Economic collapse or war: Hamas’s cynical, desperate bid to pressure Israel, PA
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AnalysisNobody's looking as Hamas confiscates Egypt's fuel shipments

Economic collapse or war: Hamas’s cynical, desperate bid to pressure Israel, PA

The terror group is holding its subjects in Gaza hostage in a dangerous gambit to improve their lot while retaining its military strength

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.

Hamas's leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, center, chants slogans with protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Hamas's leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, center, chants slogans with protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip's border with Israel, Friday, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Israel and Hamas have been conducting negotiations in recent weeks for a ceasefire along the Gaza border — sort of.

Gaza’s incendiary kites, rockets, protests and riots on the border, and the Israeli strikes in the Strip, have been the most important forms of communication in the “dialogue” forged between the sides.

In addition there are diplomatic messages sent by Hamas through various channels explaining that it is interested in reaching an arrangement with Israel. But at this stage in the negotiations, it is the weapons (including the kites and balloons) that are doing most of the talking.

The good news is that both Hamas and Israel appear to want a ceasefire. The less good news is that they don’t seem able to agree on what such a ceasefire would look like.

File: Israeli firefighters battle a blaze in a field in southern Israel caused by kites flown by Palestinians from the Gaza Strip on June 5, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The various emissaries shuttling between the sides — UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov, Qatari envoy Muhammad al-Amadi, and as always, officials from Egyptian intelligence — have told Israel more than once that Hamas is not interested in war. Hamas, rather, wants a long-term arrangement that would give Israel years of quiet. In return, it seeks the lifting of what it calls the “Israeli blockade” of the Strip, meaning the manner in which Gaza is cut off from the Israeli economy. Hamas would like to see a resumption of trade with Israel, Gazans being allowed to work in Israel, and other measures that would revive the territory’s ailing economy.

There are many on the Israeli side who are advocating a similar arrangement.

The problem, as always, is security. Hamas is willing to discuss a freeze on attacks against Israel, but not dismantling its military infrastructure in Gaza. It won’t destroy its rocket arsenals and it won’t stop building tunnels, including attack tunnels that reach across the border into Israeli territory and under Israeli towns.

To this Hamas insistence, conveyed by the international envoys, Israel has said it views Hamas’s military infrastructure as a standing threat and will not discuss any long-term ceasefire that does not lead to the group’s disarmament.

A Palestinian man inspects a destroyed car after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City, which the Israeli military says it destroyed because it belonged to a leader of the incendiary kite and balloon attacks on southern Israel, on June 17, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Pressure on Israel to pressure the PA

On Wednesday afternoon, a small mushroom cloud could be seen, by residents of the Israeli villages of Kissufim and Ein Hashlosha, billowing over central Gaza at the site of the Bureij refugee camp.

It wasn’t garbage burning in the summer heat, but rather the remnant of an incident that took place just moments earlier – a warning rocket fired by Israel at a group of Palestinians trying to deploy incendiary kites. No one was hurt in the incident, and no kites were launched in its immediate aftermath, but the lull lasted only a few hours. By Wednesday evening, several new brush fires were burning on the Israeli side.

Fires often take their toll at this time of year in the agricultural areas around the Gaza Strip, though the damage from the hundreds of incendiary devices flown over the border in recent weeks looks to the untrained eye to be immense, and many areas around Gaza still smell like smoke.

A Palestinian prepares a balloon that will be attached to flammable materials and then flown toward Israel near the Israeli-Gazan border, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip June 17, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Yet for Hamas, the kite and balloon initiative is less an attack on Israel than an attempt to prevent one. It’s a relatively low-impact way for young operatives to strike out at Israel and thereby let off steam that would otherwise be directed toward deadlier operations — to which Israel’s response would be far more painful.

It also helps divert frustration away from the Hamas regime itself. It was Hamas that decided — in light of Gaza’s dire economic situation and the realization that continuing the border protests could lead to war — to switch to a relatively primitive means of attack that mostly damaged property. Hamas officials seem to be hoping that their kites and balloons will allow the organization to maintain its image as aggressive toward Israel, while ensuring that Israel can’t slip back into ignoring Gaza as it did before the spring protests began – and do this without drawing Israel into a conflict.

Three missiles from Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system are seen from Gaza City on June 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

There is nothing spontaneous about the kite and balloon attacks. It’s an effort arranged and managed by Hamas. Its purpose is to force Israelis to pay attention to Gaza as part of Hamas’s bid for ceasefire talks — and to pressure the Netanyahu government to, ironically, pressure the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to lift the PA’s own blockade on Gaza, which has worsened the Strip’s financial crisis significantly in recent months.

Hamas expects Israel, its greatest enemy, to cause another of Hamas’s enemies, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, to ease the economic stress in Gaza.

The PA froze salary payments to its clerks in the Strip in March. In May, following an outcry, it resumed paying half the salaries. That’s about 60,000 employees who sit at home in Gaza without jobs in the Hamas-run government. Add to that the 40,000 or so Hamas employees who have been living off just 40 percent of their income for several years now and one begins to see the broader picture of an economy that isn’t just stalled; it’s collapsing.

Then there’s the latest news from UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency, which announced it will find it difficult to pay full salaries to its employees in the coming months – that’s some 15,000 workers in Gaza alone. Before the crisis, Gaza faced an unemployment rate somewhere around 44%; with it, the situation may be becoming genuinely untenable.

A picture taken on June 1, 2018 shows a girl running past hovels near a sewage water pool at a poor neighborhood in Gaza City. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

It is no wonder, then, that Hamas is willing to risk war to pressure Israel to, in turn, put pressure on the PA to release the salaries to its Gazan employees, most of whom are Fatah members.

Abbas has so far refused to do so, and has even delayed payments to the Israeli healthcare system for Gazans who are treated in Israeli hospitals, a policy that is leading to some denials of service by Israeli hospitals and, in some cases, could lead to unnecessary deaths in Gaza. That’s happening even as Gaza is experiencing a shortage in vital medicines and while the Gazan health system is still reeling from the burden of treating the thousands who were wounded in the border clashes with IDF troops.

As if that weren’t enough, Gazans continue to face chronic electricity shortages, despite the Egyptian decision to start sending regular shipments of fuel for the Strip’s power station.

Egyptian trucks carrying fuel enter Gaza’s power plant in Nusseirat, in the central Gaza Strip, Wednesday, June 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Here the complex nature of Hamas’s rule becomes even more evident. Something astounding has happened with each Egyptian shipment over the past month – it has disappeared. Far from the eyes of the international media, where Hamas has moaned ceaselessly about the Israeli blockade, the organization has been confiscating the diesel fuel shipments for its own purposes, including selling them on Gaza’s black market for easy cash. It is doing this even as Egypt’s own power lines into the Strip have suddenly, without explanation, stopped sending electricity to Gaza’s grid over the last month. Gazans are now left in a recurring cycle of four hours of electricity followed by 12 to 16 hours without it, day in and day out.

Hamas is thus on both sides of the problem. Its organizational needs must be served, even at the cost of further draining Gaza’s economy and sending desperate Gazans into ever deeper distress, while it works hard to pressure Gaza’s neighbors – Israel, the PA and Egypt – to ease their economic pressure in exchange for quiet.

Hamas’s only reprieve in recent weeks has been Egypt’s decision to open its border crossing in Rafah for the duration of Ramadan and beyond.

In Gaza’s despair and under Hamas’s mismanagement, while the group conducts a low-level conflict with Israel that is meant to relieve the economic crisis but which could just as easily escalate into all-out war, that partially open western border is the pinnacle of Hamas’s achievements for its struggling subjects.

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