President Barack Obama has been busy working on foreign policy in recent weeks, chairing meetings with his national-security principals; plotting his approach to Iraq, Iran and North Korea; and consulting at weekly private sessions with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For the most part, in these meetings, he has been composed and restrained. But on one issue Obama has openly expressed frustration, aides familiar with the meetings say: the inability to get humanitarian aid to civilians affected by the war in Gaza.
Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. President.
After years of drift, the three-week war in January and a shift to harder line positions on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, the prospect of bridging the gap between the two camps looks more remote than it has in eight years. Looking for a way into the problem, the U.S. and the international community are starting with delivering help to Gaza. On Monday, Clinton will attend an Arab-sponsored summit at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh that aims to organize and fund the reconstruction of the devastated Palestinian enclave. The enormous suffering of civilians during the war makes the humanitarian mission a worthy end in itself. But as a diplomatic undertaking, it is fraught with contradictions. (See pictures of Gaza digging out.)
For starters, Washington refuses to deal with Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza and is on the U.S. list of terrorist entities. Until now, the U.S. had backed an economic blockade of Gaza in the hopes of toppling Hamas. Now the State Department is offering to pump something in the range of $900 million in humanitarian assistance into the enclave, but there is probably no way large amounts of aid money can be distributed in Gaza without at least indirectly helping Hamas. No other Palestinian organizations have the infrastructure to put that money to use, and the international agencies that operate there have often found themselves shaken down by Hamas. Given the Islamists' political control of Gaza, there's little prospect of any administrative authority functioning there without the consent of Hamas.
The Administration says it is aware of the problem. "We need to ensure that the assistance is provided to the people in need via the Palestinian Authority, and not to fuel Hamas or [be] diverted by Hamas for political purposes," says one senior National Security Council (NSC) official. The State Department says it will work with longtime partners to make sure the money only goes to civilians.
Humanitarian aid does little to help the U.S.'s medium-term goals in Gaza: curtailing the flow of arms to Hamas and boosting the Palestinian Authority there. And in fact, the lack of progress on those goals undermines the good that the aid itself can achieve. "In order for the humanitarian response to be as effective as possible, you need a solution to smuggling [of weapons into Gaza by Hamas] and you need a solution to divided authority [between Hamas and Fatah]," admits one senior State Department official. But none of the money the U.S. plans to pledge can be linked to either goal because it is U.S. policy not to place conditions on humanitarian aid.
Ignoring those contradictions might be acceptable in furtherance of the simple moral goal of helping thousands of people in need or more cynically, in pursuit of the p.r. win that might come from being seen to do so. But much of the money pledged at Sharm el-Sheikh may never go to helping Palestinians in Gaza. At a conference in Paris in late 2007, the international community started a pledge drive that eventually totaled $7.7 billion in proposed aid to the Palestinians. By September 2008, only $1.4 billion had gone to the Palestinian Authority, according to French diplomat Pierre Duquesne, thanks to the difficulty of distributing the aid and a failure of donors to actually deliver the promised money.
USAID says it committed $600 million after the Paris donors' conference, including $300 million in budget support to the Palestinian Authority and $184.7 million in refugee assistance. Other countries, especially the Arab donors, did not follow through on their pledges. With $6 billion in undelivered pledges, the Sharm el-Sheikh summit may simply repurpose the same money pledged a year ago in Paris. And it seems perfectly possible, barring dramatic changes in the Middle East political equation, that a year from now, another summit will propose more humanitarian goals, boldly repurposing unused Paris and Sharm el-Sheikh money.
To be sure, the Gaza reconstruction conference can do good. A massive push to get money into Gaza will end up helping people who desperately need it, even if only some of the money goes through. Asked about the President's frustration, Michael Hammer, spokesman for the NSC, said, "The President is indeed concerned about the welfare of the Palestinian people and would like to see assistance flow expeditiously." But the obstacles to bringing help to the long-suffering people of Gaza are just the beginning of the frustrations the new President will face in breaking the Middle East deadlock.