How did Hamas rebuild its arsenal and build miles of tunnels? Given the blockade by Israel and Egypt on Gaza, the common assumption is that Hamas has been finding ways to divert humanitarian assistance and Western aid, taking materials and goods and using them for nefarious means. In reality, it has been a failed policy towards Gaza that has led to the buildup of Hamas’ arsenal, where Palestinians suffer from a blockade that prevents adequate relief and recovery from arriving while enabling weapons to pass through a back door.
This accusation of aid divergence has been repeated by politicians in Israel and the United States and is now at the forefront of officials’ minds as they start to consider how to rebuild Gaza after this most recent round of fighting. The reality, however, of how aid is delivered into the Strip is not well understood, nor the major gaping holes in the security envelop which are far more likely to be the culprit than aid diversion.
Following the 2014 Gaza war, the United Nations created the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), a temporary mechanism designed to deliver humanitarian assistance, including dual-use items such as concrete and rebar, in such a manner to prevent it from being diverted. The mechanism is extremely complex and requires sign off by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel for every project and every vendor. The materials imported are subject to rigorous inspection.
If this is where the story ended, the question of how Hamas rebuilt its arsenal would still be that it must have come through the GRM in some manner, in addition to some smuggling through tunnels into Egypt. However, this is not the end of the story.
In order to buy quiet, Israel has allowed Qatar to deliver suitcases full of money into Gaza to pay for Hamas workers, do direct cash transfer to needy Gazans, and purchase fuel for the power plant. Throughout 2018 and 2019, at times of high tensions, Israel has permitted these untraceable $100 bills into the Strip, with no oversight of where the cash goes and where it ends up. The tax revenues from these transfers end up in Hamas’ coffers as well as whatever additional monies Hamas wishes to skim off the top.
So, if Hamas has the resources to buy additional items, where could they be coming from if not through regulated crossing points with Israel? As Neri Zilber has documented, in early 2018 Salah al-Din Gate, a commercial border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, opened; it is staffed by Hamas on the Gaza side of the border. Despite it being vastly smaller than the Kerem Shalom crossing, Salah al-Din offers a commercial crossing point where there are few checks in place to determine what is and isn’t coming into the Strip. In addition, the gate offers a new crossing where Hamas can generate greater tax revenue, with one estimate pegging it at $500 million between March 2018 and February 2019.
So much concrete was flowing into Gaza through Salah al-Din that in 2019 the Israeli government took concrete off the list of dual-use materials as it was so readily available inside the Strip that it just seemed useless to prevent import from Israel as well.
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Of course, it’s not easy getting all the materials you would want to rearm through a much smaller crossing point that is in the middle of the Egyptian desert, but with enough resources and will, it stands to reason that it is far more likely that Hamas obtained what it needed through the money it generated both through the crossing at Salah al-Din and the Qatari aid than hoodwinking the humanitarian community through the GRM.
As the United States aims to make good on the administration’s promise to rebuild Gaza in a manner that empowers the PA and not Hamas, there are few if any good policy options. U.S. law makes it near to impossible to act through the PA to facilitate rebuilding Gaza. All roads, it seems, lead back to the GRM system and finding a way to encourage Egypt, Qatar, the PA and Israel to implement a system that enables the rebuilding of Gaza that ensures timely assistance and larger scale projects so that dependence on Hamas is limited.
Standing in the way of such a policy of course is Hamas itself. Given its control of the crossing in the south and its lack of care of how much its citizens suffer, they are more than happy to return to the situation where it demands suitcases of cash as a protection racket.
Israel did not sleepwalk into this terrible policy environment. Since 2009, the Israeli government has done little to bolster the standing of the PA as evidenced from Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s statement that now is the time for “long-term processes that will weaken the extremists and strengthen and bring together moderates.”
The result is what the Biden Administration is now facing: a PA that is weak and seen as illegitimate in the eyes of the majority of its people, and an entity that is unable to be supported by the U.S. government directly. Even if the PA amended the prisoner payment system, it would also need to publicly suspend all International Criminal Court action before U.S. law would allow direct assistance to take place. Both of these moves would be deeply unpopular on the Palestinian street, especially as Hamas’ popularity after the recent war is at its peak.
As families and business owners look to rebuild their shattered buildings, the international community should go further than just solve the geopolitics of limiting the ability of Hamas to find other ways to rearm or profit. They must design a system that, while strict in its vetting, enables and is attractive enough to an average Palestinian in Gaza to rebuild their lives using a secure assistance corridor and an ability to trade their goods with the world, rather than a gray market economy that puts money in the pockets of Hamas. If not, we will be left with the same situation as we are today.
Hamas’ strength is a result of several factors – including a misguided policy on Gaza that has run its course. Blaming current vetting just distracts from the lack of a strategy. Stumbling from war to war isn’t a policy option, it’s a policy failure. We owe it to the next generation to do better.
Joel Braunold is the Managing Director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace