As the Palestinian Authority Ratchets Up Pressure on Hamas, Gaza Residents Fear Bearing the Brunt

After the Palestinian Authority announced it will stop paying for electricity provided by Israel to the Strip, other measures are expected to follow Palestinian President Abbas' trip to Washington next week

A Gaza resident walking in the Shati refugee camp during a power outage, April 25, 2017.
Mohammed Salem/Reuters

The Palestinian Authority's decision to stop paying for electricity that Israel supplies to the Gaza Strip became the major topic of conversation in the Hamas-ruled territory on Thursday, as the move also ramping up the tension there amid concerns of an outbreak of violence in the near future.

The sentiment on the street in Gaza is that although the Palestinian Authority's decision to halt payment for electricity may have been taken in an effort to punish Hamas, which took control of Gaza from the PA in 2007, it is the average citizen who will suffer the consequences of the power struggle. "If there is an expectation that the people will take to the streets against Hamas, it's not going to happen quickly," a Gazan social activist who is not identified with either faction told Haaretz.

The serious humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip is nothing new and that goes for power outages as well, which have been longstanding. Electricity supplies in Gaza have been limited to just five or six hours a day due to shortages of diesel fuel to generate the electricity in the strip itself. But the announcement Thursday by Israel's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, that the Palestinian Authority would stop paying for Israeli electricity was  evidence for residents of Gaza that the PA was continuing to pursue its efforts to punish Gaza and Hamas. Up to now, Israel had been deducting the payment, estimated at about 40 million shekels ($11 million) a month, from tax receipts that it collects on behalf of the authority.

The PA's decision comes against the backdrop of its bitter rivalry with the Islamist Hamas movement, which wrested control of Gaza in violent clashes with the Palestinian Authority. The refusal to pay for the electricity, which the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company said would lead to a disaster in Gaza, follows the decision to cut the payment of salaries to staff in Gaza employed by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

There have also been warnings that the electricity crisis would cripple hospitals in Gaza, but beyond concerns of a health care crisis, there are worries that the supply of drinking water and the functioning of the sewage system could collapse. In Gaza it was noted that a collapse of the sewage system would not only result in pollution along the Gaza coast but also in Israel and Egypt.

For its part, the Israeli human rights organization Gisha, which advocates on behalf of Palestinian freedom of movement, called for electricity supplies from Israel to the strip not to be cut. "It is inconceivable that political confrontations would be conducted on the backs of two million residents of Gaza when their basic rights are being used as a bargaining chip for political aims, whether coming from governments in Gaza or Ramallah or Egypt or Israel."

Hamas officials viewed the PA's actions as pressure being brought to bear by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Gaza residents to defeat Hamas. They warned about the consequences of such steps.

"Gaza is a powder keg and if President Abbas persists in the pressure, this powder keg will explode in his face from every direction," said Khalil al-Haya, the deputy head of Hamas' political bureau in Gaza, adding that Hamas would not seek a confrontation with Israel, because that is what Israel and Abbas want. On the other hand, Hamas, he said, would never surrender to the Palestinian Authority's latest moves.

Hamas spokesman Abdef-Latif Qanou called for Arab and other international intervention to end the blockade of the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel. Egypt has also limited the movement of people and goods over its border with the strip.

On Thursday the central committee of Abbas' Fatah movement approved the measures against Hamas and released a statement attacking the Islamist group and accusing it of being unprepared to give up control of the strip. Attempts to engage in dialogue with Hamas have failed, Fatah said, and the group has not responded to an initiative from Abbas and Fatah to form a Palestinian unity government that as a practical matter would govern Gaza.

A member of the Fatah central committee told Haaretz that the committee meeting Thursday did not consider the details of the steps to be taken against Hamas but confirmed that the government in Ramallah intended to put some of them in place in short order. In early May, the Palestinian Authority is expected to make substantial cuts to funding of the health care system in Gaza as part Abbas' effort to apply pressure upon Hamas. The subsequent step planned is a cut to allocations for the elderly, Haaretz has learned.

"We'll use salami tactics and send the message to Hamas," said a senior Palestinian official, but sources in the Palestinian Authority expressed the expectation that no further steps would be taken against Hamas until after Abbas meets with U.S. President Trump in Washington next week. Abbas' U.S. trip will be preceded by stops in Amman and Cairo, where the Palestinian president will meet with Jordanian King Abdullah and President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

The World Bank issued a press release on Thursday summarizing the agency's forthcoming report on the Palestinian economy. "The inability to meet existing electricity needs, coupled with the growing demand of 3.5 percent annually until 2030, risks a human and economic disaster," the statement said. "The PA needs to address reforms to ensure that payment obligations to electricity suppliers are met as this will encourage the needed private generation investment. This is particularly important in Gaza to allow the construction of a high-voltage line from Israel to contribute to the relief of the energy crisis."