Analysis

If Gaza Doesn’t Explode, Thank Egypt, the Qatari Crisis and Abbas' Biggest Rival

A shake-up in the Middle East that enhances the clout of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates could serve Israel by preventing another violent clash in the Strip - for now

Palestinians protest for the reopening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, July 3, 2017.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

A confluence of two power struggles in the Arab world – between Saudi Arabia and a bloc of conservative Sunni States against Qatar and between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas – could soon offer temporary relief to some of Gaza’s distress, thus reducing the risk of a confrontation with Israel. In a surprising turn of events the move, led by Egypt, is being supported by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia with no significant opposition by Israel. The compromise will require Hamas to make concessions but will mainly affect Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the Palestinian Authority, who will become further removed from any hold on Gaza, watching as his Fatah rival Mohammed Dahlan improves his standing in the Strip with the explicit support of Cairo.

Abbas was the one who started the cascade of changes in May when he began exerting direct financial pressure on the Hamas government in Gaza. The Palestinian chairman was fed up with financing his rivals while they rejected all his demands to reach a conciliation deal which would recognize his authority in the Gaza Strip. Cutting salaries to PA employees in Gaza, the cessation of support for released Hamas prisoners and mainly the limiting of power supplies (with the PA no longer paying Israel for electricity) exacerbated the already harsh living conditions in the Strip, which have only become worse as the heat of summer intensifies.

Israel’s cabinet decided last month not to intervene once the PA stopped funding electricity to Gaza. At the same time, intelligence agencies warned that growing frustration in the Strip could lead to a spontaneous deterioration of the military situation, with Hamas wondering whether to continue restraining extremist Salafist groups from firing missiles at Israel.

Egypt identified this risk but also noted the opportunities it offered. The rift between Qatar and its neighbors gave the Egyptians an excuse to try to sever the links between Qatar and Hamas while the United Arab Emirates agreed to increase financial support for Gaza, although to a much more modest extent than Qatar’s aid, which has been estimated at $900 million to date. On the other hand, senior Hamas officials realized that in view of the Gulf crisis they could no longer depend on the Qatari safety net which they’ve enjoyed for the last decade.

Thus, gas tankers started crossing into Gaza from Egypt in late June, a move that was financed by the UAE and led by Dahlan and which returned power in Gaza for 5-6 hours a day, as opposed to only three hours at the height of the crisis. Over the last 10 days two Hamas delegations have been in Cairo, talking to intelligence officials and to Dahlan’s people. One of these meetings was attended by Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas’ military wing in Gaza.

Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, said on Tuesday that the two sides were discussing a 13-point document. It includes understandings over an expanded opening of Egypt’s Rafah border crossing which will allow increased passage to and from the Gaza Strip, and the granting of new status to Dahlan and his people at the crossing. The extent of Dahlan’s authority is still under debate. In recent weeks his people have been making improvements to the crossing, thanks to a $5 million donation by the UAE. Leaks to Arab media indicating that Hamas will agree to Dahlan serving as prime minister in Gaza have been denied by all sides in these talks.

Palestinians walking on a street at the Al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City during once electricity has been cut off, June 11, 2017.
AFP Photo / Mahmud Hams

According to Yousef, the understandings include allowing senior Fatah people who are close to Dahlan to return to Gaza, from which they fled in 2007 when Hamas took over the Strip, as well as the establishment of an internal conciliation committee which will compensate the families of Hamas and Fatah members who were killed in clashes between the two sides during that period in Gaza. Egypt is demanding that Hamas increase its buffer zone on the Gaza-Sinai border and suspend its ties with Wilayat Sinai, the ISIS branch in Sinai.

As far as is known, Israel is maintaining close coordination with Egypt but is not necessarily pleased with all the details of the understandings that are taking shape. The main concern is that Hamas will exploit the eased conditions in Rafah in order to smuggle in military equipment or dual-purpose items such as cement, which can be used in tunnels and fortifications, as well as other materials that bolster its offensive capabilities. It seems that Israel is willing to take a calculated risk: to accept some risk of an upgraded Hamas military wing in exchange for an increased Egyptian influence on events in Gaza and the removal of another risk: the imminent outbreak of hostilities.