06.23.2017
  • Israel / Palestine

No Power in Gaza

New pressures on Hamas signal a realignment of political forces in the Middle East — and may foreshadow another summertime assault on Gaza.

Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Olivier Pacteau / Flickr

On Monday, Israel began a 40 percent reduction of electricity to the occupied Gaza Strip, where Palestinian residents already average only three to four hours of electricity a day.

The electricity cuts were requested by Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas to further escalate the sanctions already imposed on Gaza in an effort to wrest control of the coastal enclave away from Hamas, the PA’s primary political rival.

A long-standing rift between the PA and Hamas deepened in 2007 when, after infighting, Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip and the PA took control of the West Bank. Since then, the United States and Israel, together with Abbas, have consistently pressured Hamas to accept PA control over the area, often with measures worsening the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

Earlier this year, Abbas announced a 30 percent reduction to the salaries of PA employees in Gaza. Due to the Israeli blockade, poverty is rampant and unemployment is sky-high, making PA salaries a crucial source of income in the enclave.

Abbas also refused requests to cut taxes imposed on fuel for Gaza’s power station, further deepening the crisis of resources affecting the besieged enclave.

Now, with the new restrictions, electricity provision will drop to about two to three hours a day. Such limitations are certain to lead to deaths, as Gaza’s medical facilities already suffer from a lack of electricity and supplies. What’s more, Abbas has cut funding for Gaza’s medical facilities over the past months as well — from about $4 million a month to just $500,000 in May.

Like most sanctions, these measures affect the poor far more than the political class, who tend to have generators, priority medical treatment, and more access to resources.

The PA’s attrition strategy is clear. As an anonymous PA adviser said to Haaretz, “We realize this sounds cruel, but in the end, after ten years of the split and Hamas rule in the Strip, [Hamas] must decide whether it will control things in every sense, including ongoing expenses, or let the Palestinian government rule.”

After announcing its plans to punish Gaza with further electricity cuts, the PA blocked eleven websites associated with Abbas’s political rivals, preventing them from being viewed in the West Bank. Notably, one of Gaza’s most popular news services, Shehab, is among those blocked.

Because Abbas has proven himself a far more compliant negotiating partner than his rivals in Hamas, Israel and the United States have a lot to gain from PA control over the area. And Abbas may have a lot to gain, as well — many interpret Abbas’s collaboration with the Israeli occupation as a shrewd maneuver to preserve his fragile position as president long after his term was set to expire. (The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey reports that about two-thirds of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza want Abbas to resign.)

While Abbas collaborates with Israel to punish Gaza, it should be noted that Israel, as the military occupier of Gaza, is legally obligated to provide residents with services like electricity and health care, but refuses to do so. As a form of leverage, Israel even consistently withholds taxes owed to the PA that pay for such services.

Regional Realignment

Abbas senses that Hamas is weak. Efforts by Israel and Saudi Arabia to undermine the organization are bearing fruit, and Hamas now faces a regional political landscape almost bereft of allies.

Hamas’s problems intensified in 2012, when the party sided against the Bashar al-Assad government in the ongoing Syrian conflict, losing support from Iran and Syria. Though there was internal dissent within the organization over whether to endanger relations with Iran and Syria, former leader Khaled Mashal ultimately chose to pivot Hamas towards the Gulf, seeking a renewed relationship with regional players like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

In hindsight, the move appears to have been a strategic blunder, as a campaign lead by Saudi Arabia against Qatar, now Hamas’s largest foreign funder, has further isolated the Palestinian organization.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade, demanding that the nation stop funding Muslim Brotherhood organizations (including Hamas) and distance itself from Iran. During his visit to the region, Trump is widely believed to have given Saudi Arabia the green light to pursue such actions, and the $110 billion weapons deal signed between the United States and Saudi Arabia is seen by many as material reassurance.

Qatar has long played a seemingly contradictory role in the politics of the region, supporting the Saudi coalition’s attacks on Yemen and siding with the Saudis in Syria, but all the while maintaining friendly relations with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudi monarchy sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a potential threat to their formidable power in the region. Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is even more paranoid about the organization — after deposing the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in a 2013 coup, his junta began a brutal crackdown on the movement’s Egyptian members. By stripping the Muslim Brotherhood of one of its major financiers, Qatar, these authoritarian governments hope to neutralize the threat of internal opposition.

What’s more, the blockade of Qatar sets the groundwork for further normalization of relations between Israel and the Saudi axis — a fact not lost on Israeli officials, who welcomed the actions. Israel’s deputy minister of diplomacy, Michael Oren, wrote on Twitter that the Saudi moves represent “[a] [n]ew line drawn in the Middle Eastern sand. No longer Israel against Arabs but Israel and Arabs against Qatar-financed terror.”

Nominally, Saudi Arabia does not have formal relations with Israel, but has promised to establish them on the condition of a comprehensive “peace deal” with the Palestinians. Israel’s unwillingness to make such a deal has prevented the official formation of an alliance. This puts the Gulf power in an inconvenient position, forcing Saudi Arabia to keep its relations with Israel clandestine as the two countries cooperate as regional strategic partners against Iran.

However, the recent Saudi moves to isolate Qatar represent a further step towards de facto normalization, and signal an abandonment of their minimal demands with regards to Palestinian rights.

There is evidence that relations are warming between Saudi Arabia and Israel after the announced isolation of Qatar. The two countries have reportedly begun secretly negotiating economic ties, and Saudi Arabia recently appointed a new crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, who is reported to have strong clandestine relations with Israeli officials. The Saudi government even announced that they consider Hamas to be a terrorist organization — a major victory for Israeli propaganda.

Sisi’s junta, on the other hand, declared Hamas to be a terrorist organization back in 2015 and has enthusiastically collaborated with the Israeli blockade of Gaza since the 2013 coup that brought him to power. His government appears to be chomping at the bit to join Israel and the PA in their latest Gaza squeeze — according to Palestinian news outlet Ma’an, Egypt informed the Gaza electricity company that it might cut off power lines to Gaza at any time, exacerbating the shortage.

Now, with Hamas cut off from Qatari support, the organization may turn back to Iran, further aligning Saudi and Israeli interests.

Bad Days Ahead

The sanctions imposed on Gaza, already besieged and imprisoned by Israeli occupation, could lead to war. Another Israeli assault on Gaza would be a massacre of a largely defenseless population. The Israeli bombardment of Gaza in 2014 killed over 2,200 Palestinians, mainly civilians.

While Abbas is using his relationship with Israel to punish Gaza for his own political gains, it bears reiteration that the situation in Gaza is chiefly designed and maintained by Israel, and the occupation is responsible for the humanitarian crisis there.

The first step to alleviating the suffering of Gaza is ending the occupation, exactly why popular pressure forces and neighboring governments often make this an essential condition in negotiations. But while the Palestinian cause remains important to the general public in the region, regressive governments backed by US money and weapons long ago made it clear their allegiance lies with the occupation.