Abbas Ramps Up Pressure on Hamas to Restore Palestinian Authority's Control in Gaza

On the eve of his meeting with Trump, Palestinian president plans to slash health care budget for Gaza as part of measures against Hamas

A protest against Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, April 14, 2017.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

The Palestinian Authority will announce steps over the next few days to pressure Hamas into restoring at least some of the PA’s authority over the Gaza Strip, officials close to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Tuesday.

The measures are described as punishment of the Hamas government in Gaza for turning down Abbas’ initiatives to restore PA control in the Strip.

According to the officials, the Palestinian Authority will slash the health care budget for Gaza; it will only pay for salaries of medical personnel, not for the ongoing management of the health care system.

A senior adviser to Abbas told Haaretz that the PA had also decided to cut education funding to Gaza but would hold off so that the current school year would not be affected.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the summit of the Arab League at the Dead Sea, Jordan, Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
Raad Adayleh/AP

“We realize this sounds cruel, but in the end, after 10 years of the split and Hamas rule in the Strip, [Hamas] must decide whether it will control things in every sense, including ongoing expenses, or let the Palestinian government rule,” the adviser said.

“Hamas levies taxes on everything that enters the Strip, while every action in a government ministry carries a surcharge even in the health care system. And this money flows into Hamas’ coffers, not to the Palestinian Authority.”

This latest cut follows a decision to slash the salaries of some 60,000 PA employees and the PA’s refusal to reduce tax on fuel purchases to run Gaza’s power station, which has worsened power outages in the Strip.

According to Palestinian officials, the PA also plans to freeze infrastructure projects in Gaza and cut allowances to prisoners and their families.

One concern is the possibility that the PA might suspend the activities of the committee that coordinates entrance to and exit from the Strip. Such a decision could mean that no one could leave or enter Gaza, because Israel has no formal ties with Hamas.

According to officials of Abbas’ Fatah party, Abbas will ask the Arab League not to recognize Hamas rule in Gaza. There are doubts, however, about the efficacy of such a request because Hamas has direct ties with countries like Qatar and Turkey. Still, the PA believes that even countries with such ties will not be able to fund Hamas’ ongoing administration.

According to a veteran Fatah official, the situation in Gaza is worsening and a clash is on the way. “All these steps will only increase tensions in the Strip and might lead to countermeasures against Fatah officials there.”

In recent days, the PA has ramped up the public discussion on its disengagement from Gaza in what is described as a way to pressure Hamas on the eve of Abbas’ trip to Washington. Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah said his government was prepared to take immediate responsibility for the Strip if Hamas agreed to Abbas’ initiative.

According to Palestinian social media, Abbas is expected to give a speech this week declaring a disengagement from Gaza, but sources close to Abbas say no speech is planned at the moment.

Fatah Central Committee member Jibril Rajoub said the committee on entrance and exit was set to meet in Ramallah and hear from committee member Ruhi Fatuh, who has been in Gaza in recent weeks and held talks with Hamas.

“If there are clear answers to the president’s initiative, we can move ahead, and if not, a series of steps will be taken because things cannot go on like this,” Rajoub said.

Hamdallah’s office confirmed that steps were planned but gave no details. It said the final decision was with Abbas.

Meanwhile, Hamas seems under no pressure over the statements by PA officials. Salah Bardawil, a member of the Hamas political leadership in Gaza, said Abbas was pressuring Hamas because Abbas himself was under political pressure.

“We have bargaining chips and many means, and we will not give in to Abbas’ threats or accept any dictates that lead nowhere,” Bardawil said.

According to Hamas, Abbas began pressuring the group after his talks with U.S. President Donald Trump’s emissary and ahead of Abbas’ meeting with Trump next week. Hamas officials said they expected no drastic steps before the meeting and before Abbas hears where Trump is heading regarding the peace process with Israel.