Analysis

Abbas Is Key Obstacle to Gaza Rehabilitation, Top Israeli Security Brass Warns

Israeli leadership has been showing willingness to promote aid projects for the Strip. But Abbas, who is busy shaping a legacy ahead of retirement, is ignoring signals from Israel, the U.S. and the UN

File photo, Palestinian woman washes clothes as she sits in front of the rubble of her family house in Khuzaa, south of Gaza Strip, October 1, 2014.
AP

The Israeli security establishment sees opposition from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the main obstacle to taking steps toward improving the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

Despite the tough rhetoric by Israeli leaders, the past few weeks have seen a greater readiness among them to advance projects that would rehabilitate Gaza’s infrastructure.

But Abbas’ vehement opposition, due to the ongoing tension between the PA and Hamas, is making it difficult to move anything forward. Qatar, meanwhile, disclosed on Sunday that there have been indirect contacts between Israel and Hamas aimed at preventing an escalation of violence in the Strip and facilitating reconstruction.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas gestures as he receives Britain's Prince William in the West Bank city of Ramallah on June 27, 2018
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

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In their official statements, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman continue to demand the return of the two Israeli civilians and the remains of the two soldiers being held in Gaza before they will approve extensive humanitarian measures. In practice, however, the two have been giving the professional echelon more discretion to advance projects that could help ease tensions with Hamas along the border. Among other things, progress has been reported in contacts with Cyprus for the construction of a harbor that could receive and forward goods to the Gaza Strip.

Since Hamas began the demonstrations along the border fence with Gaza on March 30, more than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israel Defense Forces fire, hundreds of rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel, and over the past two months Israeli fields and forests near the Gaza border have been set ablaze by incendiary kites and balloons launched from the Strip.

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The international community and the Trump administration, which sees Gaza’s reconstruction as part of the peace initiative it plans to present, also support moves to upgrade Gaza’s infrastructure. But the major stumbling block is the difficulties raised by the PA. Israel needs the PA’s cooperation to make various improvements to Gaza’s infrastructure, such as operating an additional electrical power line, yet it must also maintain coordination with the PA in other areas, primarily maintaining security in the West Bank. The energy problem in Gaza is now described as the most urgent issue.

The international community also needs the PA to send money to the Gaza Strip. The rigid financial rules imposed by the United States, even more so under the Trump administration, make it virtually impossible to work with banks directly or indirectly connected to the Hamas regime. Therefore, aid money has to go through banks in the Palestinian territories (only recently the Arab Bank was required to pay more than $1 billion in a compromise agreement following a U.S. court case in which it was charged with handling terrorist funds).

Abbas was released last month from a Ramallah hospital after a series of hospitalizations. Despite official PA denials, it appears the health of the 83-year-old Palestinian leader is starting to deteriorate. He has been working fewer hours now and his relations with some of the senior officials in his circle have become quite tense. Those close to Abbas get the impression he is busy trying to fashion his historical legacy (as someone who did not yield on Palestinian national principles) in preparation for the end of his tenure. At the same time, he is looking for ways to protect his family members, some of whom have gotten rich during his time in power and are liable to face public criticism after he retires.

In conversations over the past few weeks, Abbas is said to have expressed little interest in the Gaza Strip’s distress. He remains very hostile to Hamas, which he accuses of sabotaging the internal Palestinian reconciliation process and of the assassination attempt on PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah during a visit to Gaza in March. As a result, the PA chairman has not responded to the feelers that have been put out by Israel, the United States and Nickolay Mladenov, the UN secretary-general’s envoy to the Middle East, about advancing the rehabilitation of the Strip.

The PA leadership in Ramallah is concerned, however, about one possibility: West Bank residents identifying with the situation in Gaza, encouraged by Hamas. At the end of June, PA policemen in Ramallah dispersed a demonstration of solidarity with Gazans. However, Ramallah officials believe that if the crisis in the Gaza Strip continues, it could ultimately undermine the West Bank’s relative stability.

Muhammad Amadi, the Qatari special envoy to Gaza who has been working in recent years as an unofficial mediator between Hamas, the PA and Israel, confirmed Sunday in an interview with the Chinese Xinhua news agency that there are indirect contacts between Israel and Hamas about the Gaza situation. Amadi said Israel and Hamas are conducting indirect negotiations, with the knowledge of the United States, to come to an arrangement in Gaza, and that the talks are dealing with infrastructure projects that will improve the electricity, water and sewerage in the Strip and provide jobs. He said the talks have yet to result in any agreements.

Amadi’s remarks support the assessment that alongside the exchange of aggressive messages between Israel and Hamas, their attempts to reach an indirect political settlement continue. Although Hamas has intensified its responses to the air strikes in the Gaza Strip, firing barrages of rockets and mortars at the Gaza border communities, it has thus far refrained from longer-range fire, at Ashdod or Be’er Sheva, for example. This behavior may also reflect a certain restraint being imposed by Egypt.

Hamas has won some relief from the siege on Gaza following Egypt’s decision to open the Rafah crossing to both people and goods since Ramadan. So far, more than 1,400 trucks from Egypt have passed through Rafah. Because the security control over the crossing is limited, Israel doesn’t know for sure whether Hamas was smuggling weapons in those trucks, as it has in the past.

Abbas, meanwhile, has reportedly met with former PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad for the first time after a long break in relations. The Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported Monday that the two discussed the possibility of establishing a Palestinian unity government, in agreement with Hamas, to be headed by Fayyad.

Abbas would need Fayyad’s experience and status if the international community decides to send additional funds to the territories. The meeting appears to be an attempt by Abbas to deal with the American peace initiative. The PA is very suspicious of the Trump administration’s intentions and is boycotting its emissaries to the region, maintaining that the administration is totally biased in Israel’s favor.