As economy crumbles and with ‘nothing to lose,’ war in Gaza grows likely
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Analysis

As economy crumbles and with ‘nothing to lose,’ war in Gaza grows likely

Even a PA increase in electricity is probably not enough to stave off a conflict; meanwhile, the rockets keep coming

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.

Palestinian protesters carry a wounded man during clash with Israeli forces near the Israel-Gaza border east of the southern Gaza strip city of Khan Yunis on December 29, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)
Palestinian protesters carry a wounded man during clash with Israeli forces near the Israel-Gaza border east of the southern Gaza strip city of Khan Yunis on December 29, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

Just a few hours after Israel made known through unofficial channels on Wednesday that it held the Islamic Jihad terrorist group responsible for shooting a barrage into Israel on Friday, another three mortar shells were fired from the coastal enclave into Israel.

The three shells all fell in open areas, thankfully. But one does not need to be an officer in an elite unit to understand that someone in Gaza is looking to escalate the situation and may even be looking for war.

The question is, who?

While Israel continues its hunt for the group responsible for the fire — and tries to figure out to what extent the ruling Hamas terrorist group turned a blind eye — Gazans are struggling to figure out how to deal with the worsening humanitarian situation.

“War no longer seems like such a bad option for us,” one resident told this reporter.

From conversations with Gazans, the situation in the Hamas-ruled Strip appears dire, perhaps worse than ever: from the continually rising unemployment rate, to the deep poverty, the frustration and despair among the young, and, of course, the ailing economy of Gaza.

(FILES) This file photo taken on July 24, 2017 shows a Palestinian tailor using a sewing machine while an assistant irons a shirt during the few hours of mains electricity supply the residents of the Gaza Strip receive every day, in Gaza City. / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS
This photo taken on July 24, 2017 shows a Palestinian tailor using a sewing machine while an assistant irons a shirt during the few hours of mains electricity supply the residents of the Gaza Strip receive every day, in Gaza City. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

“Nobody is buying in the stores, businesses are closing, people no longer have anything to lose,” one resident told me.

He said that since April, when the Palestinian Authority decided to limit the electricity supply to Gaza and to cut the salaries of its officials, there has been a gradual slowdown of economic activity.

Of the 60,000 PA officials in Gaza, one-third were pensioned off, leading to a severe reduction in their income. Others had their salaries reduced by 30 percent.

On top of that, some 45,000 Hamas officials have not been paid for the past two months. Their last salary was received at the beginning of November.

As a result, the Gazan economy is slowly grinding to a halt.

“The checks don’t stop bouncing,” a resident told me. “Everyone’s checks. It is now impossible to accept checks because people don’t have the money to cover them.”

Palestinian children do their homework by candlelight during a power outage in Gaza City on September 11, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

In addition, the electricity supply has been dropping: In recent weeks residents have only received three hours of power a day.

Some of the water is unfit for drinking, but many children drink it because they have no alternative. This could lead to an outbreak of disease — which would not stop at the borders of Gaza. There is also a strike among hospital cleaning staff, further heightening the risks of a public health crisis.

In the Strip, as a result of these conditions, there is a growing sense that there may be no alternative to an escalation of hostilities with Israel.

Is Israel the pressuring PA to increase electricity?

The announcement Wednesday by the Palestinian Authority that it will restart payments for 50 megawatts of electricity for Gaza may put the brakes on that, temporarily.

Was that decision made due to Israeli pressure? It is hard to say, but it’s possible.

Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City on December 29, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

The PA has still not lifted the economic sanctions it imposed on Gaza eight months ago, and it may be due to Palestinian and Israeli  pressure that it saw some assistance for Gazans was needed.

However,  another few hours of daily electricity are unlikely to solve Gaza’s problems.

The reduced salaries of the PA’s officials, alongside the non-payment of Hamas salaries, are tantamount to an economic death sentence for the Strip. If it doesn’t happen in the next month, it will happen a month after that.

The Iranian connection

Meanwhile, in the battlefield there have been a few changes.

On Saturday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman revealed that Iran was behind the near-daily rocket launches from Gaza last month, the largest incidence of missile fire from the Strip since the 2014 Hamas-Israel war.

A Palestinian Hamas police officer looks at a billboard bearing a portrait of slain Israeli soldier Oron Shaul in Gaza City on December 29, 2017. The writing in Arabic reads: ”As long as our heroes don’t see freedom and light: This captive will never see freedom” (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

This is a dramatic development.

After a long period in which Israel believed other terror groups were responsible for the increase in rocket fire, it turns out that Islamic Jihad also took part in the attempt to bring the sides to war — perhaps under instruction from Iran.

Islamic Jihad usually fires rockets or mortar shells at Israel after coordination with Hamas.

But now it appears likely that those responsible were members of Islamic Jihad who were not following orders and were firing at Israel without the knowledge of their organization’s leadership.

Hamas, for its part, continues to act to prevent rocket fire and other attacks against Israel. Late last week, the terror organization physically intervened to prevent attacks.

However, it is not clear whether this will be enough to prevent the powder keg of Gaza from exploding.

With so many factors leading to a wider escalation, along with incendiary actions by some groups, the security situation is growing worse. And although neither Israel nor Hamas wants war, it appears more and more likely.

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