Analysis

Gaza Rocked by Rare Mass Protests Against Hamas - but Israel May Pay the Price

Conditions in the Strip are so badly deteriorated, that thousands have taken to the streets against the Hamas regime. Heating up of protest against militant group may loosen its trigger finger against Israel.

Palestinians chant slogans during a demonstration against the chronic power cuts in Jabaliya refugee camp, Northern Gaza Strip, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017.
Khalil Hamra/AP

The intervention by Qatar and Turkey seems to provide a temporary, partial solution to Gaza’s dire electricity shortage. The promises of aid by the two countries, both supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood that didn’t want to see its sister movement Hamas fall, are supposed to help stabilize the Islamic regime in Gaza. On Monday, a young man from one of Gaza's refugee camps was badly injured after setting himself on fire in protest of the power crisis, and large protests are expected across the Strip this evening. Events this past week send warning signals both to Hamas and Israel, which might bear the consequences of this crisis it helped create.

Gaza’s electricity shortage worsens every year because of a huge gap between production capacity and consumption needs. On regular days, the regime manages by providing partial supplies to towns and neighborhoods, which often receive electricity only seven or eight hours a day.

Consumption increases in the winter, mainly for heating, and the Hamas government is forced to reduce supply to three to four hours a day. The lack of fuel and difficulties with the power line from Egypt also stoke the problem.

Another problem makes things even worse: a dispute with the Palestinian Authority government over tax collection and an excise tax on fuel the PA buys for Gaza from Israel. The PA, which subsidizes Gaza’s electricity consumption, doesn’t like taking orders from Hamas. Cutting electricity supply to the Strip has already cost the deaths of people in hospitals; it has also stopped factories in their tracks and led to job losses.

Conditions have become so harsh that thousands have dared to go into the streets to protest the regime. In some recent cases, Hamas police have fired into the air to disperse demonstrators. The rage in Gaza isn’t only about electricity. It also goes back to the anger over the way Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, brutally suppressing its Fatah rivals. There’s also the extremely slow rebuilding process since the 2014 Gaza war.

Qatar announced Sunday that it would contribute $12 million to keep the Gaza power plant running. Turkey will deliver 200,000 tons of fuel that will let Gazans somehow get through the winter. Egypt has also eased a bit of the pressure, not out of a sudden love for Hamas the enmity remains also because Hamas aids the Islamic State cell in Sinai. Rather, Egypt has a business interest and the desire to help its man in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, who's trying to strengthen his position.

Egypt has opened the Rafah crossing into its territory for more hours a day, relieving some of suffocation. Israel, for its part, is putting up a new power line to help the situation in Gaza. Also, initial discussions are underway on selling Israeli natural gas to Gaza.

Israeli security officials believe the Hamas regime remains stable. Most residents still support Hamas and the organization maintains effective deterrence against radical Salafi groups inspired by the Islamic State. There’s not too much rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, and whenever a Salafi group does fire a rocket, Hamas responds heavily enough.

An exceptional incident occurred Sunday when bullets hit a military vehicle on Gaza’s southern border. The Israeli army responded with tank shells, destroying a Hamas position. Officially, Israel holds Hamas responsible, but both sides say a smaller group did it.

In any case, the tension and demonstrations in Gaza show that Hamas isn’t sitting pretty as it once did. The organization is still rife with divisions over the effort to appoint a new political leader to replace Khaled Mashal, and over the gap in positions between the political and military wings.

Iran, which has renewed financial support to Gaza and supplied Hamas with $80 million last year, is trying to exploit the tension. Israel also has reason to follow events. If Gazans step up their protests over the next crisis, which could be about water supply or sewage, Hamas could be tempted to fire into Israel. Israel’s steps to improve Gaza’s living conditions, which the United Nations warns will become intolerable in three years, remain slow and negligible.

While Israel and Hamas have cautious trigger fingers in Gaza, the clash in the West Bank is more public. The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service arrested 13 Hamas operatives in the Ramallah area on Monday. The militants are suspected of running the group’s command in the area, funding Hamas operations and financially supporting the families of terrorists and prisoners (which the PA does without Israeli objections).

The Shin Bet announced that “exposing the infrastructure shows Hamas’ continued strategic intent to undermine PA rule.” The Shin Bet also accused the suspects of receiving money from Hamas members “abroad and in the Gaza Strip.”

“Abroad” is a euphemism for Turkey. The head of the Hamas office in Turkey, Saleh al-Arouri, may have left the country, probably due to pressure from Israel and the United States, but his office remains active. Israel simply hasn’t said such things publicly since the resolution of the Gaza flotilla affair and the signing of the compensation agreement with Ankara last year.