Once again it’s a race against the clock in the Gaza Strip to head off yet another military escalation. As Haaretz reported on Thursday, Qatar agreed – after considerable arm-twisting – to allocate $60 million to purchase diesel fuel for the Strip’s sole power plant. The move, which was negotiated by United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov, should enable the generating plant to double the number of hours it supplies electricity from a daily average of four to eight, thus easing one of the main factors in the latest flare-up of tensions with Israel.
The Palestinian Authority, however, continues to create obstacles, threatening to block the contracts to purchase fuel from Israel for the West Bank, while further cutting its spending on electricity for the Strip. As such, three tanker trucks carrying diesel oil were turned away from entering Gaza Friday morning. In light of the sensitivity of the matter, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot ordered troops to be reinforced along Israel’s border with Gaza. In recent weeks, Hamas has been turning up the heat along the fence with nightly protests and the deployment of new “night units” to sabotage Israel’s construction of its anti-tunnel barrier. It now seems that Hamas’ actions could, for the first time, delay the completion of that barrier, even if only slightly.
Media coverage of all of these events has been limited. In the wake of the panic set off by the wave of incendiary balloons launched from the Strip into Israel over the summer, the government and the army are now cooperating in an effort to damp down coverage of Israeli military operations at the border. The decline in reporting has not, however, diminished the growing anxiety in Israeli communities near Gaza, and the nightly attempts to breach the border clearly have the potential to be far more dangerous than the airborne firebombs. The rift between the two main Palestinian camps, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Fatah in the West Bank, draws Hamas closer to a confrontation with the Israeli military. Israel, which has not joined the efforts to rebuild the Strip during the three-and-a-half years of relative calm since the 2014 Gaza war, is now paying the price of a conflict in which its role is relatively small.
In a rare interview with Italy’s La Repubblica, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, conveyed complex messages. He is not looking to go to war with Israel, he said, “but in the current situation, an explosion is inevitable.” It’s easy to understand why Hamas is not eager for war. The most recent Israeli operations in the Strip, and especially Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, drove home the fact that the destruction they caused there dwarfed any gains for Hamas. Furthermore, no one is stepping up to bankroll the enclave’s rehabilitation.
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Even so, Israel’s troop reinforcements in the south reflect the depth of its apprehensions regarding an escalation of tensions. The IDF is struggling to come up with an effective response to the nightly outings by Hamas cells east of the border fence, most of which return to the Strip unharmed. Deploying additional forces should contribute to this effort as well. But the real ticking time bomb is the infrastructure crisis in Gaza. If the PA succeeds in peeling off even the tiny bandage that Qatar and the UN placed on a gaping wound, the crisis will continue to worsen. Israel cannot afford to wake up one day to find itself with a Mediterranean Yemen under its nose – a humanitarian disaster zone that the international community has given up on fixing.