WASHINGTON (JTA) — For the Obama administration, reviving the Gaza Strip is like a multimillion-dollar version of whack-a-mole: Every where you slam down cash, Hamas pops up.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has pledged that the money, promised in the wake of the devastating December-January Gaza war, won’t reach the terrorist group controlling the strip.
"We have worked with the Palestinian Authority to install safeguards that will ensure that our funding is only used where, and for whom, it is intended, and does not end up in the wrong hands," she said at a funders conference earlier this month in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik.
Clinton pledged $900 million total in U.S. aid for the Palestinians, with $300 million set aside for Gaza. The rest is designated for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, controlled by moderates who work closely with Israel and the United States.
The breakdown published by her department on the day of her March 2 speech provided the first clues as to how disbursing the money will not violate U.S. laws banning dealings with designated terrorist groups.
The cash, the statement said, will "meet urgent humanitarian needs, including those identified under the U.N. appeal and to support the P.A.’s plan for Gaza." This, the statement said, would be provided through the U.S. Agency for International Development "in coordination with U.N. agencies, international organizations and USAID grantees, and through the Department of State for U.N. agencies, " the International Red Cross Committee "and other humanitarian organizations."
Translation: The money would go strictly to relief and not to reconstruction, unlike funds designated for the West Bank, which include infrastructure projects. Also significant is the requirement that the Palestinian Authority sign off on disbursement.
Confining aid, for now, to relief makes it much easier to avoid dealing with Hamas, according to the agencies that deliver relief to the strip.
"With humanitarian supplies, we’ve been able to do it — we have our own channels with food and medicine," Bill Corcoran, who heads Anera, a relief group that works with USAID, told JTA. He works with local nongovernmental organizations that are unaffiliated with Hamas or the government.
Corcoran just returned from Gaza and described a postwar situation with 90 percent of the population needing food assistance, a devastated landscape and children on the verge of malnutrition.
"We’ve delivered about $1 million, in starches, protein, everything from tuna to canned meat," he said. "They don’t have fresh vegetables and fruit. If you see fresh vegetables and fruit, it’s being imported from Israel, and it’s so expensive it’s out of a family’s reach."
Where it might become tricky avoiding Hamas is when relief necessarily bleeds into reconstruction, Corcoran said. Rebuilding sewage systems, for instance, will be necessary in order to avoid the spread of disease. That requires some liaison with local authorities — in Gaza, that inevitably means Hamas.
"When it comes to water and sanitation," Corcoran said, "there’s going to have to be in-depth discussions because we may have to work with charities" affiliated with Hamas.
Larry Garber, who ran USAID operations in the region in the early 2000s, said he does not envy his successors.
"In our time there was no Hamas in government or in control of government or the Gaza Strip," said Garber, who now directs the New Israel Fund. "It was simply a matter of vetting individuals or organizations who are not affiliated with Hamas. Today you have additional issues of how to get things in that are not controlled or regulated by a Hamas official."
That likely would involve a "wink and a nod," Garber said, for instance by working with a local NGO that itself had no Hamas ties — but that was not bound by U.S. rules that would keep its officials from stopping by the mayor’s office to coordinate the laying of pipe.
Hamas knows how to play the game, too, Garber said. He noted that although Hamas after seizing power tossed out a moderate who was mayor of Gaza City, the terrorist group kept him as the head of the water carrier knowing that he was an acceptable interlocutor.
Another way to avoid Hamas is to have a massive infrastructure of one’s own in place. That’s how the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the principal agency delivering relief to Palestinians, does it, according to its spokesman, Andrew Whitley.
"The issue is one that is much more for the other agencies rather than UNRWA," he told JTA, saying that while other agencies may work with the governing authority, UNRWA works in parallel.
"We don’t work through subcontractors" at present, Whitley said, "and when we do contract anything, we go out through a normal tendering process." Those contractors are not vetted for political affiliations, he said.
Whitley acknowledged having to deal with Hamas officials at the most basic levels of distributing relief, but not through formal associations.
"We might have to deal with the mayor of the nearby municipality who happens to belong to Hamas," he said.
A number of U.S. lawmakers have said that UNRWA’ is not stringent enough about sidelining Hamas. One of those taking the lead in such criticism, U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), has suggested adding a layer of oversight by bringing in the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
The office has earned plaudits for unearthing patronage in Iraq spending. Kirk said that expanding its reach to oversee assistance to the Palestinians would not cost the U.S. taxpayers additional money.
Kirk said UNRWA is vulnerable because most of its staff is comprised of local hires.
"The integrity of the program would be increased if we had a truly international staff," he said.
UNRWA officials have said that their mission, with a staff of more than 25,000, is too vast to rely solely on outsiders.
Another factor affecting the distribution of assistance is Israel’s control of the crossings into Gaza. U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, intervened two weeks ago when he found out that the Israelis were withholding some types of food. Clinton reportedly also has laid down the law.
That’s a sign of the times, Corcoran of Anera said, adding that he detects "a new tone" from U.S. officials who agree with relief groups about the urgency of the situation.