Like the proverbial frog slowly cooking in a pot with the water temperature rising so gradually it doesn’t sense the danger, so the Gaza Strip is coming to this summer’s boiling point. Without it being either side’s objective, without any interest to be served by escalation, it looks as if Israel and Hamas are getting closer to a confrontation, with the active and exceptional encouragement of the Palestinian Authority.
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The decision by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to ratchet up the economic pressure on the Hamas government in the Strip is the primary reason for the new tensions. Ten years after senior Fatah officials were booted out of Gaza, with the Hamas leadership refusing to recognize any sign of PA authority in the Strip, it seems that Abbas is tired of funding his political rivals. The sanctions on Gaza included lopping a third off the salaries of PA employees in the Strip, reducing the financial support for released prisoners and serious disruptions in the electricity supply.
The electricity is the most critical element in the picture. On normal days, Israel supplies 123 megawatts to Gaza through 10 power lines; 60 additional megawatts come from Gaza’s own power station (which is running at only half-capacity and relies on diesel fuel imported through Israel). When there are no malfunctions, another 23 megawatts are supplied by two Egyptian power lines.
The PA has already stopped paying the tax on the diesel fuel (which was being offset from the taxes it gets from Israel, which collects them on the PA’s behalf), which has shut down the power plant and is threatening to also stop funding the power from Israel. The combination of both these steps is liable to reduce the daily supply of power to Gaza to below its current level of four hours a day, which is already forcing citizens to rely on generators when possible, seriously undermines the operations of hospitals and disrupts waste treatment and the supply of potable water.
And this is happening at the start of the Gazan summer, with temperatures already starting to reach intolerable levels. Top Israeli political and security officials held several meetings over the past two weeks to discuss Gaza’s electricity crisis and the likelihood of a military escalation in the area. On Sunday, the inner cabinet also discussed these issues.
Senior Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, have already announced the Israel cannot step into the PA’s shoes and pay off its debts. The Netanyahu government does not want to be seen as capitulating to Palestinian extortion.
Military officials told cabinet ministers that it’s important to maintain the accommodations that prevent a new military conflict in Gaza. They stressed that further disruption to the electricity supply in the territory could accelerate an escalation. The Israeli government must presumably weigh the fact that the sums at issue, tens of millions of shekels a month, are lower than the economic cost of a single day of combat in Gaza, without even considering the expected casualties.
The crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is also affecting the mood in Gaza. In the past, when Hamas needed financial help, Qatar stepped up to the plate, with Egyptian support. Now however, Qatar is confronting an embargo imposed by the Saudis with Cairo’s clear support. These developments could push Hamas back into the arms of Iran.
Other things have been happening in the background. The Shin Bet security service recently announced it had foiled a Hamas plot to have Israeli Arab criminals assassinate an Israeli officer to avenge the assassination of Hamas operative Mazen Fuqaha in March. Hamas, which had previously blocked protests near the border fence with Israel, has started to encourage them (and over the past two weekends two Gaza residents were killed by IDF fire when they approached the fence).
Last, the Defense Ministry will soon expand its work on the new underground barrier that will prevent Hamas from being able to dig attack tunnels into Israel. The barrier will increase pressure on Hamas, whose military wing fears that it will deprive the organization of a strategic asset that had accrued from years of investment and hard work.
Last week the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was forced to announce that it had discovered a Hamas tunnel under one of its schools in Gaza. The announcement reinforced an old Israeli claim, which was also proved during Operation Protective Edge, that Hamas exploits humanitarian sites for military purposes. At the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the United Nations to reconsider the continued existence of the agency, which is devoted to supporting long-time Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
Netanyahu is well aware of how the Trump administration feels about continuing to fund UN activities. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, visited Israel only last week, and one of her stops was a tour of the Gaza border with top Israeli officers, who showed her a Hamas attack tunnel that had been dug into Israeli territory.
Netanyahu’s new demand puts the UN agency in an uncomfortable situation. Israel might be able to score some public diplomacy points vis-a-vis the Palestinians, but that should not be a distraction from the main goal: preventing another superfluous Gaza war.