective is to really have peace between Israel and the Palestinians, we cannot dictate the Palestinian leadership,” Jahshan told MEE

“We can dictate who our leaders are; we can dictate what our agenda is; we can dictate who represents us at these talks. But just like we let the Israelis choose their leaders – right or wrong, mostly wrong – we are in no position to dictate whether it’s Hamas or not.”

Increasing aid

On Wednesday, the US State Department said Washington was increasing aid to Palestinians to $360m, announcing more than $100m in additional funds to the $250m assistance package revealed earlier this year.

The aid to Palestinians remains a fraction of the $3.8bn annual military assistance to Israel – funds that Biden has vowed to resume without conditions or questioning.

Moreover, $360m allocated across different areas, agencies and relief projects is unlikely to put a dent in the bill for Gaza’s reconstruction. And the US administration faces legal hurdles at home with laws, including the Taylor Force Act, which prohibits aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Jahshan said Washington wants to “throw money at the problem” without setting enough funds aside to even help alleviate the immediate crisis in Gaza.

He added that, even with enough funding, the US administration was wasting its time trying to treat the political issue in Israel-Palestine as a humanitarian one.

“The Palestinians’ problem is not hunger; the Palestinians’ problem is not reconstruction. They have done that repeatedly over the past 70 years, they have managed to recover from crises as bad as this one and worse,” Jahshan told MEE

“But they have never been given the opportunity to find a political solution to their dilemma – that is by ending occupation and having a chance to exercise their right to self-determination.”

While Biden talked about helping relieve Palestinians of the “misery” they experience, he failed to utter a single word about what Palestinian activists say is the source of that misery – the occupation and Israel’s discriminatory practices that rights groups say amount to apartheid.  

“The Biden administration is pursuing the same strategy that the Obama administration pursued, which is to provide Israel with the weapons that it uses to demolish Palestinians’ homes and Palestinian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, only to have US aid come in and rebuild what Israel destroys, only to go on to the next cycle of Israel’s destruction and US rebuilding,” said Josh Ruebner, an adjunct lecturer at Georgetown University.

He added the US administration was trying to prop up the Palestinian Authority with aid while engaging in conflict management – instead of pushing to resolve the issue in a just way.

“The administration wants to return to the status quo, and that means continuation and a perpetuation of Israeli blockade, Israeli military occupation, Israeli ethnic cleansing, apartheid and settler colonialism,” Ruebner told MEE.

Aid efforts may lead to some short-term stabilization, he said, but with growing solidarity across various sections of Palestinian society, both in Israel and the occupied territories, and a shifting public opinion in the United States, “in the long run this policy will fail”.

Leadership crisis

Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian-American lawyer specializing in international law, also stressed that the approach to use aid as a tool to empower the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas was destined to be unsuccessful.

“It’s naive. They’ve made ‘Hamas’ a toxic word. All you hear on the news is ‘Hamas, Hamas, Hamas’, not Gaza, not the Palestinian people,” Kuttab told MEE.

“We need to get rid of this paradigm and acknowledge Hamas as a political movement. It’s true that it has an armed wing, but also has a political program – which I disagree with by the way.”

The United States cannot deal with Hamas directly because it designated it as a terrorist group in 1997. Washington’s push to avoid Hamas and deal with the PA highlights the leadership crisis among Palestinians.

President Abbas was elected to a four-year term in 2005 but remains in office a dozen years after the end of his mandate. 

Hamas won the most recent legislative election in 2006, but its governance has been confined to Gaza while the PA enjoys limited self-rule under Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

Legislative and presidential elections that had been scheduled for this summer were postponed indefinitely by Abbas with the official justification that Israel would not allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to participate in the vote.

“Why doesn’t the US – as a democratic leader in the world – support the notion of free and democratic Palestinian elections throughout Palestine and let the Palestinians choose their own leaders and respect the results?” Jahshan asked.

Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics