At a time when Hamas and Israel are engaged in indirect negotiations to set up a long-term truce that would include prisoner exchanges and an easing of the economic blockade on the Gaza Strip, a pro-Israel US evangelical Christian group called Friend Ships has started building a field hospital on the Gaza side of the border with Israel. The 50-bed hospital “will offer a wonderful opportunity to work in an important and productive project and, at the same time, to see and enjoy the biblical sites of Israel,” according to the charity’s website. It will be run by American volunteers.
The project has been approved by both Israel and Hamas but has infuriated the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah officials. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said last week that he would not allow the hospital project to proceed, claiming that it was part of the so-called “deal of the century” that the US has been implementing piece by piece. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Secretary-General Saeb Erekat added that, if the US was really concerned about the Palestinians’ standard of living, it would not have stopped all aid to the UN Refugee Agency (UNRWA) and Jerusalem’s hospitals.
Fatah official Azzam Al-Ahmad was quick to condemn the setting up of the field hospital, saying it was part of a US-Zionist conspiracy to isolate Gaza and turn it into a mini-state as part of a scheme to liquidate the Palestinian cause. He claimed that Hamas had become part of that conspiracy. A Fatah communique issued last month said Hamas had approved the presence of a US military base in Gaza under the title of a field hospital, adding that the Trump administration was dealing with Hamas as an alternative to the PLO.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh expressed concern that the field hospital was one of the outcomes of the Manama “Peace to Prosperity” workshop, which the US held in Bahrain in June to unveil the economic components of Trump’s peace plan.
Meanwhile, Hamas and Islamic Jihad defended the project, claiming it was a result of understandings reached with Israel through Egyptian mediation. One Hamas official said that Gazans would not be able to access the hospital except through a referral by the health authority and that any security breach would result in its closure.
Against such a backdrop, one must ask about the timing of setting up such a project. Hamas’ goal of establishing contacts with the US administration and gaining some kind of recognition is not new. Former White House envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt had repeatedly blamed Hamas for the miserable humanitarian conditions in Gaza, but also offered US help.
In an editorial he wrote for The New York Times in April, Greenblatt concluded that “whether or not we achieve a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, the future of Gaza cannot be addressed and the people of Gaza cannot be helped in any meaningful way until Hamas is no longer in the picture or makes the necessary choices for stability and, eventually, peace. To achieve peace — or even some normalcy — in Gaza, Hamas and others must make hard choices, including renouncing violence and recognizing Israel.”
Hamas has been in control of Gaza since 2007, when it led a bloody coup against the PA. In response, Israel slapped the territory of 1.8 million citizens with an economic blockade. The two sides subsequently fought two major wars and engaged in numerous clashes, turning Gaza into a humanitarian catastrophe. Many attempts to reconcile Fatah and Hamas have ended in failure. Hamas is the de facto ruler of the strip and, despite its leaders’ talk about ending the Palestinian rift, the reality is that neither side is able or willing to compromise.
Separating Gaza from the West Bank has been a boon to Israel’s right-wing governments under Benjamin Netanyahu, whose main goals are to prevent the creation of an independent Palestinian state and annex most of the West Bank. The Trump administration appears to be working to make that separation permanent; paving the way for recognizing Gaza as a mini-state or entity.
If the US really cared about the well-being of Palestinians, it would not have stopped backing UNRWA.
In March 2018, the White House hosted what it called the “Gaza Conference,” with 20 countries — including Israel and a number of Arab states — attending. It discussed solutions to the worsening humanitarian and economic conditions in the Strip, but the PA did not attend. An official US statement said the attendees discussed concrete proposals for finding realistic, effective approaches to the challenges Gaza faces. An Ad Hoc Liaison Committee was formed to follow up on projects suggested by the US administration, but nothing has materialized.
The timing of the US field hospital is suspicious. If the US really cared about the well-being of Palestinians, it would not have suspended humanitarian projects in the West Bank and stopped backing UNRWA, whose work in Gaza is fundamental. UNRWA is now facing an unprecedented financial crisis and is failing to provide essential services to more than a million Gazans.
Hamas may be seeking more than a long-term truce with Israel. It could be working its way toward gaining recognition as an entity, opening the door for much more than a US field hospital.