Why it’s essential to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza

Bar Rapaport February 2024
Op-eds / Environmental Peacebuilding

Israel’s success in stabilizing the humanitarian situation in Gaza correlates with minimizing harm to non-combatants. This provides greater flexibility for Israeli troops to defeat Hamas.

Preventing a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is an overriding Israeli security interest, directly affecting the achievement of its war objectives, including returning the hostages and toppling the Hamas regime.

However, even if the severity of the war has dulled Israeli compassion for the non-combatant Palestinians in Gaza, it is important to recognize that providing humanitarian aid correctly will enhance Israel’s security. It will protect the life and health of the abductees and soldiers in Gaza, prevent the spillover of infections and disease into Israel, grant international political and legal legitimacy to the war, and help topple the Hamas regime.

The humanitarian crisis endangers hostages, soldiers, and Israeli citizens

A severe humanitarian crisis is already developing in Gaza. The dire shortage of potable water and edible food, unprecedented sewage and waste overflows, shortages of vaccines and medicines, and terrible overcrowding have resulted in the spread of serious diseases and widespread hunger, especially among children.

Infections and epidemics not only directly impact abductees and soldiers in the field, but also pose a growing threat to residents of the Gaza border communities in Israel and in other parts of the country. Aid agencies are already reporting outbreaks of respiratory diseases, hepatitis, scabies and typhus, and increasing concern about the outbreak of polio and measles epidemics. Stray animals and pests that have emerged from the piles of rubble pose a real threat of transmitting diseases such as rabies or Q-fever, potentially reaching Israeli territory.

Meanwhile, untreated sewage in Gaza, flowing directly into the sea during rainfall, creates pollution that affects operations of the Ashkelon desalination plant. The health of both humans and the environment on one side of the border is interconnected with that on the other side.

The humanitarian crisis undermines Israel’s standing in the international legal arena

South Africa’s prosecution at the International Court of Justice in The Hague relies heavily on the extensive killing and destruction in Gaza, the lack of distinction between Hamas terrorists and non-combatants, and the severe humanitarian crisis in the beleaguered coastal enclave.

The accusations, bolstered by key Israeli figures calling for a comprehensive erasure of Gaza, make cynical use of the term “genocide,” but emphasize the harsh living conditions endured by Gazans. Clearly demonstrating the lack of intention to harm non-combatant Gazans and commitment to preventing a humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip will help Israel refute accusations of genocide and relegate South Africa’s claims to the dustbin of history.

The humanitarian crisis  constrains Israel’s use of military force

We are in the midst of a complex war against a barbaric enemy. The State of Israel, with the objective of toppling the Hamas regime, has initiated a protracted military campaign conducted in densely populated urban areas, both above and below ground. Since the start of the war, military necessity has clashed with human suffering in the Gaza Strip.

The deeper the humanitarian crisis created by Israel’s fighting, the more legitimacy it loses, and the stronger the international demands become to shorten or halt the war.

Israel’s success in managing and stabilizing the humanitarian situation in Gaza directly correlates with minimizing harm to non-combatants and improving living conditions for residents. This, in turn, provides greater flexibility for Israeli troops to fight Hamas.

Proper humanitarian aid  will contribute to the collapse of Hamas

Israel has the potential to enhance health conditions in Gaza by implementing several key measures. Firstly, it should resume power supply to medical facilities, and water and sewage infrastructure. Additionally, allocating some incoming fuel for the removal of waste and raw sewage from population centers is essential. Approving the introduction of chlorine to disinfect all water sources, most of which may be contaminated, is another crucial step. Furthermore, repairing water pipelines from Israel to the southern Gaza Strip is necessary to ensure a daily minimum water supply. Managing vaccination campaigns is also vital.

This leaves the question: Who will carry out these measures, and how? This challenge is an obstacle to any significant progress in humanitarian aid efforts. Gaza’s residents rely entirely on Hamas for aid distribution, which the October 7 massacre perpetrator exploits by diverting goods and equipment from aid trucks entering the enclave, and thereby perpetuating its power.

To weaken Hamas, it must be excluded from civilian life in the Gaza Strip. To that end, humanitarian aid, operation of critical infrastructure, and administration of health and education must be transferred to alternative actors. Israel must promptly support the design of an alternative system of government to the Hamas regime as a complementary measure to its military operations. Failure to act now creates a governmental vacuum (for example, in areas where Israel has defeated Hamas), allowing Hamas forces to swiftly return and reclaim territory.

Israel must capitalize on regional and international mobilization for this purpose. An unprecedented range of international forces, states, and aid organizations are willing to operate on the ground in the Gaza Strip, UNRWA funders are pressing for reforms in the organization’s mechanisms, and the PA is willing to undergo reforms with American backing. This presents a crucial opportunity to establish an alternative to the civilian administration of the Gaza Strip, which would also serve as governmental infrastructure for the day after.

A political strategy, which has been sorely lacking since the beginning of this war, is critical to advance the collapse of Hamas and the establishment of an alternative regime in Gaza. Israel should collaborate with the international community to seize the opportunity to alleviate the humanitarian crisis and strengthen local and regional forces that will assume responsibility for Gaza in the future. A pilot project to provide humanitarian and civilian services to refugees could be launched immediately in the northern Gaza Strip in a designated shelter managed by the WHO in collaboration with Palestinian Authority professionals under the auspices of the UAE.

Humanitarian aid, like a military campaign, cannot achieve its goals independently of political action. The humanitarian perspective mirrors the military one: Just as the absence of a political framework for the day after the war significantly undermines the IDF’s achievements and allows Hamas to resume control, so piecemeal solutions to the humanitarian crisis and the lack of a political decision also harm Israel’s goals and interests, enabling Hamas to retain power through humanitarian aid.

Both military and humanitarian actions serve Israel’s security objectives, but without an alternative to Hamas control, the organization continues to benefit, once again.

IN CONCLUSION, a significant easing of the humanitarian situation in Gaza will safeguard Israel’s interests and help oust the Hamas regime through the introduction of an alternative civil-governmental mechanism. Furthermore, the humanitarian, health, and infrastructural conditions will improve significantly only if Gaza is administered by governmental mechanisms with which Israel can engage. These two conditions are interdependent.

Calls are being heard in Israel to withhold humanitarian aid for Gaza as a means of pressuring Hamas to release the hostages. The safe return of the hostages is the most urgent and important goal of the war, and only after their return will we be able to begin rehabilitating our society.

However, the situation in Gaza has not been a priority for Hamas, which tends to strengthen as blame is placed on Israel for the worsening conditions. Therefore, blocking humanitarian aid does not increase pressure on Hamas to release the hostages.

On the contrary, it harms Israel’s war objectives and strengthens the terrorist group. Israel must do the opposite of what Hamas wants – instead of contributing to the humanitarian crisis and drawing international accusations of crimes against humanity and genocide, it must advocate for the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza, leveraging it to topple Hamas.

Bar Rapaport is the project manager for climate diplomacy at the Mitvim Institute. She is currently working to earn her PhD on regional cooperation in the midst of the climate crisis, with an emphasis on conflict and the Middle East, at the Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute.

The article was published in the Jerusalem Post on February 22nd.

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