Cornered by US and Israel, Abbas could pull the plug on Gaza — and start a war

PA leader appears poised to cut the $96 million he sends monthly to the Hamas-run Strip, which would almost certainly plunge the coastal enclave into fighting

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 Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrives at the United Nations on September 25, 2018, in New York City.  (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas arrives at the United Nations on September 25, 2018, in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP)

Hamas parliamentarians convened in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday and announced breathlessly that Mahmoud Abbas’s presidency was unlawful.

Arab media quoted the lawmakers as saying that the Palestinian Authority leader “no longer represents the Palestinian people.”

This not a surprising statement given the organizational affiliation of the speakers, as Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party have long been at odds.

Nevertheless, the remarks underlined Abbas’s complex political situation on the eve of his speech at the UN General Assembly: It appears that Abbas has hit rock bottom, and it is doubtful he can make a comeback.

The PA president is suffering from an unprecedented dip in support in West Bank and Gaza public opinion polls, and is blamed by Gazans for the Strip’s humanitarian decline. Israel is not ready to engage in any dialogue with him, but at the same time expects him to accept responsibility for the Hamas-run coastal enclave.

It is possible that all this will lead to a radical UN speech by Abbas, which the PA leader has proven capable of delivering in the past.

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a slingshot to throw stones during a protest on the Gaza-Israel border on September 24, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

He may well attack those who have cornered him: the US, Israel, and probably Hamas.

He will accuse Israel of not honoring the Oslo Accords, and may announce that the Palestinians will be reexamining their agreements with the Jewish state.

But the bigger question is whether he will make the dramatic decision to cease the PA’s transfer of funds to the Gaza Strip.

His associates have hinted at this more than once, signaling it could happen at the beginning of October. It is possible, of course, that such a decision is only a threat and could be postponed indefinitely. But if it is carried out, it could be painful for Israel, not to mention fatal for US President Donald Trump’s peace plan.

A precarious situation in Gaza

The United Nations envoy to the Middle East, Nickolay Mladenov, warned Wednesday that Israel and Hamas are on the verge of a new war in Gaza.

A Palestinian official in the Strip told The Times of Israel this week that for the residents of the coastal enclave, a war between Israel and Hamas “is not a question of if, but when.”

US President Donald Trump (right) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations General Assembly on September 26, 2018, at UN Headquarters (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Almost every evening, thousands of Gazans now gather for violent demonstrations, at the Erez crossing and elsewhere, as part of Hamas’s attempts to signal to Israel that it wants an economic solution to the Gaza Strip.

The Egyptian efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah have not borne fruit at this stage, and the possibility of a long-term ceasefire with Israel has apparently fallen off the agenda.

The economic situation has once again reached an unprecedented low, stoking fury among Gazans that is being directed against Israel, the PA, Hamas, and even Egypt.

One can only imagine what will happen if Abbas decides to cut the $96 million he has been sending to Gaza each month. The chances that the powder keg known as Gaza would subsequently explode range from high to very high.

And so, ironically, the American and Israeli leaders who have made Abbas irrelevant and demoralized are now dependent on the PA president’s wishes. If he places sanctions on the Gaza Strip, he might drag Israel and the Netanyahu government into a bitter new conflict.

On Wednesday, the American president said that he “likes the idea of two states.” Netanyahu, for his part, later told reporters he was fine with the Palestinians having the right to defend themselves, though not “the right to hurt us.”

Perhaps these statements by the US and Israeli leaders were an attempt to lure Abbas back to the negotiating table.

The problem is that they may well be too little, too late to prevent another war in Gaza.

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