online 24.06.17

talking politics

Gaza: Darkness before the storm

by Yacov Ben Efrat

Darkness envelops Gaza—literally. Israel has limited the supply of electricity to two and a half hours per day. It is questionable whether there is a place in the world where people would keep quiet under such circumstances, but Gazans challenge all possible conventions. It’s as if they had returned in time to 1948, when they crowded into refugee camps. There is no humanitarian disaster in Gaza, says Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Food drips through the Israeli intravenous tube straight into the Gazan stomach. Admittedly, the water is foul, yet an optimist can claim that Ramadan meals are romantic by candlelight.

Gaza is not in a state of revolt because there is no single obvious address to rebel against. It is the target of a triple siege, and each of the besiegers assigns responsibility at its own discretion. On the Palestinian level, responsibility is divided between the Hamas government and the Palestinian Authority (PA), while Israel lords it over both, as the principal importer and exporter of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Gazans are pawns in the hands of these three (Israel, the PA and Hamas), who have not yet decided what they really want (in which direction to move), instead waging struggles between themselves whose point is unclear. For its part, the Israeli government conducts a much publicized political battle against the PA, while nonetheless maintaining tight security coordination with it. The PA defends itself against Israel's strident media attacks with despairing calls for negotiations, but this is no way stops it from strangling Hamas by helping keep electricity and medicines out, while preventing salaries from reaching Hamas officials.

Attempting to untie this Gordian Knot is Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who has been sent here to jumpstart negotiations. Netanyahu gives the honored guest a traditional welcome with a typical tweet about the start of construction in "Amihai," the first settlement start in many years. Nor does he forget to scold Abu Mazen for inaugurating a statue in memory of Khaled Nazal (a PLO activist who was assassinated in Greece in 1987). Palestinian commentators, without exception, smell an American stew that is not to their taste. They don't know how they're to wage a two-front battle: a difficult negotiation with Israel and a dirty war with Hamas. Netanyahu's actions, as well as repeated declarations by his cabinet ministers, leave no room for doubt: the Palestinians will be asked to enter negotiations in which they will have to make concessions without getting anything real in return.

The US-sponsored negotiations are expected to deal with the future of the West Bank, while Gaza's future remains shrouded in darkness. Abu Mazen's behavior toward Gazans is not just lacking in the slightest hint of humanity, it represents the PA's political, social and psychological alienation from Hamas, from Gaza, and from the Gazans. In fact, most West Bank Palestinians demonstrate utter indifference to what is going on in Gaza and to the suffering of the Gazans. For its part, Hamas has given up, admitting that it has no miraculous answers to the problem of electricity, water and medicine—not to mention the 40% unemployment. The Hamas government has no problem in imposing its regime while proclaiming its own impotence, rolling the ball back to Israel's court.

The Palestinian Authority's decision to disown responsibility for what is happening in Gaza points to what the future holds. The moment Abu Mazen throws away the keys to the Strip, Israel will be solely responsible for it, being the occupying power that controls the Gaza crossings. Israel’s Chief of Staff, Gadi Eizenkot, says he would like to see Gaza have 100% electricity, good drinking water and full employment, but he is not prepared to see Israel bankroll Hamas.

This is indeed a "moral" dilemma of the first order. And therein lies the rub: the Israeli government is not willing to finance Hamas, but it also does not want to topple Hamas from power. For the last twenty years, the PA has covered Israel’s nakedness by assuming responsibility for the Strip. Suddenly, without prior warning, it leaves Israel to face reality: while Hamas controls Gaza, Israel is ultimately accountable for Gaza’s welfare, health and the well-being of its residents. In the short term, separation between the West Bank and Gaza plays into Netanyahu's hands. However, as time passes, the separation aggravates the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the political crisis in the West Bank, where Hamas is also a force. On the one hand, the split between Hamas and Fatah weakens the PA and allows Netanyahu to claim that he has no partner for peace. On the other hand, Netanyahu is paying the political and economic price of this split.

In the meantime, the IDF is working overtime. Every morning we hear that Hamas doesn’t want to go to war, and that Israel is acceding to Abu Mazen's request and cutting a few more kilowatts of electricity, shortening the few hours of light in Gaza by several minutes. Israel is pulling the strings in the hope that Gaza will not fall apart, and with the expectation that someone will come to the rescue. Egypt, for example, promised a million tons of diesel fuel. And Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, hated by Abu Mazen and Hamas alike, takes advantage of the opportunity to return to the arena, promising help. However, as is well known, the real address remains Israel.

Hamas does not need war at this moment. The Gazan sewage, loaded with danger of intestinal epidemic, cholera, and death—especially considering the lack of medical care in the Strip—is a more realistic forecast than another round of fighting. (The current carries the sewage north, by the way.) Israel needs Hamas to manage Gaza, allowing Israel to tighten its grip over the West Bank, but it is not willing to pay the price. Moreover, control of the West Bank depends on the willingness of the PA to cooperate. The problem is that as time goes by, while the three sides squabble, the strange arrangement is dissolving: the PA is losing altitude, Hamas is losing its support base, Qatar is forced to distance itself from Gaza, and Netanyahu is left with this hot potato, flanked by two right wingers: Defense Minister Lieberman and Education Minister Naphtali Bennett.

It is not clear whether Jared Kushner, who is involved up to his eyeballs in suspicions of collusion with the Russians, could, in the present circumstances, propel a breakthrough. It seems that Abu Mazen's great hopes after his meeting with Trump in Washington are fading away. During his visit to Bethlehem, Trump shouted at Abu Mazen and demanded that he stop financial support for the families of Palestinian prisoners and martyrs, an act that would embroil the PA president with a large and influential sector of the Palestinian public, which depends on a monthly PA stipend (just as families of fallen IDF soldiers receive benefits from the Ministry of Defense). This demand not only points to Israel's and America's insensitivity, but to their political blindness. Without the stipends—not to mention funding for 250,000 Palestinian officials and police—the PA would lose its support base.

In summary: there will be no war this summer, nor will there be peace. Gazans will get used to living without electricity and drinking contaminated water. Hamas will continue to dig tunnels beneath the Israeli fence. The PA will continue to hold negotiations. So-called "inspired" attacks (by unaffiliated individuals “inspired” by previous attacks) will continue until they are replaced by "despair" attacks. And the IDF will continue testing the waters in the West Bank, while reassuring us that a third Intifada is not on the horizon. Inside Israel, the persecution of human-rights organizations, left-wing lecturers, “subversive” plays, nude performances, and every anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist phenomenon will continue.

So it will be until Israelis, Palestinians, and especially Gazans become sufficiently fed up to act in concert, ridding themselves of the PA, the Hamas regime, and the Israeli Right.