Analysis

In Choosing to Cut Power to Gaza, Israel Bets on Abbas and Hopes to Avoid a War

Inner cabinet’s decision seems unlikely to serve Israeli interests in the Strip - assuming that the Netanyahu government has actually defined them

Palestinians walk on a street at the Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City during a power outage on June 11, 2017.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

The inner cabinet’s decision on Sunday night to reduce the supply of electricity to the Gaza Strip appears contradictory. Its members were briefed by senior intelligence officers about the worsening humanitarian crisis in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, which will be greatly exacerbated by the Palestinian Authority’s decision to stop paying Israel for the power it sells to Gaza. But they nevertheless chose, with defense establishment support, to go along with the PA and cut the power supply, rather than trying to find an alternative funding source.

Humanitarian organizations say the additional cut will reduce Gaza’s power supply to three hours a day or less, and Hamas warned of an impending war with Israel. Meanwhile, Israel has been gaining insight into Hamas’ improved armaments and military preparations, and some are raising unusual concerns.

The security cabinet had several reasons for its decision. First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government can’t afford to be seen by its right-wing voters as capitulating to Palestinian threats and agreeing to finance Hamas’ activity. Second, it doesn’t want to be seen as siding with Hamas in the latter’s conflict with the PA.

Third, most of Israel’s intelligence assessments argue that Hamas would be hard-pressed to start a war now, when it is more isolated than ever in the Arab world and now even fears the possibility of losing Qatar’s support. Fourth, the ministers still believe that Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, will once more save the day, rounding up outside funding for Gaza and restraining the PA in order to reduce pressure on Hamas and avert a military escalation.

But all these reasons add up to a gamble: Israel is going along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ aggressive new approach and hoping for the best. The need to please Abbas, who is Israel’s only realistic Palestinian partner, is clear. But it’s not clear that Israel has defined its interests in Gaza are what would serve them.

In contrast, what Abbas wants is becoming clear: to settle accounts with Hamas for 10 years of humiliation and provocation, during which repeated efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah failed. Abbas probably isn’t counting on his pressure leading Gazans to rebel against Hamas’ dictatorial rule. But he won’t necessarily mourn if the current crisis leads to another war in which Israel hits Hamas harder than it did last time. And if Israel has miscalculated, that is exactly where things are headed, despite the government’s declarations to the contrary.

Abbas is also probably encouraged by the policies of U.S. President Donald Trump. His administration, unlike his predecessor’s, doesn’t hesitate to call Hamas a terror organization that must be fought.

To some extent, Abbas’ new hard line against Hamas resembles Saudi Arabia’s recent moves against Qatar. In both cases, Sunni governments that Trump labeled as being on the side of good have translated this support into bolder moves against rivals for dominance within their own camps.

In April, at a Knesset hearing on the state comptroller’s report on the 2014 Gaza war, Netanyahu said he wants to avoid another war with Hamas if possible. He and several of his ministers have made similar comments over the past few days.

Unusually, even Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett seemed on Monday to be competing to be the most moderate on Gaza. Bennett, speaking at the Israel Conference on Peace, warned against letting Gaza’s humanitarian crisis worsen, while Lieberman said, “We have no intention of launching a military move in Gaza.”

Monday was also the third anniversary of Hamas’ kidnap and murder of three Israeli teens. Their bodies were found two and a half weeks later, and throughout this time, the mood in Israel was angry, almost hungry for war. At the same time, tensions rose along the Gaza border, where Israel feared Hamas planned a major attack. A week after the bodies were found, Hamas and Israel were at war.

Then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told the Haaretz conference that Hamas was dragged into the war by judgment errors. Today, despite the intelligence agencies’ optimism and the desire to avoid escalation, one Palestinian protest at the Gaza border that spins out of control and ends with Israeli soldiers firing and causing multiple casualties would be enough to send the situation into a downward spiral.