President Donald Trump makes a 26-hour visit to Israel on 22 May to discuss the “ultimate deal” — a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians — with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. With his eyes on the big prize, Trump risks neglecting a critical element of any agreement: the Palestinian territory of Gaza, where a new bout of war is potentially brewing.
Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians are administered by a third force, Hamas, labeled a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and others, and the isolation of the territory, imposed by Israel and Egypt, is pushing the population dangerously into dire straits. At the end of April, the inhabitants of the narrow coastal strip saw electricity supplies drop to only a few hours a day. The economic lifeline of government salaries has been sharply cut. Access to the internet is slow and irregular. Medicines are critically short.
One reason for this is the policy of “closure” exercised by Gaza’s neighbours, Israel and Egypt, who are trying to make the other take responsibility for one of the planet’s most overpopulated, oppressed and traumatised places. This policy prevents the vast majority of the territory’s residents from leaving, and greatly increases their sense of entrapment and desperation.
Tensions are being aggravated by an intra-Palestinian feud over taxes, salaries and legitimacy between Hamas, rulers of Gaza since 2007, and President Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, administrators of parts of the West Bank. This month’s change of leadership in Hamas, and its attempt to put a softer face on its armed struggle with Israel by publishing an ambiguous new political document, is unlikely to change its isolation. The general Palestinian mood is also turning rebellious, with West Bankers and Gazans united in overwhelming support of a hunger strike of over 1,500 Palestinian detainees for better conditions in Israeli prisons.
It is unclear what President Trump can do to mitigate any of these inter-related conflicts. Both Netanyahu and Abbas have now visited Trump at the White House, and both are in discussions with the new U.S. administration about its still nascent plans to restart peace negotiations. Though Israelis and Palestinians are sceptical that anything can come of such negotiations, Abbas and Netanyahu feel obliged to show goodwill toward the new and highly unpredictable U.S. president.
The perception that Trump is capricious offers him some leverage that other U.S. presidents might not have had. He is feared by leaders of both sides. Palestinians worry that he could radically alter, to their detriment, U.S. positions on the core issues of a peace settlement. Trump has been extraordinarily vague about his vision of what he calls “the ultimate deal”, has given the impression that he is not particularly concerned about the details of a would-be accord, and has gone so far as to state that he could “live with” either one state or two.
Trump’s ambiguity concerns the Israelis too. They worry that if he approaches the Israeli-Palestinian conflict like a real-estate transaction, he may, in order to close the deal, apply pressure on them. After all, he has proclaimed political partiality to the Jewish state, but not demonstrated visceral affinity for it. Another concern, for both sides, is what Trump will do if and when he decides that one of them is the primary obstacle to his achievement of a deal that he has prioritised. Could he turn vindictive and isolate, even punish, one or both of the parties?
The ticking time bomb of Gaza
While Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas position themselves for the next round of discussions, a time bomb is ticking. A number of Israeli security analysts and former Israel Defence Forces generals are warning that Gaza’s misery is reaching intolerable levels, as was the case prior to the summer 2014 war that killed 2,139 Palestinians, 64 Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians. In fact, the situation in Gaza today is worse than it has been at any time since Israel conquered the territory in 1967, fifty years ago next month.
In “normal” times, Gaza suffers electricity blackouts of roughly twelve hours per day. Its chronic power shortages have worsened considerably in recent months to 20 hours per day. In January, residents turned out in very large numbers to protest the blackouts and the horrible effects they had on hospitals, water, and sewage. To alleviate the crisis, Qatar and Turkey donated fuel to Gaza for a three-month period, which expired in April.
There are three main sources of electricity for Gaza: about one-tenth comes from Egypt, on three power lines that have been repeatedly shut down in recent years; about one third from the local Gaza power plant, currently working at half its capacity (in part due to fuel shortages); and the rest from Israel. Together these add up to 207-212mw, which is less than half of the power Gaza needs.
Gaza’s electricity supply is complicated by internal Palestinian feuding over who should pay for it and how, and the end result merely underlines how powerless the Palestinian sides are compared to Israel. Days before Abbas’s visit to Washington, the PA said it would stop paying for part of Gaza’s electricity. But the PA cannot actually carry out its threat to stop paying for electricity in Gaza without Israel’s permission.
That’s because goods entering Palestinian territory — including fuel for the Gaza power plant — are taxed by Israel, on behalf of the PA, for a 3 per cent collection fee, which is then transferred to the PA. But before the transfer is made, Israel deducts what the Palestinians owe for electricity in both Gaza and the West Bank. In May, to the PA’s chagrin, Israel carried out its usual deductions for electricity from PA tax revenue and continued to supply Gaza with the same amount as in previous months.
Israel does this not only because it is obliged to do so under existing agreements, but also because it has little incentive to see Gaza descend further into darkness. Israel recognises that the territory’s worsening humanitarian situation might drag it and Hamas toward a new war.
Little help from the neighbours
Keeping up basic services to Gaza’s population is further complicated by the way the territory’s two neighbours, Egypt and Israel, have engaged in a years-long struggle to foist responsibility for Gaza onto the other. Egypt has largely won. Almost all of the goods entering and exiting Gaza now go through Israel, as do most of the small number of Gaza’s residents whom Israel allows to leave (the majority of them are merchants, and the next largest category, which is much smaller, is medical patients). Egypt does not wish to revert to a situation in which it has relatively more responsibility for Gaza, and it is not interested in helping Hamas establish a successful, nearby model of Islamist rule by the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel’s Gaza policy is the outcome of several conflicting interests. First and foremost, it wants to keep Hamas weak so that it does not come to pose a greater military threat to Israel and, as importantly, does not grow in power in the West Bank at the expense of Fatah, which is the largest political faction in the PLO (the umbrella organisation for the Palestinian national movement) and the most influential force in the Palestinian government, known as the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel fears that improving conditions in Gaza could strengthen Hamas and undermine the authority of the PA, by stabilising Hamas rule and making the PA appear less unattractive. Second, and in tension with the first, Israel wants to avoid a new war, which means ensuring that conditions do not become so dire that Hamas believes that violence is its only means of escaping from slow suffocation. Third, Israel wants to avoid reoccupying Gaza. Doing so is seen as too costly in blood and treasure, and there does not appear to be any viable exit strategy. None of the potential alternatives to Hamas appears strong enough to take and retain power in Gaza – not the PA or Fatah, and not Salafi-jihadist groups, which, even if they weren’t too weak, would be seen as too dangerous.
The humanitarian crisis is not just aggravated by Israel and Egypt, but by the Palestinians’ own internal divisions. The latest move in the PA’s campaign to squeeze Gaza was a decision by the PA health ministry to stop supplying Gaza with medicines and baby formula. There is a severe shortage of medicine in Gaza, and over 90 per cent of cancer medicines are totally absent. The PA, which typically ships medicine to Gaza every two months, has not sent medicine in three months. The PA claims that whatever shortages exist in Gaza also exist in the West Bank, though there is no comparing the state of health in the two territories, and it says a new shipment will be sent in the coming days.
The PA has consistently tried to leverage its relationship with the U.S. to sideline Hamas, partly by attempting to show itself to be a useful weapon against Hamas. Ahead of Abbas’s latest visit to Washington, this took a dangerous turn: the PA decided to drastically cut payments to its employees in Gaza. These were cuts of at least 30 per cent in each employee’s total compensation. Since Hamas’s takeover of Gaza in 2007, many of these employees have been paid to sit at home, as the PA hoped that it could topple the Gaza government by forcing civil servants, who are largely identified with Fatah, to refuse to work.
Ten years on, this strategy has failed. Hamas hired its own employees, as well as some who had worked for the PA, and many of the PA employees took second jobs. Others sat at home, where their idleness and in some cases drug addiction often had destructive effects on their families. But though these people were not productive, their government salaries were critical to the functioning of the Gaza economy. The PA constituted Gaza’s single largest funding source, with far more “employees” than those hired by the actual, Hamas-run government or by the UN.
When the largest employer in Gaza removes at least one-third of the compensation to its employees, the effects are disastrous, especially when the second-largest employer, the Hamas-led government, has been paying half-salaries for several years. Palestinians refer to the PA pay cuts as the “salaries massacre”. In Gaza, many protesters contend that Abbas’s primary motivation for the cut was simply to show Trump that he was doing what he could to weaken Hamas and bring Gaza to heel. The PA was also motivated by Hamas’s March 2017 decision to set up a formal, parallel administrative committee for overseeing Gaza. Doing so appeared to undermine the 2014 agreement between the PA and Hamas to form a “government of national consensus”, which has only been partially implemented.
The PA justified the cuts by stating that donor aid to the PA had dropped, which is true. But it is also a rather partial and -in this context- misleading account of PA finances. Before President Sisi took power in Egypt in 2013 and shut nearly all the tunnels under the fences on the Gaza-Sinai border, goods that entered Gaza through the tunnels were taxed by the Hamas-run government. Now that the flow of goods entering Gaza has moved to routes through Israel, Hamas has lost its main source of revenue, while overall PA revenues have increased.
Hamas struggles to evolve
Hamas won general Palestinian elections in 2006, lost a struggle for control of the West Bank to the Western-backed Palestinians now running the PA, and then seized effective control of Gaza in 2007. It is now trying to present a new face to the world. It unveiled a long-expected, more moderate-looking new political document just before Khaled Mish‘al stepped down as leader of Hamas in early May. (Internal Hamas bylaws prevented him from running for another term.)
The specific timing of the press conference to announce the new document does seem to have been influenced by Abbas’s meeting with Trump. Prior to heading to Washington, Abbas had threatened to take new and unspecified steps against Gaza, and, just like Abbas and Netanyahu, Hamas has every reason to fear what the new U.S. administration’s policy toward it might be. Most worrisome is the possibility that Abbas could further squeeze Gaza, with the approval of the U.S. and its Arab allies. The day after Abbas’s meeting with Trump, U.S. Special Representative Jason Greenblatt attended a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, a group that coordinates development aid to the Palestinians, and placed sole responsibility for Gaza’s electricity crisis on Hamas. Israeli security officials, by contrast, put much of the blame for the humanitarian situation in Gaza on the PA.
The political document does not contain Hamas’s 1988 founding charter’s anti-Semitic or conspiratorial elements, it denounces ethnic and sectarian extremism and bigotry, and it places greater emphasis on Hamas’s nationalist, rather than Islamist, character. During his remarks at the launch press conference, Mish‘al clearly tried to suggest that the political document, and not the charter, now represents Hamas’s vision. But Hamas has not said it is a new charter, and nor does it abrogate or supplant the founding charter. Hamas had been trying for many years to downplay the significance of its charter and dissociate itself from it, but a full renunciation was apparently a bridge too far.
Even so, the document contained no su