Eyeing his trip to Trump, Abbas takes on Hamas, reins in hunger-strike protests
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Eyeing his trip to Trump, Abbas takes on Hamas, reins in hunger-strike protests

Why has the PA president chosen this moment to stop funding Gaza’s electricity, and why is he keeping the lid on West Bank anger? Because Washington beckons

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 President Mahmoud Abbas attends the summit of the Arab League at the Dead Sea, Jordan, Wednesday, March 29, 2017. Arab leaders are gathering for an annual summit where the long-stalled quest for Palestinian statehood is to take center stage. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the summit of the Arab League at the Dead Sea, Jordan, Wednesday, March 29, 2017. Arab leaders are gathering for an annual summit where the long-stalled quest for Palestinian statehood is to take center stage. (AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)

If anyone doubted the sincerity of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas intended “disengagement” from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, the PA’s official announcement on Thursday made clear that the rais has made up his mind. PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh formally notified the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, that as of next month, the PA will stop paying Israel for providing electricity to the Gaza Strip.

This is high drama, for several reasons.

The first is symbolic, in that the Palestinian Authority is taking its first official step toward separating from the Gaza Strip and shifting responsibility for it to Hamas.

The second is on the practical level. Gaza’s residents receive, on average, six hours of electricity per day. This is because the Gaza power station has stopped working. Israel supplies the Strip with approximately 30 percent of its electricity consumption. Were that supply to be interrupted, instead of six hours of electricity per day Gazans would be lucky to get two.

Any further reduction in the supply of electricity will undoubtedly lead to unrest, and no one knows where that unrest could lead. Public fury could focus on Hamas, but past experience shows that it would probably be directed toward Israel in the end. This could prompt raised tensions or another round of conflict.

Israel, therefore, faces a dilemma. Should it pay for the supply of electricity to Gaza, including for the offices of high-ranking Hamas officials such as Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar? Or, with the bills unpaid, should it cut off the power, and risk bringing the next war closer?

A power plant in Gaza City is pictured from behind a fence on April 16, 2017. The Gaza Strip's only functioning power plant was out of action after running out of fuel, the head of the territory's electricity provider told AFP. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)
A power plant in Gaza City is pictured from behind a fence on April 16, 2017. AFP/Mahmud Hams)

Gaza’s inhabitants can only wait and watch. Hamas is unwilling to give in to the PA’s demands to hand responsibility for Gaza to Rami Hamdallah’s government in Ramallah. Fatah and the PA insist that unless control is handed over, Hamas will have to support the inhabitants of Gaza from now on.

Stopping the payments for electricity is only the first in a series of intended PA measures against Hamas, and by extension against Gaza. Another measure that the upper echelon in Ramallah is considering is sending the former members of the Palestinian Authority’s security agencies in the Gaza Strip into early retirement. These are thousands of people, almost all of whom identify with Fatah. Their problem is that it’s the wrong Fatah.

Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)
Mohammad Dahlan in 2006 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

The PA security agencies in Gaza are affiliated, at one level or another, with Mohammed Dahlan, Abbas’s long-time rival. This is why the PA is considering punishing Hamas and Gaza specifically through the former members of those very security agencies. Instead of paying them full salaries, they could be retired and receive a reduced allowance. Such a measure could lead to a decline in internal commerce in Gaza, a shortage of cash, and a fall in Hamas’s revenues. It would therefore hurt both of Abbas’s rival camps — Dahlan’s supporters and Hamas.

What made the Palestinian Authority decide now, of all times, to get tough on Hamas?

The opening act was Hamas’s decision to appoint an administrative committee — a government of sorts — to manage the Gaza Strip’s affairs. This was interpreted in Ramallah as a slap in the face.

The PA then imposed a 30% cutback in PA officials’ salaries, with the main goal evidently to strike at Dahlan and Hamas at the same time. This was followed by the PA’s refusal to make fuel excise tax payments, which led to a work stoppage at the Gaza power station. Now comes the PA’s threatened imminent halt in payments for the supply of electricity from Israel to Gaza.

Head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Yoav (Poly) Mordechai, and the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh signed an agreement to revitalize the Israeli–Palestinian Joint Water Committee, January 15 2017 (COGAT)
Head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Yoav (Poly) Mordechai, left, and the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh signed an agreement to revitalize the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, January 15, 2017. (COGAT)

High-ranking Fatah officials and close associates of Abbas sound convinced of the rightness of their cause. Minister al-Sheikh, in closed meetings, has been alleging that high-ranking members of Hamas don’t pay for their electricity. He describes Gaza’s rulers in harsh terms, to put it mildly, that include casting aspersions on their mothers’ virtue.

Al-Sheikh’s “flattery” aside, the complaints by high-ranking Fatah officials sound well-founded. High-ranking officials told the Times of Israel that for all practical purposes, the Palestinian Authority has been bankrolling the Islamist “revolution” in Gaza for more than a decade.

“It’s ridiculous,” al-Sheikh said. “And as far as we’re concerned, it’s over. We have given them clear conditions. Ahmed Hils and Rawhi Fattouh have met with Hamas representatives Razi Hamed, Salah Bardawil, and Khalil al-Hayya. We handed them a paper with three simple points: Hand over control of Gaza to the government [in Ramallah]; we will go to general elections within six months; and give us an answer within a week.

“That was on April 18. As of today [April 27], they have not gotten back to us. When we tried to talk with Hamas’s leadership in Qatar, they told us to talk to Gaza. When we tried to talk with Gaza, they told us to talk with Qatar. They are playing for time, but as far as we are concerned, the moment of truth has come for Gaza. The inhabitants should hold demonstrations against Hamas — an intifada, as far as we are concerned.”

There’s another reason for the timing of Abbas’s get tough on Hamas moves, however. He’s due in Washington next week to meet US President Donald Trump. As a PA president confronting an Islamist terror-government, he assesses he’ll get a warmer reception.

Hamas’s new ‘charter’

Hamas is expected to announce its new charter next week. It will most likely contain nothing new, either ideologically or in practical terms. It certainly won’t bring more electricity to Gaza, and contrary to what Hamas expects, it may not change its image all that much.

Still, it is interesting to see the discourse that the possibility of a new charter created within Hamas. Palestinian sources say that the main influences on Hamas’s decision to change its charter are Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, ruler of Qatar, and Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahdha Party, the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia.

Yahya Sinwar, the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends the opening of a new mosque in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 24, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)
Yahya Sinwar, the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, attends the opening of a new mosque in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 24, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)

The same sources say that the Hamas leadership in Gaza, headed by Sinwar, was vigorously opposed to the idea. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the principal theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood, was also opposed, and harsh disagreements broke out. In the end, Sinwar and his associates had to accept “the movement’s judgment.”

Hamas’s new charter does not acknowledge the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, as the PLO’s officials wanted, nor is it “committed” to agreements with Israel; it will merely “honor” them. There will be no recognition of the State of Israel, heaven forbid, but only an agreement for the establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines.

The anti-Semitic thrust of the current charter is supposed to be gone, with the anti-Zionist aspect remaining. The one new element is that the new text will likely not mention the Muslim Brotherhood as Hamas’s umbrella organization.

Ramallah and the hunger strike

The Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike entered its twelfth day on Friday. Some Israeli officials are trying to describe it as a failure, and others claim that more and more prisoners are quitting the protest. That’s not quite the case: While it is true that the hunger strike is no great success, it is certainly no failure.

The streets of Ramallah were almost empty on Thursday. All the shops were closed for a commercial strike declared in solidarity with the hunger-striking security prisoners. This is a rare sight that has not been seen in Ramallah for many years.

There were only a few hundred people in the solidarity tent for the strikers in Arafat Square in the morning, even though schools and government offices were also on strike. But numbers swelled toward noon with the arrival of reinforcements from Bir Zeit and Jelazoun. A rally of one kind or another in solidarity with the prisoners is held almost daily. The topic is high on the Palestinian media outlets’ agenda.

This is where the strike’s success should be measured. Its purpose is to exert influence on Palestinian public opinion, more than on the Israel Prison Service. The prisoners have returned to center stage, as has Marwan Barghouti, the strike’s leader, a Fatah official serving five life terms for murder and orchestrating terrorism in the second intifada. The images of Barghouti plastered all over the solidarity tent underlined that he is now at the heart of things. The procession of ambulances driving through the square, sirens blaring and sporting Fatah flags with Barghouti’s image, confirmed the narrative.

A Palestinian man gestures in front of a poster bearing the portrait of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, during a rally marking Palestinian Prisoner Day in Gaza City on April 17, 2016. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)
A Palestinian man gestures in front of a poster bearing the portrait of jailed Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti, during a rally marking Palestinian Prisoner Day in Gaza City on April 17, 2016. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

 

So why, nevertheless, is the hunger strike not considered a rousing success?

Two reasons. The first is that not all of the prisoners are participating. The number of hunger strikers has declined slightly since the beginning of the strike, but one way or another, the numbers have remained low.

Hamas does not want to help Barghouti, so its prisoners have not joined.

More surprisingly, large groups of Fatah members are not eager to help Barghouti either, and only approximately one-third of Fatah’s prisoners are participating.

Some among Barghouti’s close associates primarily blame two high-ranking Fatah officials — Jibril Rajoub and Mahmoud al-Aloul — for this.

Rajoub and al-Aloul, who are considered leading candidates to succeed Abbas, are thought to be allies. As Barghouti’s associates see matters, Rajoub and al-Aloul are trying to undermine the hunger strike in order to keep Barghouti from trying to brand himself as the heir Abbas. They mention two names to illustrate the efforts of Fatah’s upper echelon to subvert the strike.

Basel Mazra, a leader of the Fatah prisoners in Ketziot Prison, is firmly opposed to the hunger strike, and is considered a close associate of al-Aloul. Jamal Rajoub, in Rimon Prison is also opposed to the strike, and his surname says it all.

The second source of failure has to do with Israel. The demonstrations of support for the prisoners have not spread beyond Palestinian cities, and have not led to heavy conflict with Israeli soldiers.

A glimpse on Thursday at what was going on in northern Ramallah clarified why. The PA deployed dozens of police officers from its crowd-dispersal unit, whose job was to prevent potential demonstrators from streaming toward points of friction with Israel. It is the PA, then, that is stopping matters from deteriorating into major violence with Israel in the West Bank, as well as preventing terror attacks and, of course, stopping demonstrations.

It is with this card, too, that Abbas will be traveling to Washington next week for his first meeting with Trump. In light of his conflict with Hamas and the preservation of relative quiet with Israel, Abbas hopes to find a particularly sympathetic president, who will keep up the positive approach that, the way Ramallah sees it, he has so far displayed toward the Palestinians.

“There is no reason there’s not peace between Israel and the Palestinians — none whatsoever,” Trump said on Thursday. Abbas emphatically wants to avoid being perceived, in the new US presidential era, as the source of the abiding deadlock.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with Jason Greenblatt, Donald Trump's special representative for international negotiations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with Jason Greenblatt, Donald Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 14, 2017. (AFP Photo/Abbas Momani)
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