If Trump Believes Key to Peace Is Rebuilding Gaza, Why Is He Cutting Off All Aid? | Opinion

The Trump administration has reportedly put its plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace on the shelf and has correctly decided to focus on Gaza to improve living conditions in that impoverished enclave as the first step to getting its plan back on track.

Yet, as I learned during a series of meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials in Israel and the West Bank last month, and based on reports, the Trump administration has simultaneously frozen every dollar of U.S. aid to Gaza, as well as the West Bank, while the assistance undergoes a comprehensive review.

These funds have already been allocated by Congress, and they encompass USAID programs, security assistance to the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, and aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. While aid to the Palestinians has been in the news regularly over the past year due to the new restrictions imposed by the Taylor Force Act—cutting off all American assistance that directly benefits the Palestinian Authority (PA) as long as it continues to pay stipends to prisoners convicted of terrorism against Israelis and the families of terrorists—the new freeze applies to funds that are well outside of the Congressionally-mandated restrictions. It takes a sledgehammer to U.S. aid to the West Bank and Gaza that is not required by any previously enacted restrictions or controls and appears to be motivated by nothing more than the president's personal pique at the Palestinians for their perceived disrespect.

If the previously appropriated funds are not released in the coming weeks, it will necessitate the eventual shuttering of USAID in the West Bank and Gaza and the demise of the extremely successful and influential role that the U.S. has played in training and professionalizing the PA security services and ensuring their continued vital coordination with Israel. While UNRWA is undoubtedly badly in need of reform and a pathway toward its replacement must be developed, choking it off so abruptly will only pour gasoline on the humanitarian fire in Gaza. Until an alternative to the agency is put in place, its funding must continue in the interim to avoid precipitating an even more serious political and humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, the elimination of all American aid will weaken the Palestinian Authority and make its return to Gaza less likely, rendering any comprehensive peace initiative an exercise in permanent futility.

Palestinian protesters run as smoke billows from burning tyres during a demonstration along the border between Israel and the Gaza strip, east of Gaza city on July 27, 2018. MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

While the U.S. seeks to bolster humanitarian assistance to Gaza from other states in the region, it is a particularly inauspicious time for it to cut off its aid entirely. Not only will this lead to a quicker breakdown of what remains of the safety net in Gaza and make the humanitarian crisis far worse, it will erode any influence the U.S. still has in the Palestinian territories. It will not make the ultimate deal that Trump has so often spoken about any easier to achieve, nor will it make Israel any safer.

This is not solely about the Palestinians who are trapped in a desperate situation in Gaza nor about Trump's dreams of a Nobel Peace Prize. The Israeli security establishment has consistently advocated for ameliorating the humanitarian situation in Gaza and preserving cooperation with PA forces as essential to upholding the safety of Israel and its citizens.

There is no question that Hamas is the party responsible for Gaza's deplorable conditions, as it has spent a decade refusing to comply with the Quartet's conditions for its recognition and has diverted hundreds of millions of dollars toward building terrorist infrastructure to use against Israel. This does not, however, mean that the U.S. should take steps that will either exacerbate Gaza's growing crisis or weaken the PA in the long term to Hamas's benefit, or both.

The White House should immediately release the funds that Congress has earmarked for U.S. programs in the West Bank and Gaza, irrespective of the review currently taking place. It is also imperative that any future review of American aid be conducted in cognizance of the twin imperatives of making a deal between Israel and the Palestinians easier to attain and safeguarding Israel's security, rather than as a vindictive and arbitrary plan to personally punish Mahmoud Abbas. If Trump is serious about taking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off the table, he can start by putting American aid back on it.

Susie Gelman is chair of Israel Policy Forum, the non-partisan US organization founded in 1993 that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​