Under Egyptian siege, Hamas could try to strike at Israel

The tunnels are closing, fuel is running out, people are deeply unhappy. For Gaza’s Islamist rulers, trying to draw Israel into conflict may offer a way out

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 inside a smuggling tunnel, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border, February 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian inside a smuggling tunnel, beneath the Egyptian-Gaza border, February 2013. (photo credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Hamas has seen better days, particularly in the Gaza Strip. The Islamist organization has been marked by the Egyptian army and the new regime in Cairo as the enemy, no less. And yet it could be Israel that pays the price.

It is often difficult to comprehend the extent to which relations between Egypt and Hamas have deteriorated. Leaders of the Palestinian organization are forbidden to travel from the Gaza Strip into Egypt, for example. This is one step that even former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak avoided taking, but for several weeks, this has become the new reality.

And the prohibition against traveling abroad is the least of the organization’s problems right now. The real crisis it faces is the situation in the tunnels. This week, Ahmad Ali, the Egyptian army spokesperson, announced that his people had closed down another 154 tunnels that linked Sinai and Gaza. It also intercepted a terrorist attack in a tunnel that originated in the Gaza Strip. Ali carefully avoided directly blaming Hamas, but did claim that some of the weapons that were confiscated in Sinai were manufactured by the organization’s military wing in Gaza.

The merchandise that used to be smuggled through the tunnels, and is so critical for Hamas’s economy, has all but ceased to arrive; as ever, the shortage of fuel is the most problematic. Hamas stopped importing fuel from Israel several years ago and received tens of thousands of liters of fuel daily from Egypt, via the tunnels, for a discount price of three shekels per liter. The fun ended with the start of the Egyptian operation to close the tunnels, and the only option that remains is to import fuel from Israel (via the Palestinian Authority) for an average of seven shekels per liter and without the option of charging additional taxes.

Hamas has decided not to import fuel extensively at this point, and the shortage of diesel fuel and gasoline in recent weeks has caused long lineups at gas stations throughout the Gaza Strip. The power outages that were typical of the days of the Israeli siege on Gaza have also been renewed.

A., a resident of Gaza, described how the power works — or largely doesn’t — in his home: “The electricity goes off at 8 a.m. until about 3 p.m. It goes off again around 10 p.m. and doesn’t go on again until 3-4 a.m.”

The problems with the electricity supply have caused various critical systems to malfunction. Sewage purification failures, for example, have allowed sewage to flow freely into the Mediterranean Sea over recent days. Prices of construction supplies have multiplied as well.

The Gaza Strip is rapidly becoming a time bomb that may explode at any moment. The Egyptian army’s massive operations against Hamas and its smuggling operations, doing what Israel was so desperate to do in the past — have created the potential for Gaza to erupt.

Hamas is besieged. The economy in Gaza, never prosperous, has deteriorated. Public pressure to resolve the crisis is on the rise.

A new rebellion movement in Gaza has conducted intensive activity on social networks, calling for widespread protests in Gaza on November 11, causing further panic amongst Hamas leaders.

Analysts in Gaza claim that Hamas’s only hope is to escalate violence against Israel to a certain degree. “This will draw international and Arab attention back to Gaza, which is of no interest to anyone right now. In addition, it will increase pressure on Egypt to open the tunnels and the Rafah border crossing,” one analyst told The Times of Israel, insisting on anonymity. He said that Hamas has no interest in another military clash with Israel, but if the situation does not change in the next month, anything, including escalation, is possible.

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