Gaza in a vise

Palestinians wait for permission to cross into Egypt at Gaza’s southern border after it was exceptionally opened on 8 February.

Mohammed Dahman APA images

They say there is no color darker than black.

It is a Persian proverb that applies well to Palestinians’ current situation.

A US decision to cut funding for the UN’s Relief and Works Agency, the body that caters to Palestinian refugees who in Gaza number 1.3 million or some two-thirds of the population, could push the situation there over the brink.

One million Palestinians in Gaza depend on UNRWA for food and other basic aid, while 300,000 study in UNRWA schools. The decision will unavoidably exacerbate an already desperate situation. Unemployment tops 46 percent, with more than 60 percent of those in the 15-29 age group going without work. With precious little progress in rebuilding Gaza’s devastated infrastructure or homes destroyed in three destructive Israeli offensives since 2008, an easing of the blockade is the only slim hope to avoid a full-blown humanitarian crisis that has long been forewarned.

That hasn’t happened and does not appear to be on the horizon. Despite Hamas transferring control of crossings in and out of Gaza to Palestinian Authority security forces, there has been no change in the amount of people allowed through to Israel or Egypt. Indeed, ongoing, and largely fruitless, reconciliation talks between Hamas and the West Bank PA have had little discernible effect in general. In early January, the PA did relent on the punitive sanctions it imposed on Gaza last April, agreeing to pay Israel for electricity supplied to Gaza, but there are still 16-hour daily power outages.

Nowhere to turn

Compounding the problem, the party mediating reconciliation talks, Egypt, is relying on the Israeli military to fight an insurgency in the Sinai that conflagrated from low-level violence when Abdulfattah al-Sisi ousted Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president in a 2013 military coup.

With such dependency, Cairo’s ability to be an honest broker between the Palestinian factions is highly questionable, not least since Egypt appears more keen to curry favor with the White House than supporting Palestinians in Gaza or anywhere else.

But where do you turn when you’ve got no room to move? In Gaza, Palestinians are surrounded by Egypt and Israel, in collusion. In the West Bank, the European Union proves time and again to be ineffectual, Jordan has little to offer and the US has declared its hand unequivocally for Israel.

Further afield, a Saudi crown prince plots war with Iran that demands US and Israeli support and unquestioned loyalty from other Arab states in a slow-motion car crash of self-fulfilling Sunni-Shia conflict prophecy. Palestinians are told to stand aside as the big boys flex their muscles.


The Trump proclamation on Jerusalem has laid bare all these fault lines. By unilaterally and illegally giving Jerusalem to Israel, Washington has clearly told Arab countries what price US support comes at and demanded unconditional surrender from Palestinians.

To underline the point, the US decided to withdraw funding from UNRWA and the most destitute Palestinians, rather than the PA and its security forces, which continues its security coordination with Israel. Do what Israel wants, is the message, and we will continue to allow you some funding.

A similar message has been relayed to Hamas in Gaza, though more brutal. Whatever you do, whatever powers you give up, goes this message, it’s not enough.

Hamas has given over control of crossings and administrative duties to the PA to no avail. There is little armed resistance left in Gaza, whatever the movement’s rhetoric: bar a flurry of rockets after Trump made his Jerusalem announcement in early December, there has been nothing for Israel to worry about all of last year.

What the situation does offer is clarity: The US has given up on even a pretend peace process. And simply waiting for Trump to go away will not do: Israel has in effect been given a green light to take what it wants now, and it is considering its options.

Arab countries, meanwhile, may step in to avoid absolute catastrophe, but only at the last minute and only with the green light from Israel. Politically, there is neither the will nor the drive to help Palestinians achieve any of their minimal claims.

Palestinians are on their own.

There is a flipside to that Persian saying. When things can’t get any worse, you are freed from the worry that what you do will have negative consequences.

Time to make a virtue of weakness and tear up the script.

Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.