Analysis

Abbas Is Trying to Curry Favor With Trump by Punishing Hamas, Palestinian Sources Say

Keeping Gazans in the dark could be a political play by the Palestinian president to convince Trump he's a partner for peace

Hamas supporters burn a poster depicting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a protest in Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip, April 14, 2017.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

The two million residents of the Gaza Strip are in darkness – not as a metaphor for the lack of a diplomatic horizon, but in reality. The blackout comes on top of the economic siege the territory is under.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian Authority employees in Gaza are seeing their salaries cut by at least 30 percent, and many workers expect to be forced into early retirement. The assistance the PA gives Gaza’s health and welfare systems is likely to shrink dramatically. And if a solution to the rift between Hamas and Fatah isn’t found in the near future, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is liable to declare Hamas-run Gaza “a state in rebellion” and perhaps even label Hamas a terrorist organization.

All this is happening as Khaled Meshal, who still heads Hamas’ political bureau, prepares to release the organization’s new charter in Qatar on Monday. Two days after that, Abbas will meet with U.S. President Donald Trump.

The pressure on Gaza isn’t accidental, nor is it disconnected from regional and international developments. At a gathering of Palestinian ambassadors from around the world in Bahrain on April 11, Abbas said he intends to take vigorous action against the “dangerous situation” Hamas has created in Gaza. A few days later, he ordered the salary cuts, pursuant to the European Union’s announcement earlier this year that it would no longer fund salaries for PA employees in Gaza .

Moreover, in January, Qatar announced that the emergency aid it provided to fund Gaza’s purchase of electricity from Israel would end in another three months. That decision wasn’t unexpected, yet Hamas’ leadership in Gaza had still believed Qatar would continue to fund the electricity payments.

Abbas then announced that he would finance the electricity if Hamas paid taxes on it – a condition Hamas couldn’t accept, since it would triple the price of power. On Thursday, the PA told Israel it would no longer pay for the electricity and demanded that Israel stop deducting the payments from the taxes it collects on the authority’s behalf.

The PA attributed all these steps to its chronic shortage of cash, but analysts believe Abbas is trying to achieve one of two goals, or maybe both: to topple Gaza’s Hamas government by adding its own economic siege to those imposed by Israel and Egypt, or to make Hamas capitulate to the demands of the Fatah-run PA.

The official political pretext for the punishment was Hamas’ decision to set up an administrative council to run public services in Gaza – essentially, a quasi-government. This would circumvent the June 2014 decision to establish a Palestinian unity government until new parliamentary and presidential elections could be held.

Salah Al Bardawil, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, retorted that Hamas would willingly disband the council and let the unity government run Gaza, including its border crossings, if the PA would treat Gaza in the same way as it does the West Bank. Though Fatah claims Hamas doesn’t allow it to run Gaza properly, Hamas claims the PA systematically discriminates against Gaza, which makes the administrative council is necessary.

But this spat fails to explain the PA’s sudden change of policy, three years after the unity government was formed.

One explanation offered by Palestinian sources relates to the “general mood” against Hamas, both regionally and internationally, especially in Washington. Abbas, they say, wants to bring a “dowry” when he meets with Trump next week, since the U.S. president has made fighting terror a key principle of his foreign policy. Moreover, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states share this principle, and all view Abbas as the sole partner for any possible diplomatic process.

If Abbas is truly punishing Hamas as part of a diplomatic initiative, and not just for internal reasons, this could help him convince Trump that he is truly fighting terror as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demands, and that Netanyahu is wrong to claim he has no Palestinian partner for peace. Showing that Abbas is genuinely trying to force Hamas to accept the unity government and recognize him as the representative of all the Palestinians undermines Netanyahu's additional argument that Abbas can't be a partner because he doesn’t represent Gaza.

If Hamas refuses to capitulate despite this heavy pressure, Abbas could raise it, perhaps even declaring Hamas a terrorist organization. But this seems unlikely, since it would mean a complete international boycott of Gaza that even countries like Turkey and Qatar would be expected to join.

Meshal apparently decided to release Hamas’ new charter on Monday in the hope that generating media buzz about the “change” in the organization’s positions would forestall an American-Palestinian-Israeli agreement on crushing the organization. The new document will ostensibly reflect two main changes: a break with the Muslim Brotherhood and a readiness for diplomatic compromise.

Unlike the old charter from 1988, the new one does not mention the Muslim Brotherhood. This omission is meant to paint Hamas as a purely Palestinian organization rather than one based on an external pan-Islamic ideology. But above all, the move is meant to placate Egypt, which is waging all-out war against the Brotherhood.

The second key change is a provision saying, “There will be no concession of any portion of the land of Palestine, no matter the terms or the pressure, even if the occupation continues. Hamas rejects any alternative to the liberation of Palestine in its entirety, from the river to the sea,” referring to the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. “Establishing an independent Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem on the June 4, 1967 lines, and returning the Palestinian refugees to the homes from which they were expelled, is the shared, consensual national program, which definitely does not mean recognizing the Zionist entity, just as it doesn’t mean conceding any Palestinian rights,” this provision continues.

Neither Israel nor the United States can accept this wording as a meaningful political concession, even if it does recognize the 1967 borders. At most, the provision indicates the adoption of the strategy Fatah advocated prior to the 1993 Oslo Accords: liberating all of Palestine, but in stages.

Thus even establishing a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders wouldn’t end the conflict with Hamas or its desire to liberate Palestine “from Rosh Hanikra in the north to Umm al-Rashrash in the south, from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west,” as Article 2 of the new charter puts it. The charter also stresses that armed struggle and resistance is the way to achieve this goal.

Nevertheless, Hamas can be confident that the very mention of 1967 lines will spark a public debate both in the Palestinian territories and in Israel. It could also undermine attempts to depict the organization as rejecting any diplomatic initiative, lead America to remove it from its list of terrorist organizations and undermine Abbas’ efforts to present himself as the sole possible partner for negotiations. In this context, it’s worth recalling that back in 2008, Meshal expressed willingness to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders without recognizing Israel.

The big question is how the American president will respond to all this. Will Abbas manage to shake off his “no partner” image and thereby cause Trump to put part of the blame for the diplomatic stalemate on Netanyahu? Will Trump manage to formulate a new United States policy for achieving a diplomatic solution after meeting with Abbas, having already heard the views of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, Jordan's King Abdullah and King Salman of Saudi Arabia? And will he put Hamas in the same box as Hezbollah, the Islamic State and Iran, or view it as an inseparable part of any solution?

Until Trump decides, Abbas’ punitive policy toward Gaza will leave Israel on the verge of an explosion. None of Israel’s options for defusing the Gaza bomb are pleasant.

It could pay for Gaza’s electricity itself, ask Turkey to increase its aid or convince Qatar to defer its funding cutoff. But each of these options would paint Israel as helping Hamas, not as trying to rescue Gaza residents from their economic and humanitarian distress. On the other hand, doing nothing could hasten the explosion in Gaza that senior army officers have recently been warning about, and leave Israel facing another round of violence.

Either way, it once again becomes clear that Israeli disregard for Palestinian political and economic crises is a strategic threat to its own security and its international standing.