Even as Gaza Reels From Floods, Hamas and Fatah Remain Divided

'Israel wrote the script, and the two actors – Hamas and Fatah – are playing their roles superbly.'

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Amira Hass
Amira Hass

In Gaza City, when they talk about “the tunnel,” they’re referring to the eastern part of Al Jala Street. There, in the refugee neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan, the street, like the terrain, is concave.

Last week’s floods afflicted the street as it did the nearby Jabalya refugee camp. The accompanying disasters – thousands forced out of their homes, boats sailing down flooded roads, schools turned into shelters – have fostered a direct and indirect dialogue between the two rival Palestinian governments, Hamas and Fatah.

Since 2008 there has been a Pavlovian reaction. Whenever a disaster (usually a military conflict) disrupts the poverty, blockade, unemployment and suffocation, the leaders pick up their phones and talk. They talk about a reconciliation and rattle off the amounts of money aid organizations will provide to fix the damage. So go the politics of disaster that have become second nature to Gazans.

Of course, humanitarian crises are dealt with by various entities that work together to solve a problem that could have been prevented, or at least minimized. But the latest disaster was worsened because Gaza was without power for most of the day, and essential drainage and wastewater systems were shut down. It was worsened because Israel forbids construction materials and spare parts from entering the Strip, so basic infrastructure suffers.

The flooding was worsened by another human element. In a few places, the metal grates that prevent solid debris from clogging the drainage system disappeared; they were probably stolen. The poverty and scarcity of metal in Gaza have turned public property into a source of income. It’s also safe to assume that the lack of fuel meant municipal workers couldn’t respond to various problems such as theft.

The latest disaster led to a phone call between Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Also, longtime Hamas enemy Mohammed Dahlan approached the organization in Gaza and offered to provide humanitarian aid to the storm victims through his ties with the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.

The floods and the talks led to a partial and very temporary solution to the electricity problem. Since November 1, Gaza’s power plant, which supplied 30 percent of the Strip’s electricity, has been shut down. The Palestinian governments have been mired in a financial dispute. Hamas, whose coffers have been emptied since it lost the revenue from the tunnels, is unwilling to pay – in advance, at that – the full price the Palestinian Authority is demanding for the diesel fuel that it will buy from Israel.

The PA, despite its own financial problems, is still covering health care expenses for Gazans who receive treatment outside of Gaza. It pays the salaries of 70,000 Gazans for not working in Hamas institutions, and it pays for electricity bought from Israel, but is not fully reimbursed. Those 70,000 Gazans are all PA supporters, but starting from this month their pay has been cut.

Blackouts not as bad

Both governments are being stubborn, and the people are paying the price. Now that the floods have been well publicized, Qatar has sent the PA $10 million for diesel fuel. Israel has extended the Kerem Shalom crossing’s operating hours to allow trucks carrying diesel fuel to cross the border, and it’s not limiting the amount let in as it did in the past.

The increase in fuel has shortened the daily blackouts from 16 hours to 12. The donation will provide enough supplies for a month, after which the financial disagreement will resume. But is it really just a financial disagreement?

Since 2010, Gaza’s power plant has been dependent on the increasing amounts of industrial diesel fuel imported from Egypt through the tunnels. This was both a political and economic success for Hamas, which was able to supply impoverished Gazans with fuel cheaper than that coming from Israel. By doing so, Hamas showed the people that it was no longer dependent on Israel and the PA and created a tax-collection source of its own.

The Hamas government sought to prove that the blockaded, enclosed Gaza Strip must be opened to the rest of the Arab Muslim world, through Egypt. Hamas spent all its resources on achieving that end in the hope that the increasing trade with Egypt would take place above ground. Slowly, trade with Israel would become unnecessary.

The coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt also dashed Hamas’ political hopes. Hamas didn't abandon its old tactic, which it used during the Mubarak era as well, of publicizing Gazans’ suffering in the hope that Egypt would ease the restrictions on the tunnels. But the tactic isn't working; Egypt has even refused to open the Rafah crossing since last Thursday.

The PA, for its part, continues to hope that Hamas’ decline due to the situation in Egypt will spell its downfall. Thus the PA has turned a blind eye to the children in Gaza studying by candlelight, and to the hospitals that can't treat patients.

Maybe the PA hopes the people will rebel against Hamas, but in the meantime they’re not because of the oppression, Hamas’ solid support and a lack of faith in the PA and Fatah. Most importantly, there's the fear that things could be worse.

Fatah members in Gaza who oppose Abbas say the PA has abandoned Gaza. They say that just like Hamas, the PA hopes Gaza will be completely cut off.

Dr. Eyad al-Sarraj, who died last week and was buried in Gaza, had tried in recent years – while he was struggling with cancer – to solve some of the side conflicts that resulted in the political split among the Palestinians. He tried to advance an agenda of reconciliation.

During a meeting at his home in Gaza in 2009, the psychiatrist, a Be’er Sheva native who founded Gaza's first mental health center, summed up the situation in one sentence that still holds true. “Israel wrote the script, and the two actors – Hamas and Fatah – are playing their roles superbly.”

Police distribute bread by boats to people whose houses were flooded, Gaza, December 14, 2013.Credit: Reuters

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