Gaza, Israel, and the loss of American influence

Hamas fired approximately 600 rockets into Israel kicking off yet another round of fighting. Israel responded with more than 200 air strikes into Gaza. By early Sunday morning, three Israelis and nine Palestinians had died. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged “massive” retaliation against Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militants. Netanyahu will likely deliver. The cycle of death and destruction continues — and it is the innocent civilians who carry the consequences of this endless war. Sadly, Sunday’s most recent chapter of the Hamas-Israel war was predictable, foreseeable and inevitable. The difference in this round? America is virtually irrelevant.

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First, White House Advisor Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerDemocrats ask OSC to review whether Kushner violated Hatch Act Democrats ask OSC to review whether Kushner violated Hatch Act Financial disclosure form shows Ivanka Trump earned M from DC Trump hotel MORE, Ambassador David Freedman and Special Envoy Jason Greenblatt have no credibility with the Palestinians. They are perceived by the Palestinians to be advocates for Israeli right-wing policies. Further, Greenblatt’s twitter diplomacy comes across to Palestinian sentiments as amateurish, poorly-informed and one-sided. The Trump team has complained that the Palestinians are rejecting their peace plan without having seen the details — and in some respect they have a point. But from a Palestinian view, the Administration has unilaterally given the Israelis Jerusalem, the Golan and is offering an economic package without a political horizon for an independent Palestinian state.

Given this context, the Administration does not have the bona fides, relationships or credibility to engage and de-escalate Gaza.

By often serving as the Israeli Defense Forces spokesmen and policy advocates, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump says 'Failing New York Times' should be held 'fully accountable' over Russia report Trump tweets ICE will begin removing 'millions' of undocumented migrants MORE’s Middle East team cannot offer the analytical insights and on-the-ground realities to Israel’s sophisticated, nuanced and realistic military brass. Further, because Trump’s envoys cannot serve as regionally influential honest brokers, they are unable to curb the Israeli cabinet’s poor military instincts and are unable to help fashion outcomes which reduce risks, alleviate civilian suffering, and drive longer term solutions.

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Second, the Trump team has reduced the U.S. Agency for International Development's (USAID) Mission to the West Bank and Gaza to the point of irrelevance. All funding has been stopped. The USAID Mission has fired most of its staff and terminated hundreds of project partner staff in the West Bank and Gaza. The skeleton team that remains has been so devalued and marginalized that it cannot adequately access Gazan communities, NGOs on the ground, the United Nation's agencies, or the Israeli political and military actors so critical in times of conflict. USAID served an immeasurably positive role during prior conflicts in Gaza by working to restore power and water in hospitals, providing sanitation to displaced people camping at schools, brokering humanitarian pauses, evacuating civilians, and — in 2014 — feeding the civilian population by moving food through Karem Shalom in a manner that gave confidence to Israeli security but also sustained the most vulnerable people of Gaza. This entire set of operational capabilities — generally trusted and valued by both Palestinians and Israelis — has been lost.

Third, by de-funding the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the Trump Administration set into motion a consequential series of events. All U.S. funding has been replaced by Arab and European donors. The Administration has no leverage to reform UNRWA. But in times of conflict in Gaza, the U.S. will simply be absent from UNRWA-Israeli military coordination to move shelter, power, water, medicine and other relief supplies into Gaza. Despite the polemics surrounding UNRWA, coordination between UNRWA and the IDF with the U.S. serving as the indispensable bridge was key to protecting lives on both sides in prior conflicts. The Trump team no longer serves as this bridge.

The tragedy of Gaza overwhelms. There is a lost generation of youth in Gaza who have no hope, no future, no connection to the world. The despair of millions of Israeli families running to bomb shelters as hundreds of Hamas rockets strike is similarly unacceptable — and creates a massive sense of insecurity. American diplomats and aid workers played important roles in prior conflicts. They saved American, Palestinians and Israeli lives. Trump’s envoys are irrelevant — symbolizing a loss of American influence in a region critical to the world’s future.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former Assistant Administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises.  He led the USAID Mission to the West Bank and Gaza during the 2014 Hamas-Israeli war.