The United Nations said Sunday that it would begin distributing Qatari cash to some eligible Gazan families on Monday, as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett denied reports that his government was weighing a resumption of the previous leadership’s policy of allowing cash payments to be sent in suitcases from Doha to Hamas civil servants.
“Tomorrow, some vulnerable families in Gaza, out of the nearly 100,000 beneficiaries, will begin to receive their aid as part of the UN’s Humanitarian Cash Assistance programme, supported by the State of Qatar,” the United Nations office tasked with handling Middle East peace efforts tweeted.
Qatari support is considered a crucial lifeline for impoverished Palestinians living in the Strip, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt for years. Israel views the blockade as a necessary measure to limit the ability of Gaza’s Hamas terrorist rulers to arm themselves.
Israel had been allowing millions in Qatari cash to flow through Israeli crossings into Gaza on a monthly basis since 2018, in order to maintain a fragile ceasefire with Hamas. As of early 2021, some $30 million in cash were being delivered in suitcases to Gaza each month through an Israeli-controlled crossing.
Since an 11-day war in May, Israel has blocked the payments and imposed heightened restrictions on the enclave.
Indirect talks between Israel and the terror group went on for months, with tensions rising between the two sides as the situation in Gaza deteriorated.
Under the new arrangement, Qatar will deposit the funds each month in a UN bank account in New York. The money will then be transferred to a Palestinian bank in Ramallah and from there to a branch in the Gaza Strip. The Gaza branch will then issue the $100 stipends to the recipients in the form of reloadable debit cards.
Israel will have the power to oversee who receives debit cards. But once the cards are used to withdraw cash, the relatively untraceable money could be transferred freely without further Israeli supervision.
Tensions between Israel and Gaza-based Palestinian terror groups have risen again over the past few weeks. Israel has gradually loosened some of the heightened restrictions put in place since May, but others have remained in place.
The flames have been fanned by the escape of six Palestinian security prisoners, most of them Islamic Jihad members serving life sentences for terrorism, from Gilboa Prison in northern Israel. Four were recaptured over the weekend, with Islamic Jihad vowing to avenge any harm done to them or the remaining fugitives.
Palestinian terrorists have fired rockets at southern Israel over two consecutive nights; Israel has responded by striking Hamas structures in the Gaza Strip.
“Despite the loosening of some restrictions over the past few weeks — permits, opening Gaza’s fishing zone, permits for traders — the Qatari subsidies have yet to arrive. This is a problem for Hamas,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, during a phone call late last week.
“The security situation remains extremely fragile,” Abu Saada said.
In addition to hundreds of millions in cash payments to poor Gazan families, Qatari projects in the past funded fuel for Gaza’s only power plant and hospitals. They also brought in millions for Hamas civil servants in various Gaza government ministries.
Hamas sees the Qatari-backed salaries as a key demand. But the parties have yet to agree on a new mechanism for transferring Qatari funds to Hamas employees; Israel finds such payments unpalatable, as they skirt close to directly funding Hamas terror activities.
Hebrew media reports on Sunday claimed that the Israeli government, led by Bennett, was considering the possibility of again sending suitcases of cash into Gaza to resolve the impasse, something Bennett had repeatedly criticized when he was in the opposition.
Hamas, meanwhile, has witnessed tantalizing progress on the payments fade in recent days. On Wednesday, Qatar’s Gaza envoy, Mohammad al-Emadi, announced that the Palestinian Authority had withdrawn from an agreement to transfer the salaries through its banks.
“The Palestinian Authority’s justifications for retracting the agreement were fears of legal prosecution and banks being accused of ‘supporting terrorism.’ The Qatari committee is currently working on solving the problem,” al-Emadi said in a statement.
The Prime Minister’s Office denied there had been any deviation from the new government line, which has excoriated former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of “suitcases full of cash” for the Hamas employees.
Bennett and other senior Israeli officials have repeatedly vowed that there will be no return to Netanyahu’s Gaza policy, adopting the slogan “there’s no going back to the way things were.”
“There will be no return to the previous framework,” Bennett’s office said in a statement on Sunday.
But the PMO did not explicitly rule out the use of cash transfers in general, saying only that Israeli security officials were “examining various alternatives.”
“When a proper outline is found that ensures that the money does not go to terrorist activities, it will be presented by the defense minister to the prime minister,” Bennett’s office said.