After summer vacation, Middle East gears up for conflict as usual

Between renewed tensions over the Temple Mount, Palestinian prisoners threatening a new strike and Gaza sinking further into despair, the coming weeks promise to be difficult

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.

Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

We could be entering one of the most complex and problematic few weeks in Israeli-Palestinian relations in recent times. And the just-ended visit of the American delegation headed by Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of President Donald Trump, to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is unlikely to soften the turbulence.

Let’s start with this coming Tuesday, the day on which Israel Police will be carrying out a “pilot” for visits to the Temple Mount by Knesset members. Just like the first episode of an American television series that is aired in order to test viewer response, the police will attempt to examine how the fervent Muslim “viewers” will react to the sight of Jewish Israeli lawmakers going up to the holy site.

As if the events surrounding the Al-Aqsa Mosque in July were not enough, now we will be getting this new Israeli show, starring right-wing Knesset members who will likely seize the opportunity to show their commitment to Jerusalem, to the Temple Mount and especially to their voters.

Then, next Friday, Muslims will observe Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice. The Jewish New Year and holiday season will begin slightly more than two weeks after that, bringing renewed tensions over the Temple Mount, as every year. The UN General Assembly is also scheduled to convene at the end of September, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will be giving a potentially dramatic speech there.

Once again, there are rumors that the PA will ask for unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state and express its desire to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague (we have been down that road before) and 22 international treaties (that road, too).

Some of the Palestinian security prisoners being held in Israel are also claiming that the agreement granting them a second family visit per month, which was reached at the end of the prisoners’ hunger strike, was never enacted, and warning that they will consider further measures after Eid al-Adha.

Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on July 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)

On top of all this, there is the general commotion over the Gaza Strip. According to reports being disseminated in the Arab and Israeli media by supporters of Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’s rival, the Rafah Border Crossing will be opened permanently after Eid al-Adha.

But Salah al-Bardawil, a high-ranking Hamas official, put a damper on the enthusiasm when he said on Wednesday night that members of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate had notified a Hamas delegation that there was no plan to open the border crossing on a permanent basis. For now, it seems that both sides are hoping that it will be opened from time to time — also an unusual event.

Should there be any change for the better in the customary schedule of opening Rafah, this will be a significant milestone in the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Egypt, between Hamas and Egypt, and also between Hamas and the Gaza Strip (on one side) and the Palestinian Authority and the West Bank (on the other). The Egyptians have said time and again in recent years that they would agree to open the border crossing only if members of the Palestinian Authority’s security services were present there.

If the Rafah border crossing should be opened even for two days per week, this would mean that Cairo was taking control away from Abbas and giving it to Dahlan and Hamas. Due to the significance of such an act, it seems likely that Egypt will keep juggling — opening the crossing occasionally but mostly keeping it closed.

In any event, the Gaza Strip is headed toward a complete severance from the West Bank thanks to — or because of — several players: Abbas, Dahlan, Hamas and the United Arab Emirates. It seems that everything that has been happening regarding the Strip in recent weeks has been taking place in the shadow of the Palestinian rivalry between Dahlan and Hamas versus Abbas, and also between the United Arab Emirates and Egypt versus Qatar.

Egyptian security forces stand guard at the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on August 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)
Egyptian security forces stand guard at the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip on August 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

Here is a summary of previous episodes:

Hamas announced the establishment of a management committee that would serve as a government of sorts in Gaza. Palestinian Authority officials, taking this act as a provocation, enacted a series of punitive measures against Hamas. Among other things, Abbas reduced the number of hours during which Gaza would receive electricity (by paying Israel less for Gaza’s power), cut the salaries of the PA officials, sent thousands of PA officials in Gaza (most of whom are Dahlan supporters) into retirement, and kept Gazans from receiving medical treatment in Israel and in West Bank hospitals.

The man who hurried to rescue Gaza was none other than Mohammed, Abbas’s current main rival and Hamas’s previous nemesis. Dahlan made up with Hamas and offered the Gaza Strip a chunk of cash that came from the United Arab Emirates. The Emirates, which were never previously known for affection toward Hamas, offered the money to help Dahlan and, mainly, to weaken Qatar’s influence upon Hamas.

Dahlan and his friend Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, showered Hamas with unexpected and enticing financial offers (including providing electricity from a power plant on the Egyptian side of Rafah) in exchange for certain concessions regarding control of Gaza and allowing Dahlan a foothold there. Hamas accepted, and this week the United Arab Emirates made its first monthly transfer of $15 million — slightly more than 50 million shekels per month, for a total of 600 million shekels per year — a significant sum, and quite enough to create competition with Qatar.

Dahlan has people working intensively in the Gaza Strip even though he has not gone there himself. His wife, Jalila, completed another visit to Gaza this week, during which she distributed aid packages to poor families and arranged a mass wedding for needy young couples.

The man in charge of the financial aspect of Dahlan’s operation in Gaza is Majd Abu Shimala, a close associate. Also working there are Dahlan’s old friends from Fatah’s Shabiba youth movement — Sufian Abu Zaida, Samir Masharawi (who is supposed to be coming back to Gaza soon), and Sami Abu Samhadana. Dahlan managed to use the trap that Abbas set for Hamas to re-establish his status, paint himself as Gaza’s savior and Hamas’s ally, and, perhaps in the future, as Abbas’s successor as well.

Egyptian trucks carrying fuel enter the southern Gaza Strip from Egypt through the Rafah border crossing on June 21, 2017. (AFP / SAID KHATIB)
Egyptian trucks carrying fuel enter the southern Gaza Strip from Egypt through the Rafah border crossing on June 21, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)

And to think that the Palestinian president could have avoided all this if he had only stopped to consider the possible consequences before beginning his punitive campaign against Hamas.

The humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip has not even begun to improve. The results of the agreements between Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Hamas and Dahlan are not being felt on the ground, at least for now. The residents of the Gaza Strip still receive only three to four hours of daily electricity followed by 12-hour blackouts. They have running water once every four days; 110,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage flow into the sea every day and the border crossing is still closed.

Tensions between Hamas and elements identified with Islamic State have also increased due to the first suicide attack of its kind, which killed a member of Hamas’s security forces. Yes, Hamas, which brought suicide bombings to the Palestinian arena as far back as late 1993, got a taste of its own medicine. A former member of Hamas who defected to Islamic State evidently blew himself up in a Hamas position near the Egyptian border. Hamas responded by arresting dozens of Salafi jihadist operatives, and the sense in Gaza is that Hamas will be stepping up its violence against these groups.

The troubles in Gaza do not end here. Abbas is expected to meet soon with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss internal Palestinian reconciliation, but it is doubtful whether this meeting will lead to a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, which are so deeply at odds, with Gazans caught in the middle.

Illustrative photo of Palestinian woman who sits next to her luggage as she waits to cross to the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, October 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)
Illustrative photo of Palestinian woman who sits next to her luggage as she waits to cross to the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, in Rafah, Gaza Strip, October 19, 2016. (AP Photo/Adel Hana, File)

What about Abbas? Nobody knows. It is hard to understand his recent actions — his congratulatory remarks to North Korea, his financial support of Venezuela, the arrests of journalists, the restrictions on Facebook posts. The same goes for his statements to the media, in particular. All these things have only intensified the feeling of disgust in the West Bank with Abbas and the gang that surrounds him.

The Palestinian Authority is suffering, more than ever before, from an image of a corrupt organization that constantly violates human rights. If elections were to be held today in the West Bank, Fatah would be in worse trouble than ever. Quite a few people within Fatah are opposed to Abbas, but say so mostly behind closed doors for fear of reprisal by the president and his associates.

The Palestinian public is also not all that impressed with Abbas’s statements about stopping security cooperation with Israel. On the contrary: they see such statements as an insult, since it is obvious to every Palestinian that this cooperation is still going on — perhaps not at past highs, but still at a significant level in terms of intelligence and operations.

This sense that the young generation in the West Bank has lost confidence in its leadership, along with the constant political and economic frustration, is creating highly unstable ground. So much so, as to call to mind the dramatic events that took place in several Arab countries early in the decade.

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