In Gaza, setting fire to their own gas lines to fuel the flames of protest

The vandalism caused by protesters at Kerem Shalom site isn’t just an expression of rage against Israel, but also against the Palestinian Authority

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 slings a shot by burning tires during clashes with Israeli forces across the border, east of Gaza City, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 20, 2018. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
A Palestinian slings a shot by burning tires during clashes with Israeli forces across the border, east of Gaza City, in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 20, 2018. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The infiltration of Palestinian demonstrators into the Gazan side of the Kerem Shalom goods crossing on Friday evening caused damage estimated in the millions to infrastructure, mostly to pipes providing vital gas and fuel to the Strip.

Dozens of Palestinians broke into the Gaza side crossing on Friday evening, setting fire to the gas pipeline that supplies fuel to the Strip. They did not get through to the Israeli side.

These riled-up demonstrators first and foremost hurt themselves and the Gazan public. But despite Israeli army assessments that this was done with Hamas backing, from conversations with Palestinians in Gaza, a somewhat different picture emerges. One which suggests that the infiltration into the compound was initiated spontaneously by a mob that had no initial plans to do so.

The moment the incident began, Hamas officials in charge of security at the site realized that trying to stop it could cause deaths and injuries, and so pulled back and allowed the demonstrators to do as they pleased.

The Kerem Shalom crossing is the main entry point for merchandise entering Gaza. It’s difficult to think of a place more critical to the Strip’s own economy.

In the past, 900 truckloads of merchandise entered through the crossing every day. Today that number is down to about 300 a day, due to the economic crisis in Gaza which has led to less demand.

A truck loaded with supplies enters the Gaza Strip from Israel through the Kerem Shalom Crossing on November 1, 2017. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

It is members of the Palestinian Authority that are in charge of operations at the crossing, not Hamas. And so the vandalism at the site wasn’t just an expression of rage against Israel but against the PA too.

In this case, the loathing and hatred for anything representing Israel and the PA overcame the consequences of destroying the infrastructure of the Strip.

The damage caused Friday will very likely cause delays and difficulties in the transfer of goods into Gaza, not to mention the supply of desperately needed fuel, and exacerbate the already difficult humanitarian situation.

This presents Hamas with something of a problem. On the one hand it does not want war with Israel. On the other it does not want a continuation of the economic status quo in the Strip. Or in other words, it is looking for a means deescalate the current situation and stabilize the economic and humanitarian situation in Gaza. The Friday demonstrations are its way of signaling to Israel and warning it of how close a war could be without such economic improvement.

A Palestinian tries to pull down part of the border fence between Israel and Gaza east of Gaza City in the central Gaza Strip, during the fifth straight Friday of mass riots along the border between Gaza and Israel, on April 27, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

But such a solution is far off, chiefly due to the conduct of Hamas itself, and its refusal to disarm and allow the PA and its President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the administration of the Strip. And so, the situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate towards an escalation that neither Hamas nor Israel are interested in.

The damage to Kerem Shalom should not please anyone in Israel. Gaza’s growing distress will only strengthen the voices in the Strip in favor of war, and the extremism which is already reaching new heights. With huge unemployment numbers, delayed or withheld salaries, deep poverty, a loss of hope, and no diplomatic solution or reconciliation with the PA in sight, it can be assumed that on May 15 we may witness far worse incidents than Friday’s harm to infrastructure.

The “March of Return” riots and demonstrations are due to continue until mid-May, which will mark the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the planned move of the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and Nakba Day, a commemoration of what Palestinians consider to be the expulsion from their land.

At previous peace talks, the Palestinians have always demanded, along with sovereignty in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the Old City, a “right of return” to Israel for Palestinian refugees who left or were forced out of Israel when it was established. The Palestinians demand this right not only for those of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are still alive — a figure estimated in the low tens of thousands — but also for their descendants, who number in the millions.

No Israeli government would ever be likely to accept this demand, since it would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish-majority state. Israel’s position is that Palestinian refugees and their descendants would become citizens of a Palestinian state at the culmination of the peace process, just as Jews who fled or were forced out of Middle Eastern countries by hostile governments became citizens of Israel.

While the Friday protests have failed to gain overwhelming traction with Gaza’s masses, they have succeeded in keeping Gaza on the Israeli and international agenda. The events in Gaza continue to receive extensive coverage in Israel and around the world. And in the the internal Palestinian arena, they are the main thing, definitely more interesting than the boring meetings of the PLO’s National Council in Ramallah. Abbas’s anti-Semitic speech managed to generate interest for the moment on the Israeli side, but not as far as the Palestinians are concerned.

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he chairs a Palestinian National Council meeting in Ramallah on April 30, 2018. (AFP/ABBAS MOMANI)

For Palestinians, the gathering of the National Council in Ramallah produced two headlines, namely, the election of the new PLO Executive Committee, and the transfer of powers from the National Council to the PLO’s Central Council. In terms of the first headline, a glance at photos of the “new” committee members says it all; those same tired faces that have nothing to do with the young people or the Palestinian public. No new blood, no fresh leadership, no news. The Palestinian public sees this and understands, and the support for Hamas that is identified with the demonstrations in Gaza is only growing.

The second headline has implications for “the day after” Abbas. The National Council, which numbered some 800 people, decided that in the event of “the absence of the National Council, the Central Council of the PLO, would receive its powers.” The Central Council is a smaller body comprising of 120-130 people, easy to convene in case a president can no longer rule. Essentially, this means the parliament, which has a Hamas majority and has not been elected since 2006, will be thrown into the trash bin of history, replaced by the PLO Central Council, which has a Fatah majority and is supposed to support Fatah’s candidate for president.

Now all that remains is to agree on a candidate to succeed Abbas. But this will not happen so fast. For the time being there are two names mentioned repeatedly: Jibril Rajoub and Mahmoud al-Muttaq. In the meantime, the name of Rami Hamdallah, the prime minister who is not a member of Fatah, is cited as a compromise candidate, but it is hard to see the Fatah leadership giving the keys to someone who is not of its own.

A final quick word about Abbas. His speech, full of anti-Semitic references, was not planned. He did not read off the page. He repeated the messages from the history lessons he apparently took during his doctorate studies in Moscow or from the PLO’s propaganda apparatus in the 1960s. Simply put, the racist propaganda he absorbed in his youth has retaken control of this man in his old age.

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