The countries of the European Union are divided over whether to continue aid to Gaza. However, the question of whether it is possible to help the civilian population there without strengthening Hamas is not part of the current debate.
Most international aid to Gaza is channeled through UNRWA, a UN agency dedicated exclusively to Palestinian refugees and their descendants. In 2018, then US President Donald Trump stopped US funding for UNRWA, but the Biden administration resumed funding, with $222 million in 2022, and the United States is once again the leading contributor. With 44% of donations, the European Union and its member countries contribute almost half of the UNRWA budget.
Unfortunately, UNRWA's very existence and modus operandi directly reinforce Hamas. For this international organization, though there are only a handful of surviving refugees from 1948, supposed "refugee status" is passed down from father to son, so there are now around five times as many "refugees" in Gaza as there were originally.
Maintaining this denomination for 75 years for all the descendants of Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, and claiming that they live in "camps" when in fact they are real cities, gives international backing to the myth of a possible "return" to the lands left behind during the Nakba ("catastrophe"), the name given by Palestinians to the 1948 exodus that lies at the heart of Hamas's identity. It also perpetuates a strong disincentive for anyone to take responsibility for the problem and actually solve it. It appears intended as political thorn to be administered for the purpose of maligning Israel for a war that was started by five Arab armies -- those of Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan) Syria, Lebanon and Iraq -- which they then lost. Perhaps they should have thought of that before they started the war.
Meanwhile, roughly the same number of Jewish refugees, about 650,000, were fleeing for their lives from Arab countries to Israel. The newly created Jewish state, about the size of New Jersey or two-thirds of Belgium, and with no funds, managed to absorb everyone.
Given Palestinian demographics, return to the places deserted in 1948 would mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel, and is just as utopian as the idea of the returning German refugees from 1945 to areas of pre-war Germany, Poland or the Czech Republic.
In 2000, it was Yasser Arafat's refusal, encouraged by the Arab League, to give in on this "right of return" that led to the collapse of negotiations with then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The US and the EU, if they want to continue officially supporting an increasingly unrealistic "two-state solution", should first stop funding UNRWA, whose tasks could eventually be taken over by other organizations unrelated to refugee status.
Furthermore, aid, even humanitarian aid, to dictatorial countries inevitably strengthens that power, even more so with an Islamist totalitarian power such as Hamas, which does not care about the well-being of its citizen as Western countries do. It is impossible to bypass Hamas' structures in any area whatsoever: the supply of food, water, healthcare and education. UNRWA, which is inordinately active in education, has been criticized for helping to indoctrinate children with radical Hamas rhetoric through school textbooks and extremist teachers. UNRWA has no means of controlling what goes on in the schools that bear its name. There are very few international staff; they are apparently not present in the classrooms, and UNRWA does not have the reputation of being accountable. A recent report discloses that "UN Teachers Call To Murder Jews."
No one will dispute that it is useful to teach Gaza's children to read and write, but it is legitimate to question whether literacy training is actually being used to indoctrinate students and ignite a terrorist drift in Gaza's youths. In Gaza, the number of international staff is small, and it is local Palestinian agents who implement aid programs. In a society where social control is omnipresent, everyone is inevitably under the thumb of Hamas.
The problem is therefore not, as we hear today in European circles, to avoid supporting organizations linked to Hamas. All aid benefits Hamas, which can then concentrate on war and terrorism, since it is largely exempt from the tasks normally devolved to those who control a territory.
We also need to dispel the myth of a "civilian" population, by nature peaceful and disconnected from the "party" that has been in power in Gaza for 17 years. Hamas, whose aim is to destroy Israel and, as we saw recently, to exterminate the Jews in a genocidal fashion, came to power through the ballot box. The images from last week of the fanatical mobs in Gaza show that this is no small minority.
During the Second World War, the bombing of German or Japanese cities was not immediately followed by dropping food supplies. Since then, international conventions have fortunately sought to provide greater protection for civilians, and a moral if not legal obligation to assist populations has been imposed in Western countries.
However, in all conflicts, those providing humanitarian aid are faced with the terrible difficulty of trying to help the victims without strengthening the regimes that produce them. The International Red Cross was criticized for sending parcels to Nazi concentration camps, but it is now admitted that this was a mistake. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) withdrew from Mengistu's Marxist Ethiopia during the famine of 1985, and from the Hutu-ruled refugee camps of the Congo during the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, believing that the harmful political consequences of aid weighed more heavily than its concrete humanitarian impact.
As we saw in the former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995, humanitarian action can become counterproductive or even harmful when it is transformed into a humanitarian ideology and imposed as the sole policy to the detriment of the search for lasting solutions.
Sometimes, refraining from assisting people is the least bad solution when there is no good one. As they did not seek to help the populations under the control of the Islamic State, one wonders why the United States and the European Union want to help in Gaza and thus help Hamas, especially as Arab countries can do this for it and have the means to do so. It is also usually not clear how much aid actually gets to its intended recipients and how much ends up in Hamas's coffers.
Between 1948 and 1967, the Gaza Strip was ruled by Egypt. Why don't Arab countries step forward and take control of the Gaza Strip by eliminating Hamas? Everyone knows why. No Arab country is serious about taking care of this population. Yet two million people could easily be absorbed into Arab countries where their lives would be better than in what some like to call an "open-air prison."
Calls for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas are becoming louder all over the world. Again, perhaps the friends of Palestinians should have thought of that before. Launching a war and then calling for a ceasefire, or a truce, or a right-of-return when the brutal attack does not seem to be going the way one had hoped does not seem impressively self-aware. A massacre on this scale, rewarded by the cessation of hostilities when it suits the aggressor, then having others come and clean up after them, would only consecrate their efforts. Churchill did not call for a ceasefire after the German bombings on London, nor did Roosevelt after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
Hamas, which hides behind schools, hospitals and hostages, using its own citizens as human shields, sadly cannot be defeated without the people. Many of them support Hamas, just as many Germans supported the Nazis until the very end of the war, and paid a heavy price.
The Israelis have dropped thousands of leaflets over northern Gaza telling the people immediately to go to southern Gaza; Hamas instantly announced that the leaflets were merely propaganda, ordered its citizens not to move, and reportedly is now blocking their passage there.
Today, "standing by Israel" means supporting this democracy's difficult war against a savage terrorist totalitarian movement, and not urging Israel to stop before its critical mission is accomplished.
Alain Destexhe, Medical Doctor (MD), Honorary Senator in Belgium, former secretary general of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), former president of the International Crisis Group. Author of Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century.