As Gaza approaches ‘famine,’ Israel, rather than world, appears most concerned
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As Gaza approaches ‘famine,’ Israel, rather than world, appears most concerned

Following US aid cuts from UNRWA, Palestinian residents hold near-daily protests and coastal enclave appears on brink of economic collapse

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.

A Palestinian man loads a horse-pulled cart with food aid outside the United Nations food distribution center in Gaza City on January 15, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
A Palestinian man loads a horse-pulled cart with food aid outside the United Nations food distribution center in Gaza City on January 15, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Residents of the Gaza Strip are growing increasingly desperate over food shortages, with some saying it’s only a matter of time before Palestinians march on the Erez crossing that straddles the border with Israel “just out of distress.”

“Gaza is heading towards famine,” a longtime friend of this reporter said. “It is only a question of time, and we will get there.”

He added, “There are already cases of families who simply don’t have anything to eat, and the UNRWA budget cuts will only make things worse” — a reference to recent US cuts to the UN Palestinian aid agency.

Recently, nearly every day has seen semi-spontaneous protests, mostly by civilians, who have no livelihood and are seeking to raise international awareness of their plight.

This week, a news agency broadcast an interview with a Khan Younis resident who was offering to sell his son, held in his arms.

“Every day his mother tells me to get him something to eat,” the man said, “and I have nothing to give him.” Behind him were dozens of residents protesting the economic situation in Gaza.

Monday and Tuesday saw general trade strikes in the Strip, perhaps born of a hope, or fantasy, that such a step would serve as a wake-up call to the world, Israel, Egypt or the Palestinian Authority.

But the world is far from being concerned with Gaza at the moment. The Strip is on the brink of economic collapse, but very few are taking an interest.

Hamas security forces stand guard at the Erez border crossing into Israel, in Beit Hanun, in the northern Gaza Strip on March 26, 2017. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Although Gazans tend to blame Israel for their situation, it is actually the Jewish state that seems to be trying to encourage improved economic conditions.

The Palestinian Authority recently decided to renew the electricity supply to Gaza by resuming payments for power generated by Israel (now providing power to homes for six hours, followed by 12 hours of darkness).

But the decision to renew the power supply was not due to a sudden stroke of generosity by the PA. According to sources, it was the result of an ultimatum by Israel: The Jewish state warned the PA that if it didn’t renew payments for the Gaza power bill, the Israeli government would cover the costs with PA tax money it collects. Ramallah understood the message and made a public show of renewing electricity payments.

At any rate, the two additional hours of power will not do much to change the economic situation in the Strip.

It was also Israel that recently went against standard policy by approving the entry of materials into Gaza that are considered dual-purpose — that is, they could be used by Hamas to build tunnels or manufacture weaponry.

Last week, wood supplies — in the past a source of tunnel beams — were allowed in to the Strip. Before that, approval was given to supplies of cement, iron, gas, fuels, and other materials.

The general hardship, however, means these dual-purpose materials are not in very high demand. One Gaza trader said there was only a 20 percent demand for the cement that Israel allowed in.

Perhaps the most pressing problem in Gaza these days is connected to government employees, both those of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

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

For more than two months, the 45,000 Hamas officials in Gaza have not received their wages. In Hamas’s view, the PA is supposed to pay, but the PA refuses due to the terror group’s refusal to hand over control of the territory.

On top of this are the thousands of PA officials who were forced out on pension. Possibly joining them now will be the 13,000 UNRWA officials, who can apparently expect to receive only half of their wages in the coming month as a result of US cuts.

And so economic activity in Gaza has been reduced dramatically. Unemployment figures have reached some 46.6%. Over a million people — half the population –need UNRWA food packages to survive the month.

One figure that should ring alarm bells in Israel relates to the demand for goods from the Jewish state. According to Palestinian figures, over a year ago the number of trucks carrying goods into the Gaza Strip every day was around 800-1,000, whereas now that has dropped to an average of just 370. This is not because of Israeli measures, but rather because the Gazans have no money to spend.

“There were over 100,000 police clarifications because of checks that bounced,” my friend said. “Every day workers are fired in the biggest trade companies, or they close.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks prior to attend a EU foreign affairs council at the European Council in Brussels, January 22, 2018. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP)

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? At the moment, it appears not. A reconciliation between bitter rivals Fatah and Hamas has faded (again). Hamas and the Fatah-dominated PA are still at loggerheads, separate and hostile.

Egyptian Intelligence Minister Khaled Fawzy, considered the godfather of the reconciliation process, was fired last week. The man chosen to replace him is Abbas Kamil, one of the great enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Or, in other words, not exactly the kind of person who sees Hamas as a strategic partner.

The heir to Mahmoud Abbas

The recent crisis between the PA and the US, between US President Donald Trump and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, again highlights the question of what will be “the day after” the Palestinian leader departs the political stage.

There are more than a few sources in the Palestinian territories who claim “the day after” is already here. Senior figures in Fatah and the PLO have already opened campaigns for the succession, even though Abbas is still ruling. Meanwhile, two of the names that have been raised in recent years seem a little less relevant due to deteriorating health.

One is the secretary-general of the PLO executive committee, Saeb Erekat, who recently underwent a lung transplant in the US.

The other is the head of the Palestinian general intelligence service, Majed Faraj. According to Ramallah sources, Faraj has not been in the best of health and has needed intensive treatment. It is not clear if it was for those reasons or others that Faraj did not travel with Abbas to Brussels to meet with representatives of the European Union this week. He also skipped a summit in Cairo.  He was at the opening of a recent PLO central committee conference in Ramallah but didn’t attend the second day of meetings.

Mahmoud al-Aloul, member of the Central Committee of Fatah. January 6, 2010. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

So who then is in the running? Deputy Chairman of Fatah Mahmoud al-Aloul has ostensibly emerged as one of the dominant forces. (The Fatah leadership is the body that will apparently decide the heir.) He is responsible for Fatah’s Tanzim militias, appears often at Fatah events, and has cast himself as more extreme than Abbas — perhaps boosting his support among party members in the process.

He is located in Nablus and there are those who claim al-Aloul is preparing his followers for a possible physical battle over the succession.

And then there is Jibril Rajoub, who continues to intensively deal with Palestinian sport and soccer, and Tawfik Tirawi who is still depicted as the “bad boy” of the Fatah leadership.

Not to be forgotten is the man in an Israeli prison, Marwan Barghouti, convicted for his part in the murder of five Israelis in terror attacks. He was and remains the most popular figure in the territories. These days, however, Barghouti doesn’t have a real grip on the Fatah leadership, since those closest to him are being kept at a distance.

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