Column: What should the US prioritize in Gaza and the Middle East

FILE - Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike on buildings near the separating wall between Egypt and Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. An order by the top United Nations court for Israel to halt its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah deepens its disconnect with the United States. (AP Photo/Ramez Habboub, File)

FILE - Smoke rises following an Israeli airstrike on buildings near the separating wall between Egypt and Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 7, 2024. An order by the top United Nations court for Israel to halt its military offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah deepens its disconnect with the United States. (AP Photo/Ramez Habboub, File) AP — Ramez Habboub

Israeli border guards talk to right-wing protesters blocking the road to Jordanian trucks carrying humanitarian aid supplies arriving on the Israeli side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on April 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Israeli border guards talk to right-wing protesters blocking the road to Jordanian trucks carrying humanitarian aid supplies arriving on the Israeli side of the Kerem Shalom border crossing with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on April 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict in the Palestinian territory between Israel and the militant group Hamas. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images/TNS) AFP — Menahem Kahana

FILE - This image provided by the U.S. Army shows trucks loaded with humanitarian aid from the United Arab Emirates and the United States Agency for International Development cross the Trident Pier before arriving on the beach on the Gaza Strip, May 17, 2024. A string of security, logistical and weather problems have battered the plan to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to Gaza through a U.S. military-built pier. Broken apart by strong winds and heavy seas just over a...

FILE - This image provided by the U.S. Army shows trucks loaded with humanitarian aid from the United Arab Emirates and the United States Agency for International Development cross the Trident Pier before arriving on the beach on the Gaza Strip, May 17, 2024. A string of security, logistical and weather problems have battered the plan to deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid to Gaza through a U.S. military-built pier. Broken apart by strong winds and heavy seas just over a... Staff Sgt. Malcolm Cohens-Ashley

By ARTHUR HOLCOMBE

For the Valley News

Published: 05-31-2024 10:01 PM

The protracted Gaza war, as it evolved after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, has brought out two opposing geopolitical and economic forces in the Middle East.

The first is non-Arab Iran and its proxy “states” — Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and the Shiite militias in Iraq. Iran has taken on increasing importance in the Middle East because of its oil, about 90% of which is sold to China. The proceeds from Chinese oil sales have helped to develop and diversify Iran’s industrial base, including the manufacture of weapons sold to Russia in support of its war effort in Ukraine. Iran is regarded by the U.S. and other Western countries to be months away from developing its own nuclear energy industry and its eventual capacity to produce nuclear weapons. On April 13, Iran launched a drone and missile attack on Israel. Iran fired over 350 missiles and, according to Israel, 99% were shot down by Israel, supported by a coalition of US, UK, French and Jordanian aircraft. The attack put Israel, the U.S. and other international officials on notice that Iran posed a continuing threat to Israel that needed to be taken seriously.

Saudi Arabia is the second major geopolitical force, a rival of Iran in the Middle East. Under Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is aggressively modernizing industrially, militarily, socially and culturally. Women today represent 30% of the total enrolled in education and engaged in the labor force. Saudi Arabia seeks to further its industrial and trade interests through a normalization of diplomatic relations with Israel. Holding it back is the Israel-Hamas war, the killing of large numbers of Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s rejection of Palestinian statehood alongside Israel.

The U.S. stresses that an independent Palestinian State is critical for longer term peace in the Middle East. It should be non-military statehood with an international peace-keeping component as long as necessary to help reassure Israel of its peaceful social services-oriented intentions. If Israel, under Netanyahu, remains unwilling to support a two-state solution, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. now intend to press ahead with the signing of a mutual defense treaty in which the U.S. would help Saudi Arabia with the development of its civilian nuclear development and artificial intelligence industries.

The Biden Adminstration is currently confronted with two immediate challenges. The first is Netanyahu’s threat to send ground troops into Rafah, despite warnings from the Biden Administration not to do so without a clear plan to protect the lives of over 1 million Palestinians already seeking refuge there from other parts of war-torn Gaza. Israel has not provided the U.S. with any credible plans for the protection of Palestinian refugees in other parts of Gaza. Israel has already started to bomb Rafah in advance of ground troops intended to eliminate the last vestiges of Hamas forces in tunnels under Rafah.

The second challenge is the provision of essential food, water, health and other essential needs to starving Gazan refugees. The US Foreign Assistance Act bars military support to any nation that restricts the delivery of humanitarian aid. Israel’s war efforts and restrictive clearance procedures have meant that humanitarian organizations have been unable to deliver more than about half the food that reached Palestinians before the war. Long lines of trucks wait for days or weeks at every gate to Gaza before being cleared and allowed into Gaza. To facilitate additional deliveries, the U.S. is building an expensive boat wharf at the Gaza shore to enable food shipments directly from abroad. This approach will help but not solve internal delivery complications within Gaza due to the ongoing war. UN and other international relief organizations believe that a cease fire and greater freedom of movement in Gaza will be needed to deliver the needed food aid to starving Palestinian displaced refugees.

On May 7, President Biden stated that he was pausing the delivery of 3,500 bombs to Israel so that they would not be used to bomb Palestinian refugees caught in Rafah. He acknowledged that US bombs, rockets and other offensive weapons had been used extensively by Israel in ways killing more than 34 million Palestinians in the war against Hamas. It is unclear whether Biden’s actions would deter Netanyahu from proceeding with a full-scale invasion of Rafah.

Urgent actions are needed to head off widespread famine among Palestinians. They include:

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■An immediate Israel-Hamas cease-fire so that food can be delivered by up to 500 trucks per day in an organized and comprehensive manner;

■ Immediately opening of all gates to Gaza and streamlining of clearance procedures to allow food trucks to enter more rapidly;

■ Ending Israel’s 17-year blockade of Gaza that constricts the import of food, consumer necessities and (re)construction materials;

■ Re-instatement of US support for the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza, which has the warehouses and trucks to best manage food shipments and deliveries.

The Biden Administration should maintain its pause on the delivery of offensive weapons to Israel until other longer term needs are initiated. They include:

■ Planning the re-establishment of water, power, health and other essential human services, destroyed in the Gaza war, under the auspices of the UN and other international agencies in collaboration with potential Gulf and other donors;

■ Swapping Israeli hostages held by Hamas for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel;

■ Strengthening the capacity of the Palestinian Authority to provide leadership in a future Palestinian State;

■ Initiate establishment of a future demilitarized Palestinian State, focused on the re-establishment and provision of essential human services;

■ Halt the establishment of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. (Already 500,000 Israeli settlers are occupying best West Bank farming and food production areas);

■ Sign a mutual defense treaty between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

The Biden Administration’s priority in the Middle East should be maintenance of overall peace and security for Israel and all moderate Arab countries, and restraint on outside disruptive influence by China and Russia. Ideally, Israel will gradually see the importance of a two-state approach that enables Israeli and Palestinian people to live compatibly as neighbors. Saudi Arabia in a post Netanyahu period might be able to lead the way to broad diplomatic recognition of Israel by moderate Arab states. A state for Palestinians, ultimately embraced as a UN Member State, must be a part of the solution.

Before his retirement, Arthur Holcombe was resident representative of the United Nations Development Program and resident coordinator of UN Operational Activities in China (1992-1998). From 2011 to 2015 he headed a U.S. program to strengthen economic opportunity for Palestinian women in Gaza. He lives in Hanover.