In Gaza, Hamas and the PA are at each other’s throats again

The non-payment of salaries and poor economic conditions are fueling unrest in the Strip, while Israel’s withholding of PA tax revenue isn’t helping in the West Bank either

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.

Illustrative photo of cars being transported near the Erez Crossing into Gaza. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of cars being transported near the Erez Crossing into Gaza. (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

By the end of last week, dozens of houses throughout the Gaza Strip were flooded by rainwater. Three babies froze to death. The humanitarian conditions continue to be bad, perhaps the worst in the past two decades, due to the withholding of the salaries of PA and Hamas employees. And yet, amid all the tumult, Hamas (the same organization that condemned the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris) found the time to clash with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah.

It started before the last rainfall, with a visit of the Palestinian unity government ministers to Gaza that ended in bitter disappointment for the residents there. Senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk promised that all disputes between Hamas and the PA were resolved. However, immediately afterward, a PA statement declared that nothing had been decided. From there on, things began to deteriorate quickly.

The transfer of authority at an Israel-Gaza checkpoint is a case in point. Up until last week, Hamas administered its own checkpoint, called Arba-Arba (4-4), a kilometer south of the official Palestinian checkpoint near the Erez Crossing with Israel. The official checkpoint, which is called Hamsa-Hamsa (5-5), has been manned by PA representatives working under the Palestinian Civil Affairs Ministry. According to the arrangement, Hamas would check every Palestinian arriving from or leaving to Israel, as would the PA.

Last week, though, Hamas decided to open another checkpoint at Hamsa-Hamsa and erected a makeshift office there staffed by members of Hamas. The PA then decided to evacuate the site, and since then, only patients seeking urgent medical care in Israel or the West Bank are allowed to cross at Erez.

Meanwhile, Hamas has launched a comprehensive campaign to arrest Fatah members in the Gaza Strip. Over the weekend, several ATMs were smashed in several branches of the Bank of Palestine — intended as a warning to the PA lest it seek to pay the salaries of PA employees without paying the workers of the Hamas government as well.

In addition, a bomb went off next to the home of Ihab Bsiso, the spokesman for the nominal Hamas-Fatas unity government who currently resides in the West Bank (and is originally from Gaza), and the offices of a PA media company were torched.

Residents of Gaza told The Times of Israel that the situation was similar to the one that immediately preceded the 50-day summer conflict. They meant that just like then, there have no salary payments, Hamas has demolished and closed down ATMs to prevent the payments to PA workers, and the humanitarian situation is in decline.

With that, Hamas has told the press in no uncertain terms that it is not seeking confrontation with Israel. At this juncture, when the transfer of construction building materials into the Gaza Strip is advancing, as are the exports of produce, it’s doubtful Hamas has any real interest in another war. The Gaza organization’s problem is primarily with the PA, which is not prepared to take dramatic steps so long as Hamas won’t give up its leadership of the Strip.

The potential of an escalation with Israel exists, but it’s possible that right now, the danger is more immediate in the West Bank. Israel’s decision to freeze the transfer of tax funds to the PA — in response to Mahmoud Abbas’s move to join the International Criminal Court — is preventing the payment of salaries to its workers, primarily in the West Bank, but in Gaza as well.

These salaries are the dominant driving force of the Palestinian economy in the West Bank, and withholding the funds only exacerbates the crisis. It’s conceivable that the PA will ultimately find a temporary solution, perhaps by borrowing the money from one of the Gulf states. But if the funds continue to be withheld, it will certainly not quell the tensions. Among the Palestinian public, animosity toward Israel is only getting worse, and the PA’s motivation to cooperate with Israeli security forces is faltering.

For now, the security cooperation has been upheld, despite threats to call it off following the death of a Palestinian official after a demonstration in early December, but in the long term, Israel has many causes for concern, even as elections here loom.

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