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What is behind the US field hospital in Gaza?

Dec 11,2019 - Last updated at Dec 11,2019

At a time when Hamas and Israel are engaged in indirect negotiations to set up a long-term truce that would include prisoners’ exchange and an easing of the economic blockade on Gaza Strip, a pro-Israel US evangelical Christian group called FriendShips has started building a field hospital on the Gaza side of the border with Israel. The 50-bed hospital “will offer a wonderful opportunity to work in an important and productive project and, at the same time, to see and enjoy the Biblical sites of Israel”, according to the charity’s website. It will be run by American volunteers.

The project has been approved by both Israel and Hamas but has infuriated the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah officials. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said last week that he will not allow the hospital project to proceed claiming that it was part of the “Deal of the Century” which the US has been implementing piece by piece. Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s Secretary General Saeb Erekat also said that if the US was concerned about the Palestinians’ living standard it would not have stopped all aid to UNRWA and Jerusalem’s hospitals.

Fatah official Azzam Ahmad was quick to condemn the setting up of the field hospital saying that it was part of a US-Zionist conspiracy to isolate Gaza and turn it into a mini-state as part of a scheme to liquidate the Palestinian cause. He claimed that Hamas had become part of that conspiracy. A Fatah communiqué issued earlier this month said that Hamas has approved the presence of a US military base in Gaza under the title of a field hospital adding that the Trump administration is now dealing with Hamas as an alternative to the PLO.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Ishtayeh expressed concern that the field hospital was one of the outcomes of the Manama “peace to prosperity” workshop, which the US held in Bahrain last June to unveil the economic components of Trump’s peace plan.

Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad defended the project claiming that it was a result of understandings reached with Israel through an Egyptian mediation. One Hamas official said that Gazans cannot reach the hospital except though a referral by the health authority and that any security breach will result in closing the hospital.

Against such a backdrop, one must ask about the timing of setting up such a project. Hamas’ goal of establishing contacts with the US administration and gain some kind of recognition is not new. Former White House envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt, had blamed Hamas repeatedly for the miserable humanitarian conditions in Gaza, but also offered US help.

In an editorial, he wrote for The New York Times last April, Greenblatt concluded that “whether or not we achieve a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the future of Gaza cannot be addressed and the people of Gaza cannot be helped in any meaningful way until Hamas is no longer in the picture or makes the necessary choices for stability and, eventually, peace. To achieve peace, or even some normalcy, in Gaza, Hamas and others must make hard choices, including renouncing violence and recognising Israel.”

Hamas has been in control of Gaza since 2007 when it led a bloody coup against the PA. In response Israel slammed the strip of 1.8 million citizens with an economic blockade. The two sides fought two major wars and engaged in numerous clashes that turned Gaza into a humanitarian catastrophe. Many attempts to reconcile Fateh and Hamas have ended in failure. Hamas is the de facto ruler of the strip and despite its leaders’ talk about ending the Palestinian rift the reality is that neither side is able or willing to compromise.

Separating Gaza from the West Bank has been a boon to Israel’s right-wing governments under Benyamin Netanyahu, whose main goal is to prevent the creation of an independent Palestinian state and annex most of the West Bank. The Trump administration appears to be working to make that separation permanent; paving the way for recognising the strip as a mini-state, or entity.

In March 2018, the White House hosted what it called the “Gaza Conference” with 20 countries, including Israel and a number of Arab states attending, to discuss solutions to the worsening humanitarian and economic conditions in Gaza. The PA did not attend. An official US statement said that the attendees discussed concrete proposals for finding realistic, effective approaches to the challenges Gaza faces. An Ad Hoc Liaison Committee was formed to follow up on projects suggested by the US administration. But nothing has materialised since then.

The timing of the US field hospital is suspicious. If the US really cared about the wellbeing of Palestinians it would not have suspended humanitarian projects in the West Bank and stopped backing UNRWA, whose work in Gaza is fundamental. UNRWA is now facing an unprecedented financial crisis and is failing to provide essential services to more than a million Gazans.

Hamas may be seeking more than a long-term truce with Israel. It could be working its way to gain recognition as an entity; opening the door for much more than a US field hospital.


Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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