The Islamist movement's Arab neighbors, together with Israel, are cutting off its few remaining lifelines — and hoping not to spark a war.
- By Grant RumleyGrant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the co-author of the forthcoming book The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus, July 2017).
Israel, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, and several Arab countries are dialing up the financial and diplomatic pressure on Hamas — but they may also be setting the region on a path for war.
The joint offensive on Hamas began in April, when West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas, speaking to Arab ambassadors in Bahrain and seemingly inspired by scenes of roughly 10,000 Palestinians taking to the streets of Gaza in January to protest electricity shortages, promised he would take “unprecedented steps” in dealing with Hamas. His advisors’ tone was even more bellicose: His top religious cleric and a senior member of his Fatah party delivered speeches of their own in April urging Gazans to overthrow Hamas.
A series of aggressive policies followed. First, Abbas slashed the salaries of the tens of thousands of unemployed Palestinian Authority (PA) employees in Gaza who had continued to receive payments since Hamas seized control of the territory in 2007. Next, Abbas cut off funds going to Hamas-affiliated prisoners in Israel, thanks in part to pressure from the U.S. Congress. Building upon that, he announced that his West Bank government would no longer continue its unusual practice of footing the bill for the electricity Hamas imports from Israel. (Hamas refuses to have official dealings with Israel, so the PA acts as middleman.) This plunged Gaza into darkness, with blackouts lasting 14 to 18 hours per day.
Israel soon joined Abbas’s efforts. This month, the Israeli government began reducing the amount of electricity it provides to Gaza. The move promised to make a bad situation worse for the coastal enclave: The local power plant shut down in April, and Gazans have already been forced to make do with mere hours of power per day. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that his decision not to backfill the energy supply cut off by the PA is justified.
Egypt, for its part, initially went along with the pressure campaign against Hamas. At the onset, Egypt demanded Hamas hand over 17 members of the faction’s armed wing that Cairo alleges have supported the Islamic State in Sinai. Then after a Hamas delegation met with Egyptian officials — and a rival of Mahmoud Abbas, Muhammad Dahlan, did so as well — Cairo suddenly announced it would reverse course and ship fuel into the strip. The move undercuts Abbas and Israel’s push against Hamas with seemingly little concessions extracted from Gaza’s rulers, but it is likely only a temporary amelioration. The fuel supplies are on a day-to-day basis and are for Gaza’s sole power plant, which can only provide 22 percent of the coastal enclave’s electric needs.
The economic uncertainty in Gaza comes at a time of dramatic change within Hamas’s leadership. In February, Hamas announced that Yahya Sinwar had won the group’s secret internal elections to become its top official in Gaza. This was followed in May by the announcement that Ismail Haniyeh would replace Khaled Meshaal as the head of the politburo. Sinwar — a former prisoner of Israel who protested the conditions of his own release in 2011 and has historically been in charge of weeding out and executing “collaborators” — is considered the most hard-line member within Hamas’s leadership. Haniyeh, though a former PA prime minister, is also viewed as closer to the military wing than his predecessor, Meshaal. A native of the al-Shati refugee camp, Haniyeh enjoys widespread support in the strip. Taken together, both Sinwar and Haniyeh represent a significant shift away from the exiled political leadership to the Gaza-based military wing.
This joint squeezing of Hamas in Gaza comes at a time when one of its most important foreign patrons, Qatar, is also under more pressure than ever. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have instituted a land, sea, and air blockade of Qatar, in protest for its support of terrorist groups. Riyadh in particular has demanded that Qatar halt its support and housing of Hamas leaders in Doha. Several Hamas leaders — including the mastermind of the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in 2014, Salah al-Arouri — have fled the country.
The move may end up pushing Hamas back into Iran’s embrace after years of estrangement. Tensions have simmered between the two since a falling out over the Syrian war in 2012, but Hamas’s military wing has been a consistent advocate for re-establishing ties with Tehran. Now, Haniyeh is rumored to be traveling to Tehran soon in what would be his first visit since before the rupture in 2012.
The multiple threats to Hamas’s lifelines could also push the group into a corner, a position that has led to conflict with Israel in the past. In the run-up to the 2014 war with Israel, Hamas found itself in a similar position. Gaza was plunged into an economic crisis at the time, as Egypt cracked down on smuggling tunnels and the PA feuded with Hamas over salary payments. Hamas responded by clamping down on financial institutions — including an episode where its fighters opened fire at several Gaza banks and ATMs — in addition to lashing out militarily.
Now, Hamas finds itself even more isolated and in worse economic shape. Netanyahu said two weeks ago that he didn’t anticipate a conflict breaking out with Hamas, calling the crisis an “internal Palestinian dispute.” In essence, this may be true, but it belies a broader truth: In choking Hamas, Abbas is willing to punish regular Gazans. Why would he care about the consequences for Israelis?
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