Analysis

Hamas-Abbas Tension Escalates Situation on Gaza Front. For Netanyahu, It's Bad Timing

Palestinian Authority threatens to further reduce its aid to the Strip, as Israel blocks funds from Qatar following rocket fire

Two women walk along the sea front as heavy winds blow dust and sand across a main road in Gaza City, on January 6, 2019.
AFP

A renewed increase in tensions between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is affecting the security situation on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip.

The more Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas disconnects from Gaza, the greater the economic pressure on Hamas. The exchange of threats and even violent incidents between the rival Palestinian factions are also threatening to disrupt the (partial and relative) quiet that has prevailed between Hamas and Israel in recent weeks. And all this is happening at an inconvenient time for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, given the upcoming election.

Over the past few days, Abbas has decided to remove his people from Gaza’s border crossings, where they arrived about a year ago as the first step in a reconciliation deal between the PA and Hamas that was never implemented. He has also stepped up his threats to further reduce the aid the PA gives Hamas to help it pay for water and electricity in Gaza.

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A scene of an Israeli air strike on a Hamas position, near Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 7, 2019.
AFP

Abbas is worried about his own financial problems, given that Washington has slashed its aid to both the PA and UNRWA, the UN organization that aids Palestinian refugees, including in the West Bank. That is one of the reasons for his financial threats against Hamas.

But behind Abbas’ moves lies a deeper frustration stemming from his feeling that Hamas gets money from him but gives nothing in return. Moreover, in his view, Israel is rewarding Hamas with indirect recognition of its sovereignty over Gaza (via a de facto cease-fire and an easing of the blockade on the territory), while ignoring the PA’s calls for a resumption of diplomatic negotiations.

It’s worth remembering that the last escalation in violence from Gaza, which began with the March 30 launch of the weekly March of Return along the border, was a direct result of the initial cuts in the PA’s aid to Hamas.

Last week there were even violent clashes in Gaza between Hamas members and members of Abbas’ Fatah party. Fatah wanted to celebrate the anniversary of its founding with a large rally on January 1, but Hamas forbade it.

Later, there was talk of another rally, apparently organized by loyalists of Mohammed Dahlan, a Fatah member bitterly at odds with Abbas and the rest of the PA leadership. But this rally, too, was ultimately canceled.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gives a speech in Ramallah, West Bank, November 11, 2018.
Nasser Shiyoukhi,AP

Since then, another incident has occurred in which several people broke into a Gaza television station affiliated with Fatah, destroyed equipment and attacked the employees. Which organization the assailants belonged to is a subject of dispute.

Abbas’ latest steps are worrying Hamas, given the possibility that they could reduce the electricity supply at the height of winter. Additionally, both Hamas leaders and the Egyptians seem to be having trouble predicting Abbas’ next moves.

The internal Palestinian tensions are once again affecting Israel’s security. On Sunday, a bomb was flown into the Negev via a model airplane and balloons. The army responded with airstrikes, bombing two Hamas positions. Then, following a relatively long lull, a rocket was launched at Ashkelon from Gaza Sunday night and was intercepted by an Iron Dome antimissile battery.

On Monday, the Prime Minister’s Office informed Qatar that because of the renewed fire from Gaza, Israel has decided for now to withhold the financial aid Qatar sends Gaza. The $15 million monthly payment was slated to arrive this week.

The latter decision is also connected to the constraints of an election season. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has regularly assailed Netanyahu over the ongoing transfers of Qatari cash to Hamas. Moreover, pictures of the bills entering Gaza in suitcases are inconvenient for Netanyahu, since they upset right-wing voters.

Still, so far the prime minister hasn’t budged from his Gaza policy of the past year.

He recently warned Hamas, in messages sent via Egypt’s intelligence service, not to try to heat up the Gaza border during the campaign, because Israel would respond with exceptional severity. On the other hand, his orders to the army regarding the use of force in Gaza remain unchanged: Officers are supposed to exercise restraint and do everything in their power to preserve the quiet and avoid an escalation.

This, for now, is the spirit of the commander. And it’s well understood at every level of the defense establishment.