In Gaza, deadly flames expose a very fragile standoff with Israel
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Analysis

In Gaza, deadly flames expose a very fragile standoff with Israel

After a fire kills 3 Palestinian children, Hamas points most of the blame at the PA. Plainly, it doesn't want a new war... for now

Avi Issacharoff

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.

The mother of the Abu Hindi family (L) mourns during the funeral of three of her sons who died in a fire caused by a candle at the family home, at the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on May 7, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED)
The mother of the Abu Hindi family (L) mourns during the funeral of three of her sons who died in a fire caused by a candle at the family home, at the al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on May 7, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED)

In one sudden and tragic moment on Friday night, discussion over the latest escalation of violence between Hamas and Israel was relegated to secondary importance for some residents of Gaza. Local media began reporting extensively on an incident in the northwest of the Strip, in the Shati refugee camp.

Three toddlers from the al-Hindi family had perished in a fire in their home, caused by the candles lit in their room. The horror was reinforced by images of the three bodies that quickly spread across social media and on news sites that decided not to blur out the pictures.

By Saturday morning, a vitriolic blame game between Hamas and Fatah was in full swing, with Israel also being connected to the incident.

At the center of the stormy debate is the question of who is responsible for the continual power outages that led the bereaved family (like tens of thousands of other Gaza families) to light candles.

Palestinian mourners carry the bodies of three children who were killed in a fire caused by a candle, during their funeral in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Saturday, May 7, 2016. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)
Palestinian mourners carry the bodies of three children who were killed in a fire caused by a candle, during their funeral in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, Saturday, May 7, 2016. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

The accusations began with members of the Hindi family themselves. On Saturday morning, they published pictures of some of the men in the extended family standing amid the rubble of what was left of the house, holding portraits of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

On the pictures it was written “child killers.”

The response from Ramallah came swiftly.

Within a few hours, Jamal al-Muhsin, a member of Fatah’s central committee, said the Hindi family themselves were responsible for the deaths of the three children because they did not heed the instructions of the Gaza authorities, who urge residents not to leave candles burning in homes when dealing with power outages.

Muhsin, who is considered one of the closest men to Abbas, also said that Hamas was responsible for the incident, because it does not allow the government of Hamdallah to operate in the Strip and deal with the power problem.

Hamas's former Gaza prime minister and leader, Ismail Haniyeh (right), shakes hands with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah at Haniyeh's house in Gaza City, October 9, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Said Khatib)
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (right) shakes hands with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah at Haniyeh’s house in Gaza City, October 9, 2014. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Additionally, in an attempt to ease the criticism against the PA over the fire in Gaza, Abbas spoke over the phone to the father of the three killed children. Hamdallah also announced the family will be given a new house and some money.

But the story doesn’t end there.

At the funeral for the three children Saturday afternoon, Hamas’s Gaza head Ismail Haniyeh accused the government in Ramallah of strongly opposing a seaport in Gaza and refusing to “establish projects” to lift the siege — the security blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on Gaza, to prevent its Hamas terror rulers from importing weaponry.

“Who bears the responsibility?” asked Haniyeh. “Who takes $70 million in taxes each month? Who insists on imposing a tax on fuel for the power station? Who refuses to extend the gas line from Israel to the power station in Gaza?” Haniyeh fumed, while noting that the PA’s shortcomings did not detract from “the crimes of the occupation” — i.e. Israel.

On Sunday morning, residents of the Strip awoke to find a massive billboard placed at a central Gazan junction that featured blood splattered across Abbas and Hamdallah.

“Our blood is on your necks,” the billboard says.

At the heart of the power supply dispute is an excise tax on fuel that comes from Israel via the PA. Hamas refuses to pay and demands the government in Ramallah pony up.

The PA is paying for half of the tax now and says Hamas must pay the other half.

The Gaza power plant shut down after running out of fuel. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib /Flash90)
The Gaza power plant shut down after running out of fuel. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Meanwhile, the power company claims that it does not have enough money to buy sufficient gas. One can guess, then, that the power outages will continue. And therefore, the residents of Gaza will continue to use candles for light.

Hamas and Israel: A love-hate story

Still, even as Hamas speaks out against the PA, it seems to be doing whatever possible to avoid another round of fighting with Israel, limiting itself in its response to Israeli tunnel-seeking incursions into the Strip and seemingly accommodating, however grudgingly, Israeli activity within Gazan territory.

Israeli soldiers stand guard with their tank along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz on May 4, 2016. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)
Israeli soldiers stand guard with their tank along the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip near the southern Israeli kibbutz of Nahal Oz on May 4, 2016. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

In recent days the Israel Defense Forces have operated just inside Gaza – in a strip of 150 meters from the border within Palestinian territory. Hamas was content with firing a limited number of mortars into open areas in protest.

What it did not do was fire rockets at Israeli towns or to send out its special forces for a raid by land or by sea.

During the days that the IDF operated within the strip, Hamas sent messages to Israel via Qatar, Egypt, the UN and others to say that it was not interested in another war. An agreement was indirectly created between the two sides — with the help of Egyptian mediators — under which Israel will leave this inside “perimeter” soon, Hamas will cease firing, and during the fighting Hamas won’t do more than fire a few perfunctory rounds.

A picture taken on May 6, 2016 from the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip shows the exit of a newly unearthed Hamas attack tunnel. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)
A picture taken on May 6, 2016 from the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip shows the exit of a newly unearthed Hamas attack tunnel. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Practically speaking, in a manner that it would never admit to, Hamas thus signaled it would not go to war over the recent Israeli operations on the border. Even in Haniyeh’s weekly Friday night speech, routinely full of pathos and battle cries against Israel, the former prime minister chose this time to emphasize that Hamas does not want a war.

Yet the cold status quo could change. Within Hamas’s military wing, some are demanding the group take violent action with an “opening strike” that they hope will eventually bring about the lifting of the siege of Gaza.

There is also increasing support among ordinary Gazans for a new round of fighting, especially among those who have little to lose.

One errant Israeli shell or Palestinian mortar, as I wrote here on Friday, will strengthen advocates for war in both camps. But a deadly accident, like a candle knocked over, can ignite the region just the same.

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