Israeli Defense Officials Warn Politicians: Trump's Cuts to Palestinians Could Harm Israel's Security

Cuts to UNRWA could damage Israeli-Palestinian security coordination, lead to humanitarian crisis and spark uprising in the Gaza Strip, officials say

Palestinian demonstrators clash with Israeli forces near the Israel-Gaza border east of the southern Gaza strip city of Khan Yunis on January 26, 2018.
SAID KHATIB/AFP

Israeli military officials warned senior Israeli politicians last week that a humanitarian crisis, triggered by the possible collapse of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees could lead to a civilian uprising against the army along the length of the Israeli-Gaza border.

Their concern about a potential collapse of UNRWA was trigged by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would cut funding of the refugee agency known as UNRWA.

Israeli officials also fear Trump's comments regarding a possible end to what he characterized as the hundreds of millions of dollars that Washington gives the Palestinian Authority could signal a reduction in U.S. contributions to the PA's security forces, which could do significant damage to these agencies' cooperation with the Israeli army and with Israel's Shin Bet security service.

The military officials told the politicians that if the Strip was to collapse amid a humanitarian crisis, a popular uprising could follow which might see hundreds and thousands of Gazans trying to attack Israeli forces along the Gaza-Israel border. One official stressed that the army is already coping with a rise in unrest, compared to the past few years, increasing the likelihood of a wider escalation.

The defense establishment assessment is that without assistance, the PA will find it difficult to maintain the capabilities of the security forces and their incentive to continue coordination with Israel. Last year, the United States transferred $330 million to humanitarian and economic projects in the West Bank through the US State Department's aid agency.

Senior Israeli foreign-policy figures were also briefed on these issues recently by counterparts in the military establishment. They sent the message that they, in contrast to Israeli politicians, are not sanguine about the recent developments in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and do not view them as a foreign-policy accomplishment.

The military officials said that in the absence of any real alternative to the UN refugee agency, the army prefers to allow the agency to continue to operate. The military establishment believes that the agency’s 30,000 workers and activists aid Israeli security more than they damage it, noting that huriting the agency would hurt the health, education and welfare of Gazans in particular.

One military official stressed that the army is already coping with a rise in unrest, compared to the past few years, increasing the likelihood of a wider escalation.

The official said in the briefing that the military establishment is aware of the UN agency’s shortcomings as an international organization. Specifically, that it did not always act in the best interest of the Palestinian refugees themselves and that its contribution to the perpetuation of the refugee situation was recognized. Despite all this, he said, given the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, the agency nevertheless can stand as the bulwark between a humanitarian disaster and a manageable situation.

On Friday, Haaretz published a report on the latest edition of a document outlining current Israeli army strategy. The most significant threat for which the army is preparing, according to the document, is the Shi’ite axis that Iran is building up, which in the last two years has focused increasingly on Syria, in addition to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

But the document also focuses on army’s assessment that the Palestinian arena is the most volatile, and that such a flare-up could be more significant than the threats in other arenas, underlining the importance of doing everything possible to prevent this from happening.