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White House hosts conference on Gaza crisis

Jason Greenblatt visiting the Nahal Oz military base in Israel. (Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Jason Greenblatt visiting the Nahal Oz military base in Israel. (Anadolu Agency/Getty)

WASHINGTON — The human suffering in Gaza has grown over the past year, top US Middle East negotiator Jason Greenblatt told a conference to discuss aid for the coastal strip.

Representatives of nearly two dozen countries and international organizations gathered on March 13 at the White House for the meeting. Absent was the Palestinian Authority.

Greenblatt said that in Gaza, poverty and food insecurity are growing, electricity is scarce and contaminated water is a danger. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a top adviser, presented concrete ideas to assist the Gaza Palestinians.

The PA boycotted the conference over the Trump administration’s recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Gaza is controlled by Hamas, which is designated by the State Dept. as a terrorist organization.

“We regret that the PA is not here with us today,” Greenblatt said. “This is not about politics. This is about the health, safety and happiness of the people of Gaza, and of all Palestinians, Israelis and Egyptians.”

UNRWA, the UN relief agency charged with delivering aid to Palestinian refugees and their descendants, was not invited to the meeting since it is aimed at donors and countries in the region, a Trump administration official said.

Jordan, Sweden and Egypt planned to host a separate meeting on Thursday in Rome specifically relating to UNRWA, according to the official, who said the US plans to participate in that meeting as well.

Elizabeth Campbell, the director of UNRWA’s Washington office, told JTA that the participants were missing an important perspective without her agency at the table.

“UNRWA continues to be the primary actor in Gaza and has some of the best data, relationships and experience, and if you’re looking at development it makes sense to have UNRWA represented,” she said.

One measure the Trump administration could take immediately, she said, was to restore UNRWA funding. Trump froze some funding earlier this year because the Palestinians backed away from talks on restarting the peace process.

“We’re going to see an already dramatic situation get much worse,” she said. The Trump administration froze $65 million in transfers, but allowed $60 million to go through. The US transferred $360 million to UNRWA last year.

Representatives of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates were among the meeting participants.

Qatar, which has provided aid to  Gaza and has supported Hamas’ leadership, also attended.

The full list of participants: Bahrain, Canada, Cyprus, Egypt, the EU, France, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Norway, Oman, the Middle East Quartet, Qatar, Sweden, Switzerland, the UAE, the United Kingdom and the UN.

The Quartet consists of the US, Russia, the EU and the UN.

After the conference, which lasted six hours, the White House deemed it a success.

“Everybody agreed to work together,” a senior administration official said in a conference call with reporters.

Greenblatt at the conference outset called on all parties in attendance to “leave all politics at the door” in order to “concentrate on realistic and practical solutions to the problems we are here to address.”

White House officials said Kushner presented three sorts of projects: short term, medium term and “aspirational,” should a comprehensive peace agreement be achieved.

Funding the projects would be discussed at the Rome meeting later this week.

The plan going forward would be to break up the conference into smaller groups of countries with expertise in the areas that needed to be addressed.

The senior administration official said it would be difficult to implement the deal without the PA’s cooperation, but not impossible.

“Many of them can be implemented without the PA, but that wouldn’t be ideal,” the official said. “Our goal is to get the PA in control of Gaza.”

Greenblatt in his opening remarks said it was key to consider the security needs of Gaza’s neighbors, especially considering that it was controlled by Hamas, a terrorist group.

“We all know that none of this will be easy,” Greenblatt said. “And everything we do must be done in a way that ensures we do not put the security of Israelis and Egyptians at risk — and that we do not inadvertently empower Hamas, which bears responsibility for Gaza’s suffering. But the situation today in Gaza is unacceptable, and spiraling downwards.

“An essential part of achieving a comprehensive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, including those in the West Bank and Gaza, will be resolving the situation in Gaza,” he said.

The meeting was first announced in a Greenblatt op-ed appearing March 8 in the Washington Post.

With reporting from Ron Kampeas

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