Cynically led, and out of electricity, Gaza is close to breaking point again
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Analysis

Cynically led, and out of electricity, Gaza is close to breaking point again

Hamas is funneling all available resources into its military infrastructure to fight Israel, complaining that Abbas won't pay for its fuel, and milking everything it can from Gazans. It won't end well

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.

A silhouette of a Palestinian boy in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on April 19, 2017. The Gaza Strip's only functioning power plant was out of action. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
A silhouette of a Palestinian boy in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip on April 19, 2017. The Gaza Strip's only functioning power plant was out of action. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

‘As usual, the situation is shit,” says A., a resident of the Gaza Strip. “It is so bad here that all we can do is laugh about it. We have four hours of electricity and then there’s none for half a day. Then we get another four hours, and then 12 more hours without it. Do you understand?

“So there is all kinds of black humor now. Kids tweet and post things like, ‘In other countries, the snow comes down; here, it’s the electricity.’ I saw a photo on Facebook of two teenagers looking at a sign belonging to Gaza’s electric company and laughing. What are we going to do? After all, we dare not speak out against Hamas, and speaking out against the Palestinian Authority won’t help.”

Power outages in Hamas-ruled Gaza, combined with abject poverty, have turned into an all too familiar routine for the Strip’s inhabitants. Every few months, the Palestinian Authority announces its refusal to pay the excise tax that Israel collects for the fuel that enters Gaza. Hamas, the Islamist terror group that seized control of the Strip in 2007, also refuses to pay, the power station in Gaza stops working, and Gazans lose their electricity.

The last time the power station ceased operations, Qatar stepped in and paid Israel for the fuel. Qatar may do the same now as well, but sooner or later even the Qataris may become fed up with the fact that Hamas is living it up at their expense.

The PA is already infuriated. Hamas continues to demand that PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his people, or Qatar, pay for the diesel fuel that gives Hamas electricity. This, despite the fact that Hamas collects taxes from the residents of the Gaza Strip, and all the money goes into its coffers.

Gaza supporters of the Palestinian Hamas movement hold crossed-out portraits of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas (C) and prime minister Rami Hamdallah during a protest on April 14, 2017, in Khan Yunis. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)
Gaza supporters of the Palestinian Hamas movement hold crossed-out portraits of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas (C) and prime minister Rami Hamdallah during a protest on April 14, 2017, in Khan Yunis. (AFP/Said Khatib)

But then, this is Gaza, where anything is possible — including stealing residents’ money by imposing new taxes on top of old taxes, and manufacturing a humanitarian crisis in order to blame it on the Palestinian Authority and on Israel.

Hamas has a well-oiled policy of screwing things up, then crying foul. It is astonishing to watch it funnel tens of millions of dollars each year to its military wing, its rocket makers and its tunnel diggers, in pursuit of its relentless goal of destroying Israel, while simultaneously pleading that it cannot pay for water or fuel. Almost every day this past week, Hamas has organized marches of thousands of furious residents, who burn photographs of Abbas and of his prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, together with Israeli flags, of course.

Anyone who dares wonder aloud about Hamas’s cynical mismanagement is asking for trouble. A man named Mahmoud el-Zak, who is not a member of Fatah, was arrested and beaten this week. His crime? He dared to write about Hamas consuming electricity in Gaza without being willing to pay for it. The deterrent message was clear — it’s safer for Gazans to blame the PA and Israel.

No imminent solution appears likely. For years, the Abbas government in Ramallah has paid Gaza’s water and electricity bills. But recently something in the PA and Fatah leadership seems to have snapped. Hamas supplies electricity to its own units and institutions, as well as to its military, civilian and political wings — all at the PA’s expense. And the PA may not be willing to take it anymore.

In 2016, the PA’s overall budget was $4.14 billion, of which the Gaza Strip’s share was $1.65 billion. In other words, approximately 40 percent of PA funds is going to an entity under Hamas rule. Hamas, for its part, bolsters its coffers with various taxes that go to its military wing, which fights not only against Israel but also against the PA.

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/Mahmud Hams)

Hamas claims that the figures are misleading. It says that the PA receives hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the Gaza Strip, directly or indirectly (taxes, customs, and so on), and that the PA’s overall investment in Gaza is disproportionately small.

About a month ago, Hamas appointed a new management committee that functions as a de facto Gaza government. This did not go down well with the PA. It felt like a slap in the face for Ramallah, which pays not only Gaza’s bills, but also the salaries of 60,000 PA officials living and working in the Gaza Strip, almost all of whom are sitting at home with no real work because of Hamas’s takeover of Gaza’s government offices. Those officials’ salaries are actually the main economic engine of the Gaza Strip. Ramallah cut the salaries of those 60,000 officials by 30% — a signal to Hamas that unless it transfers the powers of government to Hamdallah, it will have to bear all the Gaza costs from now on.

Two leaders of Fatah, Ahmed Hils and Rawhi Fattouh, met with high-ranking Hamas officials on Wednesday in an effort to resolve the crisis. But afterward, the senior figures who had attended the meeting sounded skeptical about the possibility of compromise.

Fatah demands that Hamas first of all disband the new management committee, and ultimately give up its control of Gaza.

Senior political leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, Khalil al-Hayya, holds a press conference on April 18, 2017, in Gaza City. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)
Senior political leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, Khalil al-Hayya, holds a press conference on April 18, 2017, in Gaza City. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Khalil al-Hayya, a high-ranking Hamas official in Gaza, said that Hamas has no intention of doing so. The committee will not be disbanded, nor does Hamas intend to relinquish the last territorial bastion still under the control of a movement created by the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Hayya would say only that if Hamdallah’s government wanted to come to Gaza and solve its problems, it was welcome to do so. Hamdallah is unlikely to take up the invitation.

Meanwhile, the average Gazan is left paying more for many products than his compatriot in the West Bank, even though life in the Strip is much worse.

How so? Because of the multiple taxes Gazans pay on goods: one tax goes to the Palestinian Authority and another goes to Hamas’s treasury.

If Ahmed from Jabalia has his heart set on a new car, he will first pay the price of the car, plus the tax that the Palestinian Authority imposes. When the vehicle is brought into Gaza, however, he must also pay a “passage toll,” and yet another tax that Hamas collects based on the car’s value.

The same goes for other items including televisions and electrical appliances.

Hamas is not kind to the Gazans. If a Gazan merchant imports beef, Hamas collects a tax of 90 shekels ($25) for each head of cattle in addition to the tax on the truck that arrives to load the merchandise at the Kerem Shalom border crossing.

All of this underlines why tension and frustration are growing in Gaza. Unemployment is sky high — 41.7% in Gaza as compared with 18.2% in the West Bank (Israel’s unemployment rate is approximately 4.3%). Monthly salaries for those who do have a job are low — 1,600 shekels (a little over $400), compared to 2,000 shekels ($550) in the West Bank. Poverty is everywhere. And now the power is down again.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what is going to happen, eventually, to this barrel of gunpowder.

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