As winds of war rise, Israel must decide whether to pull the plug on Gaza
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AnalysisEven some moderate residents now talk of conflict as the only way to bring the Strip out of its misery

As winds of war rise, Israel must decide whether to pull the plug on Gaza

The PA won't pay for the Hamas-run Strip's electricity any longer. Should Israel finance the power supply for a terrorist regime committed to its destruction?

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Supporters of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Ahrar movement protest against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on May 2, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Supporters of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al-Ahrar movement protest against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on May 2, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)

A. lives in the northern Gaza Strip. I have known him for years — seventeen years, to be exact. I have visited his home in the Gaza Strip several times, met his children and his relatives, and I hardly ever go to the Gaza Strip without seeing him.

He has never expressed radical political views. On the contrary, he has always stayed in good spirits, always tried to hold on to his livelihood without getting into things that are none of his business. But in our last conversation, this week, he sounded like something inside him has snapped.

“I have no food for my children,” A. said. “Believe me; you know that I don’t make things up. I have nothing to give them to eat. The situation here is so bad, I have no work, the children [the older ones] have no work. And I see nothing on the horizon. As far as I’m concerned, it would be better if a war started already. Maybe then people will notice Gaza and pay attention to us. We have no life here anymore. This is hell.”

These are the words of a desperate man who cannot support his family. But he’s not the only speaking like this. Over the past month, more and more Gazans have begun speaking in positive terms about war as a means to break the status quo and perhaps climb out of the abyss into which the Gaza Strip has sunk.

A Palestinian street vendor waits for customers during a power cut in Gaza City, on April 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
A Palestinian street vendor waits for customers during a power cut in Gaza City, on April 20, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Gaza’s inhabitants — businessmen, government officials, journalists, people who identify with Fatah and with Hamas — reiterate that the next war with Israel is no longer an improbable scenario; indeed, that it is fast approaching.

The Strip’s Islamic terrorist rulers are not interested in a violent conflict at this stage; they are still restocking and boosting their rocket arsenals and reportedly digging fresh cross-border attack tunnels. But no one is ruling out the possibility of a descent into war, mainly due to the economic situation — in other words, a repeat of Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.

File. IDF Artillery Corps soldiers operate a howitzer on the border with Gaza, during Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014. The army fired roughly 34,000 artillery shells into Gaza during the 50-day operation (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
IDF Artillery Corps soldiers operate a howitzer on the border with Gaza, during Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014. The army fired roughly 34,000 artillery shells into Gaza during the 50-day operation (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

In this scenario, Hamas starts off by allowing a trickle of rockets to be fired into Israel in order to extricate itself from a terrible economic situation (almost three years ago, it was a crisis over salary payments), using other groups as contractors working on its behalf. Israel responds with increasing severity. Hamas joins in the rocket fire, and presto, Israelis and Palestinians find themselves at war.

The current economic situation in Gaza is even worse than it was in summer 2014, which places Israel before a near-impossible dilemma. Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah announced a week ago that the PA would no longer pay for the electricity — an estimated 120 megawatts — that Israel supplies to Gaza. In better times, Gaza’s power station supplied the Strip with approximately 60 megawatts of electricity. But owing to the shortage of discounted diesel fuel, the power station stopped working approximately a month ago.

A power plant in Gaza City is pictured from behind a fence on April 16, 2017. The Gaza Strip's only functioning power plant was out of action after running out of fuel, the head of the territory's electricity provider told AFP. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)
A power plant in Gaza City is pictured from behind a fence on April 16, 2017. The Gaza Strip’s only functioning power plant was out of action after running out of fuel, the head of the territory’s electricity provider told AFP. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Since then, Gaza has relied on Egyptian power lines (which supply 23 megawatts) and Israeli power lines for its electricity. But the Egyptian power lines have also stopped working due to a malfunction. This means, right now, a cycle in which roughly four hours of electricity are provided to the homes in Gaza followed by a 12-hour break.

The Palestinian Authority has asked Israel to stop deducting the price of the 125 megawatts that flow through the Israeli power lines to Gaza — NIS 40 million ($11 million) per month — from the tax refunds Israel transfers to the PA. What this means is that Israel will have to decide in the next few days whether to completely stop the flow of electricity to Gaza, thus increasing the danger of a humanitarian crisis, and with it the potential for violent conflict.

Alternatively, Israel could “buy” some quiet by itself paying the Israel Electric Corporation the monthly NIS 40 million for the electricity that Gazans receive from Israel in order to avoid a complete blackout in Gaza. In such a situation, Israel would be supplying and paying for electricity for the offices of high-ranking leaders, including Yahya Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh, of a terrorist organization sworn to its destruction. Even the electricity in Hamas’s headquarters comes from Israel these days.

Israel’s decision-makers face a truly unenviable dilemma.

Then-Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and freed Palestinian prisoner Yahya Sinwar, a founder of the terror group's military wing, wave as supporters celebrate the release of hundreds of inmates in a swap for captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza on October 21, 2011. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Then-Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) and freed Palestinian prisoner Yahya Sinwar, a founder of the terror group’s military wing, wave as supporters celebrate the release of hundreds of inmates in a swap for captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza on October 21, 2011. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Many people on the Israeli side and in Hamas’s upper echelons hope that one international party or other will help everyone save face by stepping in to pay Gaza’s electricity bill. Perhaps Qatar, or another Arab country. Or maybe the PA will change its mind. Some Hamas officials expect Israel to continue deducting the 40 million shekels from the PA’s tax money even though the PA has asked Israel not to do so.

But the electricity bills are far from Gaza’s only problem. This crisis is only one of many hardships that will worsen in Gaza if the PA follows through on its declared decision to disengage from the Strip if Hamas does not relinquish control.

The next measures that the PA is considering include stopping payments for medications and medical equipment that the West Bank supplies, and forcing approximately 34,000 employees of the Palestinian Authority’s former security services in Gaza into early retirement. These employees will receive 70% of their pension, which will save the PA millions of shekels each month — and also cause a further severe slowdown in Gaza’s economy.

That, in turn, will lead to a reduction in the import of goods from Israel and beyond, and a consequent decrease in Hamas’s tax revenue. Not coincidentally, most members of the PA’s former security services in Gaza are associates of Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’s principal adversary from within Fatah’s support base. In other words, this measure will both hurt Hamas’s revenue and weaken Mohammed Dahlan’s supporters financially.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas makes his way to a limousine after meetings at the White House on May 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. (AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas makes his way to a limousine after meetings at the White House on May 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

For now, neither side is budging. Fatah officials insist that unless Hamas relinquishes control over Gaza and dismantles the administrative committee that it recently appointed, the PA will disengage from the Strip and Hamas will bear the responsibility and pay the price. On Thursday, fresh from a warm welcome at Donald Trump’s White House, Abbas vowed that “things will be painful” for Hamas, and one of his top officials said flatly that the PA aims to “dry up” Hamas’s finances, and will no longer finance its decade-old coup.

Hamas’s leaders, who violently seized control of Gaza from Fatah in 2007, are adamant that they have no intention of giving in to Fatah’s demands. “Abbas has put himself in a confrontation with the Palestinian people,” a Hamas spokesman said in response to the PA leader’s comments. “Its consequences will be catastrophic and disastrous, not only for Hamas, as they think, but for all Gazans.”

Most Gazans blame Mahmoud Abbas for the crisis. Hamas has begun a vicious smear campaign against the PA leader, calling him a traitor. Hamas supporters recently hanged an effigy of Abbas during a protest. These are unprecedented steps, even for Gaza.

In the past few days, Hamas also arrested dozens of Fatah activists in Gaza after they tried to organize a kind of support rally for Abbas under cover of backing the two-week-old Palestinian security prisoners’ hunger strike.

Hamas took down a protest tent that Fatah had set up in Saraya Square in solidarity with the hunger-striking prisoners. Hamas members carrying their movement’s flag streamed toward the location and a brawl broke out. The melee was dispersed by Hamas’s police force; those who were in the tent were also sent away. Quiet has since returned, and with it the tent, for now. But plainly the relationship between Fatah and Hamas has deteriorated further — and Israel may bear the brunt.

The problems of ordinary Gazans, meanwhile, are multiplying. These include many inhabitants’ addiction to Tramadol (a painkiller that causes fatigue and disorientation), incidents of domestic violence, and a spate of murders. All this, at a time of economic crisis, has shaken the confidence that use to characterize Hamas’s rule.

A few days ago, in Khan Yunis, the family of a prisoner who had died in a Hamas jail went on a rampage in the city. In response, Sinwar, Hamas’s ruthless new leader in Gaza, went out on a very public walk around town, to demonstrate that, no matter how deep the dissatisfaction and anger, he does not fear for his life. Sinwar’s swaggering stroll, needless to say, will do nothing to alleviate Gazans’ suffering.

Neither would a war.

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