Aid Wars

The aim of this strategy is to achieve by starvation what could not be achieved by military force

photo of aid heading to Gaza
Photo via Flickr

As Israel’s ground operation in Gaza nears its close, the next major struggle is coming into view. The battle over the provision of essential humanitarian aid, already so brutal over the past few months, will become increasingly central to the conflict. But for all the pacifying rhetoric from US, there is no reason to think that the war’s humanitarian phase will be any less destructive than the direct military violence Palestinians in Gaza have faced so far. Indeed, it may be far worse: the IPC has now classified 1.1 million Palestinians as facing imminent risk of famine, as Israel continues to flout orders from the International Court of Justice to open access to the Strip for food and other aid to enter. Already, at least thirty-one Palestinians have died from starvation or dehydration. Twenty-seven of those were children.

For now, despite delays—mainly around hostage negotiations that have advanced and retreated in fits and starts—the Israeli military remains committed to the long-anticipated invasion of Rafah, where the several battalions of Hamas combatants that have yet to see any combat are bunkered. The US is intent on military victory against Hamas but has expressed concerns about the anticipated civilian casualties of a full ground invasion. (There are over a million Palestinians, most of them internally displaced, packed into the southern end of the Strip.) The Biden Administration is pushing for a hostage deal that could provide a window for population transfers—to where, it’s not clear—before an invasion or, if the terms are favorable enough to Israel, avoid the need for one altogether. As of yet, however, it has declined to use its political leverage to force a deal.

Whether or not American concerns amount to anything other than political theater, they’re very real for the rest of the world watching on in horror. An invasion from the Israelis would mean mass bombing in addition to street-level butchery and door-to-door raids. It would also pose some of the most difficult challenges of the war for IDF ground forces, who will face fresh commandos in a dense urban environment that has long been a stronghold for Hamas’s military wing. This only portends more butchery, as the IDF has a practice of severe retaliation against civilians when it suffers troop losses in ambushes or other guerilla attacks. Recognizing this, many European states have drawn a red line at the Rafah invasion and may ramp up sanctions efforts against Israel if they push forward under current conditions. The Saudis have also indicated that proceeding with the invasion would jeopardize a US-brokered Saudi-Israeli normalization deal.

Regardless of whether the Rafah invasion happens now, is delayed, or is avoided altogether, the invasion or its absence will mark the concluding act in the major combat operations phase of the war. This is not just the result of growing international outrage and diplomatic opposition to the genocide. There’s simply nothing left in Gaza for Israel to destroy, and nowhere left for its military to go. Of course, where the IDF has gone, they have not succeeded in eradicating Hamas and the other Palestinian militant factions—they continue to suffer ambushes and other attacks around Gaza City, Central Gaza, and Khan Younis, the other major arenas of combat. But—especially atop the massive complex of tunnels that extend subterraneously throughout the Strip and serve as the infrastructure for guerilla attacks—holding territory is much less appealing to the Israelis than taking it, and provides significantly diminishing returns.

But if major combat operations in Gaza are drawing to a close, the Israelis and the Americans remain far from achieving their political objectives, the most important of which are the pacification of Palestinian militancy and the imposition of a new governing authority through which to delegate colonial control. To finish the job, they are rapidly converging on a comprehensive strategy that has been battle-tested over the course of a century of US-led counterinsurgency campaigns: undercut popular support for the resistance and “win hearts and minds” by seizing total control over the provision of basic necessities. In practice, this means the imposition of total siege conditions and the cultivation of starvation, disease, and other forms of deprivation. Thus, through the controlled entry of aid via the political actors they want to empower, Israel and the US can play kingmakers.

This type of conflict is not new. In 1898, the US won colonial possession of the Philippines from the Spanish. The archipelago was already in the midst of an anti-imperialist revolution, and in the days before the transfer was codified in the Senate, nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo launched a war of independence against the American occupation forces in February of 1899. The Philippine resistance initially fought using conventional military tactics, but were out-gunned by the Americans and suffered severe losses. After several months of combat, Aguinaldo disbanded his standing army and declared a tactical shift to guerilla warfare. The shift was relatively successful: though the US would declare victory in 1902, fighting continued sporadically until 1907.

The move to guerilla warfare by the Philippine resistance provoked a tactical response by the Americans, who for the first time were fighting a war of colonial conquest overseas. US forces initiated an early version of counterinsurgency, a military doctrine the US would come to deploy against anti-imperialist guerillas repeatedly throughout the century. In an effort to isolate the guerillas from the natives, the Americans set up concentration camps for civilians, controlling the provision of food and medicine within them. At the same time, the Americans would respond brutally to successful ambushes by the resistance fighters with the mass slaughter of civilians and the burning of entire villages. Alongside the massacres and internment of civilians, the US established a provisional government on the archipelago lead by future President William Howard Taft. The government introduced a “policy of attraction,” a program intended to entice Filipinos—particularly key social elites—away from Aguinaldo and the resistance by promising economic development and other reforms under a form of restricted self-governance.

By 1907, the Americans had largely succeeded in suppressing the guerillas and establishing a client government. The cost, in human life, was tremendous. Between 1899 and 1907, the US military killed 20,000 Filipino combatants. Between direct violence and the conditions of famine and disease created by agricultural destruction and internment, 200,000 Filipino civilians were killed (some estimates range up to 1 million). More than four thousand US troops also died in the war. Though the term had not yet been coined, it was arguably the first genocide of the 20th century—and its tactics, particularly the use of concentration camps, would surface in subsequent genocides.

The American and Israeli strategy in Gaza is following from the colonial playbook written in the Philippines. The Israelis have successfully coerced the Palestinians of Gaza—already a concentration camp of sorts—into even more extreme conditions of internment, enforced by live fire and airstrikes. Famine is imminent for over a million people, and the risk of disease is catastrophic. The aid that Palestinians in Gaza had relied upon has trickled to nearly a halt, as Israel has closed every land crossing save for Rafah. The planned invasion would permanently close that crossing as well, leaving extremely limited means for aid to enter the Strip. If that occurs, the only viable way for aid to enter Gaza would be through a seaport the US is currently constructing in Palestinian economic waters (which it claims is temporary).

In addition to limiting and controlling the flow of aid, the US and Israel are severely inhibiting its distribution. In a sequence of horrific massacres, the IDF has opened fire on aid convoys, killing hundreds of starving Palestinians. They have also assassinated civil police who have participated in securing aid distribution, in addition to members of prominent families that rejected proposed coordination with Israel. And perhaps most critically, the Israeli government has escalated its longstanding campaign to delegitimize UNRWA, the international agency that since 1949 has been responsible for providing essential humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees. In the years since, it has become the essential provider of education, health care, and social services in Gaza—in the current war it is the only entity with the existing infrastructure to adequately distribute aid on the ground. In January, Israel made public accusations that a dozen members of the agency had participated in the October 7 attack. The evidence it has presented for these claims is threadbare, largely consisting of testimony solicited from staffers who, according to UNRWA, were detained and tortured.

UNRWA has long been an Israeli target. The organization is exceptional among UN agencies in that it is mostly staffed by the population it was designed to serve: over 90 percent of UNRWA staffers are themselves Palestinian refugees. As the primary education system in Gaza, UNRWA plays an important social role in reproducing Palestinian cultural and national identity. This has been a source of consternation and paranoia for the agency’s Western financers, who have in recent years imposed increasingly stringent “neutrality” requirements and limitations on the organization and its educational curricula.

Thus, after Israel published its accusations—on the same day that the ICJ announced its order for provisional measures on South Africa’s genocide case—the US, UNRWA’s largest single funder, moved quickly to cut financial support for the agency. Alongside the country’s major newspapers, the Biden Administration amplified Israel’s claims uncritically and enacted an emergency suspension of funding. Over a dozen other Western funder states followed suit. In February the US announced it would be sending $53 million in aid to Gaza and the West Bank, but that the funding would be to the World Food Programme, instead of UNRWA. In a bill signed into law on Saturday, the US pledged to keep UNRWA funding suspended until May of next year. The same bill also cuts aid to the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinians seek member state status at the UN or pursue claims against Israel at the International Criminal Court. Israel advocacy groups have sprung into action as well, engaging in lawfare against UNRWA-affiliated charities in the US. In total, the effect of these developments will be to prevent both public and private money from reaching UNRWA—and consequently aid from reaching Palestinians.

Control over aid has been a tool for US and Israeli counterinsurgency in Palestine since well before the current war, and especially since Hamas’s rise to power in 2007. In particular, the US counterterrorism legal regime prohibits any US-funded aid from reaching organizations designated as terrorist groups by the State Department, which includes Hamas, the governing entity in Gaza. USAID has long functioned as an enforcer of the “securitization” of aid provision through the monitoring and policing of recipients. Most recently, the US cut funding to UNRWA in 2018, only to restore it in 2021 with new counterterrorism obligations that far exceed the UN’s regulations for its own agencies. In effect, under the new rules, UNRWA would have to surveil the recipients of its services to ensure compliance, turning it into an agent of the US-Israeli security apparatus in the Strip. Thus, this year’s defunding of UNRWA is only the latest instance of the US leveraging humanitarianism to serve the political interests of empire.

The aim of this strategy is to achieve by starvation what could not be achieved by military force. To effect regime change in Gaza, Israel and the US are conspiring on a “policy of attraction” to break the will of the Palestinians people, incentivizing them to reject Hamas and embrace the authority of whomever they permit to govern. At this stage, there isn’t a clear consensus on who that will be—the Biden Administration apparently wants Gaza to be ruled by a version of the Palestinian Authority, which has a newly formed technocratic government, whereas the Netanyahu plan seems to be semi-permanent IDF occupation of the North of the Strip and the deputization of select clans and tribes to administer basic governance throughout Gaza. In either case, the plan is to make Gaza a lot more like the West Bank, with a proxy force in place to handle basic governance and the ability of the IDF to enter the Strip at will to target armed factions.

As in the Philippines, the “humanitarian” phase of the present war is likely to last years. In addition to impeding the flow and distribution of aid, in order to maximize its leverage over the Palestinians of Gaza, Israel is determined to slow the reconstruction of the Strip as much as possible. Reconstruction itself is a massive project, as the IDF has destroyed all or nearly all of Gaza’s hospitals, universities, government buildings, and other essential infrastructure. By forcing all aid and reconstruction materials through logistical bottlenecks and onerous screening processes, the Israelis—with the support and diplomatic backing of the Americans—are intentionally extending the immiseration of Palestinians in Gaza as long as they can.

This is not to suggest that direct violence will fully abate, even in the event that a ceasefire is negotiated before the Rafah invasion. Occupation is enforced at the barrel of a gun, in times of war and in times of quiet. The Israelis have shown no hesitation in executing Palestinian civilians attempting to return to their homes or otherwise escaping internment. Airstrikes and raids are likely to continue. But increasingly, the main threats to life for Palestinians will be man-made famine, disease, and lack of medical infrastructure.

Faced with the war’s unpopularity at home, the Biden Administration is encouraging this transition. This will enable its spokespeople to publicly lament the humanitarian catastrophe and pledge to ameliorate it, while at the same time actively preventing the flow and distribution of aid through any channels not under direct US or Israeli control. The rhetorical segregation of the war’s humanitarian and military conditions naturalizes Palestinian immiseration while obscuring the political machinations underway—making it harder to critique the US’s role in the genocide.

In anticipation of these developments, the challenge for the solidarity movement in the US is to maintain pressure on the Biden Administration to impose a ceasefire—especially before a ground invasion of Rafah—while mobilizing more forcefully around an end to the siege. In concrete terms, this means demanding the reestablishment of land routes for aid to enter Gaza, the funding of UNRWA and its unshackling from the fundamentally anti-Palestinian US counterterrorism legal regime, and an end to the onerous Israeli inspections requirements. We cannot allow our government to use starvation as a weapon to achieve regime change, nor escape accountability for its role in the unfolding genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles

More by this Author