Gaza Electricity Cuts – Political Standoff at the Expense of Palestinians

A Palestinian woman carries a tray of coffee inside her house during power cuts in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, on 15 March 2014 (Photo: Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)

“Hamas always says, ‘God will help us.’ Fine. We all believe in God, but politics requires an answer.”

–Mohammad Dahlan


Judging by the recent developments between Gaza and the Palestinian Authority, it seems that Hamas leadership didn’t learn from former Fatah official Dahlan, and if one takes into account recent developments in the Gulf, God’s help also doesn’t seem to be on the way.

After Israel and Egypt, Palestinian Authority joins the list of those who no longer want to deal with Gaza and Hamas. The president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, announced a month ago that the PA will step up its sanctions in Gaza, which includes cutting down on payments for electricity supplies, released prisoners and salaries of PA employees in the Strip. This is bound to further aggravate the already-difficult situation in Gaza, where citizens get only three to four hours of electricity a day. At the moment, Israel supplies Gaza with almost two-thirds of its overall power. The rest is supplied by Gaza’s own power station and power lines from Egypt. Getting any less than that would affect the already-problematic water supply and render hospitals paralyzed, leading to a humanitarian disaster.

Until recently, Qatar was there to lend a helping hand when things went awry for Hamas, but at the moment, Qatar has its own crisis to avert, and being there for Hamas would further aggravate its fall from grace. Even though things look really bad for Hamas, the endgame is that they already have a well-known, successful recipe for dealing with this situation. The only winner in this game can be Abbas, and Israel can easily find itself on the losing side.

Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip (Photo: Reuters)

After a near civil war that saw Fatah ousted from Gaza almost a decade ago, the relationship between the two main Palestinian political factions has been strained and plagued by Hamas’ provocations, which rendered any chance of national reconciliation impossible. Keeping the relationship afloat in the name of Palestinian unity and a statehood dream has proven to be a growing liability for the PA, which found itself in charge of subsidizing its political enemy’s self-destructive political agenda. So, the conflict between Hamas and Fatah has become less about Palestinian interests, and more about each party’s ideological standpoint and political survival, thus ironically and successfully serving a part of Israeli political establishment that wants to backpedal on ending the occupation of West Bank.

Since Marwan Barghoutti’s victorious prisoners’ strike bruised Abbas’ ego and political standing, it seems that the Palestinian president took the opportunity to lash out when he had maneuvering space, and Gaza met all of the conditions. Surely, Abbas isn’t expecting Gazans to oust Hamas in the wake of humanitarian crisis – after all, they have proved to be rather resilient to disasters that Hamas brought onto them in the first place. However, this move sends a clear message to his opponents that the PA and Fatah are in charge, and the message will resonate no matter which way things go. Abbas has nothing but trouble to lose by cutting off Hamas.

On the contrary, Israel has something to lose either way. Pretending that this problem is an internal Palestinian affair doesn’t hold water – after all, the all-encompassing blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt is what causes the perpetually difficult situation in the Strip. Although the blockade is widely condemned and classified as “illegal” and “collective punishment” by international institutions (usually exclusively at Israel’s expense), most of these reports and conclusions, save for the Palmer report, do not take into account the legitimate security concerns of both Egypt and Israel, caused by the fact that both countries are bordered by an entity ruled by jihadists who have no qualms about acting on their threats and promises.

Truckloads entering Gaza, monthly average (Source: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)

If using human shields or blasting millions for building tunnels to smuggle weapons isn’t enough, the recent attempt at smuggling explosives through the medical material of a cancer patient admitted from Gaza serves as a sad reminder of Hamas’ twisted priorities and obsession with harming the enemy at any price. Speaking of prices, if Hamas wanted, it could easily pay for its electricity – it monthly collects approximately 100 million shekels in taxes. The electricity bill is 25 million shekels – 13 million shekels less than what they spend monthly on military purposes, according to the estimates by Israel and Palestinian Authority.

However, Hamas will be Hamas, and the international community and public give them a carte blanche to continue being who they are. If this situation is prolonged, Hamas will do what it always does, diverting attention away from its governing incompetence by blaming everything on Israel and starting a conflict. Everything from that point is a downward spiral. Hamas fires rockets, Israel fires them back, civilians inevitably die because human shields are a staple of jihadist warfare. Condemnations and a new round of demonization will rain on Israel, and later, rather than sooner, Hamas will get what it wants. Economically, Israel is better off forgiving Hamas their debt than having another war, but strategically, straightforward capitulation sends a bad signal to the domestic public and its flawed, and alas only negotiating partner, the PA. As Netanyahu chooses to gamble on Abbas, both Abbas and Hamas come out of the game with their bets paying off – both sides decided that this political victory would be worth it at the expense of Gazans who are going to suffer in this gamble.

Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammad Dahlan in Egypt, February 2007. (AP/Amr Nabil)

An Egypt ex machina then remains the only hope for Israel and Gazans. It seems that Hamas did try to mend its strained relationship with Egypt by recently cutting ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s sworn enemy. In light of that development, it is logical to assume that the Egyptians might have a shred of patience left for Hamas, but how would it benefit them? According to the Times of Israel, there might be some long-term plans that involve the aforementioned Dahlan, a man of great influence in Egypt who has solid credibility among Palestinians in both West Bank and Gaza, and is, by extension, a bitter enemy of Mahmoud Abbas, who kicked him out of Fatah. According to reports vehemently denied by Egyptian officials, Dahlan met with new Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar in Cairo and reached an agreement that is supposed to solve the crisis without the helping hand of the PA. Dahlan is in no way a friend of Hamas, but after Barghoutti was proclaimed the almost-certain successor of Abbas, Dahlan feels the need to remind everyone that he has what it takes to rally and help out Palestinians both in West Bank and Gaza. Placing a bet on a future with Dahlan in its immediate neighborhood does seem like a good enough reason for Egypt to take an interest in this affair.

Although Israel approved the PA’s request to cut down on electricity to Gaza, the measure hasn’t been implemented yet. As the temperatures are rising, so are the political stakes of the actors involved. The only certain losing side – short-term and long-term – remains Palestinians in the Strip.

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