Hamas does not and could not have any interest in attacking senior Palestinian Authority officials on their way to inaugurate a sewage treatment plant that residents of the Gaza Strip have long awaited.
Hamas also had no interest in turning a blind eye and letting someone else attack the visitors from Ramallah. Hamas wants to portray itself as a strong ruling power that’s willing to give up its share of power out of concern for the people, and not because of its own failures. The fact that it didn’t manage to thwart this attack will weaken its position in talks with both Egypt and Fatah, the ruling faction of the PA.
Given the ongoing, predictable impasse in the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation talks, this is a convenient arrangement for Hamas: It controls Gaza de facto, but the donor states that boycott it continue building vital, urgently needed infrastructure via the PA. The success of these infrastructure projects mitigates the environmental and humanitarian disaster caused by the Israeli siege. It will probably ease the population’s enormous suffering, even if only a little, and thereby also neutralize one of the many reasons for social upheaval against Hamas.
In 2007, five people drowned in sewage water that overflowed from the pool at the old, inadequate treatment plant in Beit Lahia. For years, untreated sewage has flowed into the sea and penetrated the aquifer, with all the known and less known health implications this has.
The current plant, whose $75 million price tag was covered by Sweden, Belgium, France, the European Commission and the World Bank, is supposed to serve some 400,000 people. The Mideast Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia) and the U.S. State Department liaised with the Israeli authorities so they would allow the necessary building materials and experts to enter Gaza. Without their assistance, the construction would likely have taken many more years.
According to the World Bank’s press statement, Israel and the PA have reached a temporary agreement on supplying the power needed to run the facility, without which it would be a white elephant. Israel has already agreed to run another power line. But the PA and Hamas still have to reach an agreement about how to pay for this additional electricity.
The dispute over financing services such as electricity to Gaza residents is depicted as the main obstacle to progress in the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation effort. But these financial disputes – occurring at a time when Gaza’s population is sinking into unprecedented poverty and despair – are merely a cover for the enmity and lack of trust between the two largest Palestinian movements.
The PA claims it spends a significant chunk of its budget on Gaza, while Hamas doesn’t share its revenues with the PA. But Gazans say a significant portion of these expenditures is covered by the customs duties the PA collects on merchandise imported to Gaza via Israel.
Hamas is demanding that the PA pay the salaries of some 20,000 public-sector workers whom Hamas hired during its years in power. Ramallah is demanding that it first be given full control of all government activities in Gaza, including tax collection and payments. Hamas continues to collect unofficial consumer taxes in Gaza to finance its administration of the territory (its military activities are funded mainly by money from abroad).
Hamas is trying to expand the quantity and variety of goods imported through Egypt, from which it collects tax. Gaza residents say the PA has done everything in its power to prevent goods from arriving through Egypt, precisely because this provides revenues for Hamas. Gazans also say PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ government has prepared additional “punitive measures” against Gaza – such as cuts to municipal budgets and further cuts in the salaries Abbas pays “his” public-sector workers, who have been getting paid for not working ever since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007.
Whether or not this is true, what’s important is that Gazans accuse Abbas and Fatah of trying to subdue them economically so that Hamas will waive its demands for partnership in political decision making and in PLO institutions.
Abbas’ demand for “one government, one gun” is logical and natural, and so is his fear that Hamas wants to waive responsibility for civilian affairs and then reap political capital, especially among the Palestinian diaspora, from its reputation as a “resistance movement.” But at the same time, Abbas isn’t allowing new elections (in the West Bank and Gaza), has paralyzed the Palestinian Legislative Council for 12 years and controls the judiciary.
In late April, the Palestinian National Council, which is the PLO’s parliament, is supposed to meet in Ramallah. Its members include all the Hamas members elected to the legislative council in 2006. But the very fact that it’s convening in Ramallah, rather than some place like Cairo or Amman, is clear proof that Abbas and Fatah aren’t interested in the participation of delegates from Hamas and other opposition groups, whom Israel won’t allow to leave Gaza or enter the West Bank.
In this situation, even Abbas’ reasonable political demands of Hamas are seen as steps to consolidate his authoritarian rule and perpetuate Fatah’s control over the PLO and the PA.
Before jumping to the conclusion that Abbas rival Mohammed Dahlan or Salafi groups were behind Tuesday’s attack on the convoy of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, it is just as possible to imagine another scenario in which those responsible were a few young people, devoid of political understanding but with access to explosives, who were influenced by the depiction of Fatah and the PA as collaborators who have forsaken Gaza.
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