Analysis

Civilian Hardships in Gaza Force Hamas to Become More Pragmatic

Terror organization finally agrees to pay for some of Strip’s electricity, signaling shift in policy

Palestinian children do their homeworks during a power cut in an impoverished area in Gaza City, on September 11, 2017
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Hamas’ latest moves in the Gaza Strip, coupled with its rapprochement with Egypt, may indicate that it’s trying to ensure that the calm in Gaza continues. A delegation of senior Hamas officials is in Cairo this week for talks, mainly about easing Egypt’s blockade of Gaza. And, in a very unusual move, Hamas has actually agreed to pay for some of the fuel Gaza’s power plant needs.

Gaza’s power crisis worsened this spring, when the Palestinian Authority stopped financing some of Gaza’s electricity needs as a punitive measure against Hamas. This week, Hamas agreed for the first time to pick up part of the tab, with the goal of increasing Gaza’s average daily power supply to about six hours. But so far, the average hasn’t risen as expected, because the power lines from Egypt still aren’t at full capacity.

Altogether, Israel believes Hamas will spend about 90 million shekels ($26 million) over the next few months to increase the power supply. Until now, Hamas had refused to pay for any of Gaza’s power, due to its own financial constraints and its desire to continue shifting this responsibility to the PA and international aid.

Last month, Haaretz reported that Hamas was talking with Cairo about permanently reopening the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. That would make it significantly easier to enter or exit Gaza, which today is very difficult. But so far, this hasn’t happened.

According to Arab media reports, the Hamas delegates in Cairo include the organization’s new leader, Ismail Haniyeh; its leader in the Gaza Strip, Yahya Sinwar; senior Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk; and Marwan Issa, the head of Hamas’ military wing.

A member of the Palestinian security forces, loyal to Hamas, standing guard as men set up a barbed wire on the border with Egypt, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, August 24, 2017.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

Both the talks with Egypt and its decision to pay for electricity reflect a shift in Hamas’ policy. Sinwar, who rose to power through Hamas’ military wing and spent more than 20 years in Israeli jails, evidently wants to improve life for Gaza residents, ease security tensions and stabilize the situation a bit.

Shin Bet security service head Nadav Argaman told the cabinet on Sunday that Hamas is preparing for a future military conflict with Israel and described the situation in Gaza as “a deceptive calm.” He said the organization is in strategic distress, since it’s finding it difficult either to produce diplomatic achievements or to supply effective solutions to the problems of Gaza’s civilian population. He also said that senior military wing officials have been operating in Lebanon recently.

The Hamas operatives, led by Saleh Arouri, moved to Lebanon a few months ago. This is their third base in the last two years. First they were in Turkey, but they were expelled under American pressure and moved to Qatar. They then moved to Lebanon because similar pressure was applied to Qatar.

In Lebanon, Arouri runs a command that tries to foment terror against both Israel and the PA in the West Bank. The command also has a branch in Gaza.

In Gaza itself, an economic battle has been raging recently between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Gaza’s reconstruction since the Hamas-Israel war of 2014 ended. Now, partly due to Qatar’s tensions with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the UAE is trying to push it out of Gaza by spending its own money there. It recently donated $15 million for infrastructure projects in Gaza via senior Fatah official Mohammed Dahlan, a rival of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Dahlan, who spends part of each year in the Gulf, is trying to liaise between Egypt and the UAE in an effort to coordinate their moves with Hamas and secure himself and his people a renewed foothold in Gaza. His energetic activity in Gaza has greatly worried Abbas.

In Israel, there are mixed opinions of Dahlan. At one time, Dahlan was reportedly friendly with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. But other senior defense officials and other senior politicians have reservations about Dahlan. They believe his efforts to increase his involvement in Gaza are doomed to failure, just as his forces were defeated by Hamas during the latter’s military takeover of Gaza in June 2007.

Israel also isn’t eager to completely end Qatar’s involvement in Gaza, despite the diplomatic and economic siege imposed on Doha by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Israel has an interest in the continued existence of two parallel channels to Hamas’ leadership, Egyptian and Qatari, especially in times of crisis.

In early August, at the height of the Saudi-Qatari crisis, Israel threatened harsh measures against the Qatari television network Al Jazeera, up to and including closing its office in Israel on the grounds that it incites to terror. It then retreated to merely threatening to take away the press card of Al Jazeera reporter Elias Karram. And in the end, after the Government Press Office held a hearing for Karram, even that move was put on hold.

But more than reflecting Israel’s attitude toward Karram, these reversals seem to reflect its complex attitude toward Qatar and Israel’s desire to avoid burning all its bridges with Doha.