Analysis

Abbas-Hamas Power Struggle Ahead of Trump Meeting Pushes Gazans to the Brink

Israel is watching closely as Abbas attempts to strong-arm Hamas into symbolic Palestinian unity ahead of his Washington visit next week

A protest calling for an end to the power crisis outside the power plant in the central Gaza Strip April 23, 2017.
Reuters/ Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The escalating conflict between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas over the manner of control of the Gaza Strip is ostensibly mostly an internal Palestinian matter. But this tension is already directly affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of Gaza residents – and thus is also drawing Israel’s attention. Under extreme circumstances, the worsening living conditions in Gaza could adversely affect the security situation for Israel.

Two and a half weeks ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas held a meeting in Bahrain with Palestinian ambassadors to the Gulf States. In his speech to the ambassadors, Abbas announced that he was tired of funding the Hamas government in Gaza. Eleven years have passed since the Hamas victory in the last Palestinian parliamentary election, and it’s been nearly a decade since Hamas forcibly seized control of Gaza and did away with the last signs of PA governance.

Abbas said he was unwilling to continue transferring funds to Gaza unless Hamas agreed to transfer authority to him. Following Abbas’ speech, PA officials quoted in the Arab media threatened to cause Gaza — which is struggling with constant electricity shortages — to sink into darkness.

The PA has begun exerting pressure in a number of ways. It made a 30 percent cut in the salaries that it still pays its tens of thousands of employees in Gaza, many of whom ceased working after the Hamas takeover. At the same time, a crisis has developed over the supply of diesel fuel to the Strip, on which the Gazan electricity network depends. The argument between the PA and Hamas centers on the collection of the excise fee for the transfer of the fuel. In recent months, Hamas has leaned on financial support from Qatar and Turkey, but that is due to end soon.

The diesel fuel crisis has immediate implications for the electricity supply, which in some towns and neighborhoods is down to just four to six hours per day. Even the generators purchased by many people in Gaza are barely working. In Rafah, for example, people complained that all their food went bad when the refrigerators stopped working during a very hot weekend. Hamas is struggling to deal with the problem, since it has its own budgetary troubles. This year it raised just $190 million in outside financial aid for Gaza, a decline of about a third from the previous year.

The Israeli security establishment believes that Abbas is trying to force Hamas into a move that would – at least symbolically – demonstrate Palestinian unity. Abbas is on his way to Washington next week for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. The White House is familiar with the argument made by the Netanyahu government that says no progress can be made with Abbas because he doesn’t even represent all the Palestinians and wields no control in Gaza.

Abbas demanded that Hamas take steps that attest to its willingness to have the PA involved in managing affairs in Gaza. A Fatah delegation led by PA official Mahmoud al-Aloul was supposed to go to Gaza to discuss the matter with Hamas officials, but the planned meeting was postponed numerous times. The Hamas leadership in Gaza has been signaling that it does not intend to heed Abbas’ demands, despite the pressure he is exerting. For now it appears that Abbas will come to Washington with no symbolic achievement in hand that he could present to Trump as proof as his stronger standing.

Israel is closely monitoring this power struggle and trying, for now, not to intervene. But other factors in Gaza could heighten the instability. Chief among these are the change of leadership in Hamas, with the elevation of military wing leader Yahya Sinwar to the top leadership position in Gaza, and the start of the planned Israeli works to build an underground barrier against Hamas’ cross-border tunnels, which is worrying the organization.