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Divided and ruled


Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas meet in Cairo, February 2012 amidst high hopes of a reconciliation agreement and popular elections. Photo by Mohammed al-Hums/Flash 90

Even as Gaza reels from floods, Hamas and Fatah remain divided

‘Israel wrote the script, and the two actors – Hamas and Fatah – are playing their roles superbly.’

By Amira Hass, Ha’aretz
December 20, 2013

In Gaza City, when they talk about “the tunnel,” they’re referring to the eastern part of Al Jala Street. There, in the refugee neighborhood of Sheikh Radwan, the street, like the terrain, is concave.

Last week’s floods afflicted the street as it did the nearby Jabalya refugee camp. The accompanying disasters – thousands forced out of their homes, boats sailing down flooded roads, schools turned into shelters – have fostered a direct and indirect dialogue between the two rival Palestinian governments, Hamas and Fatah.

Since 2008 there has been a Pavlovian reaction. Whenever a disaster (usually a military conflict) disrupts the poverty, blockade, unemployment and suffocation, the leaders pick up their phones and talk. They talk about a reconciliation and rattle off the amounts of money aid organizations will provide to fix the damage. So go the politics of disaster that have become second nature to Gazans.

Of course, humanitarian crises are dealt with by various entities that work together to solve a problem that could have been prevented, or at least minimized. But the latest disaster was worsened because Gaza was without power for most of the day, and essential drainage and wastewater systems were shut down. It was worsened because Israel forbids construction materials and spare parts from entering the Strip, so basic infrastructure suffers.

The flooding was worsened by another human element. In a few places, the metal grates that prevent solid debris from clogging the drainage system disappeared; they were probably stolen. The poverty and scarcity of metal in Gaza have turned public property into a source of income. It’s also safe to assume that the lack of fuel meant municipal workers couldn’t respond to various problems such as theft.

The latest disaster led to a phone call between Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Also, longtime Hamas enemy Mohammed Dahlan approached the organization in Gaza and offered to provide humanitarian aid to the storm victims through his ties with the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia.

The floods and the talks led to a partial and very temporary solution to the electricity problem. Since November 1, Gaza’s power plant, which supplied 30 percent of the Strip’s electricity, has been shut down. The Palestinian governments have been mired in a financial dispute. Hamas, whose coffers have been emptied since it lost the revenue from the tunnels, is unwilling to pay – in advance, at that – the full price the Palestinian Authority is demanding for the diesel fuel that it will buy from Israel.

The PA, despite its own financial problems, is still covering health care expenses for Gazans who receive treatment outside of Gaza. It pays the salaries of 70,000 Gazans for not working in Hamas institutions, and it pays for electricity bought from Israel, but is not fully reimbursed. Those 70,000 Gazans are all PA supporters, but starting from this month their pay has been cut.

Blackouts not as bad

Both governments are being stubborn, and the people are paying the price. Now that the floods have been well publicized, Qatar has sent the PA $10 million for diesel fuel. Israel has extended the Kerem Shalom crossing’s operating hours to allow trucks carrying diesel fuel to cross the border, and it’s not limiting the amount let in as it did in the past.

The increase in fuel has shortened the daily blackouts from 16 hours to 12. The donation will provide enough supplies for a month, after which the financial disagreement will resume. But is it really just a financial disagreement?

Since 2010, Gaza’s power plant has been dependent on the increasing amounts of industrial diesel fuel imported from Egypt through the tunnels. This was both a political and economic success for Hamas, which was able to supply impoverished Gazans with fuel cheaper than that coming from Israel. By doing so, Hamas showed the people that it was no longer dependent on Israel and the PA and created a tax-collection source of its own.

The Hamas government sought to prove that the blockaded, enclosed Gaza Strip must be opened to the rest of the Arab Muslim world, through Egypt. Hamas spent all its resources on achieving that end in the hope that the increasing trade with Egypt would take place above ground. Slowly, trade with Israel would become unnecessary.

The coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt also dashed Hamas’ political hopes. Hamas didn’t abandon its old tactic, which it used during the Mubarak era as well, of publicizing Gazans’ suffering in the hope that Egypt would ease the restrictions on the tunnels. But the tactic isn’t working; Egypt has even refused to open the Rafah crossing since last Thursday.

The PA, for its part, continues to hope that Hamas’ decline due to the situation in Egypt will spell its downfall. Thus the PA has turned a blind eye to the children in Gaza studying by candlelight, and to the hospitals that can’t treat patients.

Maybe the PA hopes the people will rebel against Hamas, but in the meantime they’re not because of the oppression, Hamas’ solid support and a lack of faith in the PA and Fatah. Most importantly, there’s the fear that things could be worse.

Fatah members in Gaza who oppose Abbas say the PA has abandoned Gaza. They say that just like Hamas, the PA hopes Gaza will be completely cut off.

Dr. Eyad al-Sarraj, who died last week and was buried in Gaza, had tried in recent years – while he was struggling with cancer – to solve some of the side conflicts that resulted in the political split among the Palestinians. He tried to advance an agenda of reconciliation.

During a meeting at his home in Gaza in 2009, the psychiatrist, a Be’er Sheva native who founded Gaza’s first mental health center, summed up the situation in one sentence that still holds true. “Israel wrote the script, and the two actors – Hamas and Fatah – are playing their roles superbly.”


Hamas Loses Ground

By Victor Kotsev, Sada / Carnegie Endowment for Peace
December 03, 2013

Within one year, the fortunes of the two main Palestinian movements, Fatah and Hamas, have seemingly reversed. Undercut by the ouster of its Muslim Brotherhood ally in Egypt and cut off from much of the world, Hamas is facing a number of threats, both external and internal. As the economic conditions worsen in Gaza and discontent rises on the streets, the militant movement is growing paranoid and finding Gaza increasingly difficult to govern.

A year ago, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank was in the same situation as Hamas is now. At this point last year, when Israel was withholding tax money and Arab and Western donors were scaling back their support—distracted by the world financial crisis and the Arab Spring and unhappy about PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to restart peace talks with Israel—the backlog of unpaid salaries of civil employees increased, and discontent on the streets skyrocketed. Analysts were warning of “a total breakdown in law and order in the West Bank.” Hamas’s popularity, by contrast, was on the rise, propelled by events in Egypt and Syria (though the movement had lost the important support of the Syrian regime a few months earlier, at the time the Muslim Brotherhood, closely linked to Hamas, was gaining ground in the civil war and was courted by much of the international community) and basking in the attention of Arab rulers such as the Emir of Qatar, who visited the strip and pledged hundreds of millions of dollars of financial support.


Briefly, an Egyptian government headed by Mohammed Morsi  [above with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, promised significant change in the politics of Palestine. Since the military coup, Gaza is more isolated than ever. Photo by AP.

But with the restart of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt, all that changed. Though many Palestinians still distrust Abbas, he is once again regarded as the legitimate face of Palestinian leadership—he is receiving important foreign delegations—and economic tensions in the West Bank have decreased. In the meantime, Hamas’s coffers are empty, most of the tunnels under the Egyptian border it has used as a lifeline have been destroyed, and its few remaining international friends (such as Turkey) are on the defensive. Furthermore, a homegrown popular movement is organizing to challenge Gaza’s rulers while Fatah is also reportedly waiting for an opportunity to pounce on them.

The movement in question, Tamarrod (named after Egypt’s own successful Tamarrod), blames Hamas, even more than Israel, for the plight of Gaza’s population. However, the group has little experience organizing and there is no force in Gaza that could take on a role similar to that played by the Egyptian army. The movement has been organizing primarily online and has a decentralized leadership structure. A rally planned for November 11 was cancelled under massive pressure from Hamas, whose police arrested opposition activists and journalists. But then again, a subsequent military parade by Hamas commemorating last year’s brief war with Israel also failed to mobilize popular support in the strip.

Hamas is clearly nervous, as attested by a massive recent campaign to identify and intimidate members of Tamarrod, to interrogate a wide range of dissidents, and to tap social networking sites. Although Palestine’s Tamarrod is not likely to bring down Hamas, it has been able to draw strength from popular discontent. There are rumors that other movements could follow in Tamarrod’s footsteps, putting additional pressure on Hamas, while providing an outlet through which Gazans can voice their discontent and counter their government’s repressive techniques.

Moreover, with many in Fatah reportedly hoping to use Hamas’s current weakness to oust it and regain control over Gaza, there is no shortage of more traditional forces seeking to challenge Hamas. Some critics charge that Tamarrod itself is a product of a Fatah conspiracy. Some Fatah leaders even reportedly dream of restoring their rule in Gaza, with Egyptian support—ironically over Israel’s objections. Analysts suggested that the former PA strongman in the strip, Mohammed Dahlan, who has been trying to patch up a past quarrel with Abbas, could spearhead this Fatah return to the strip—perhaps first from Egypt, where he could be invited to help “seal” Gaza’s border.

Among other signs that Hamas is worried about its grip on Gaza, the movement seems desperate to forge as many new relationships as quickly as possible in order to compensate for the loss of domestic and international support. That it has recently been trying to reconcile simultaneously with its former patron Iran as well as with rival Salafi factions in the strip is an indication of its desperation. It has also made attempts “to be more open to the West,” recently appointing a first ever English-language spokeswoman.

The success of these measures, however, is far from guaranteed given the isolation the movement faces and the threat the new Egyptian regime presents to it. What could complicate Hamas’s situation even further is a potential positive development in the peace negotiations Abbas’s government is conducting with the Israelis, a process Hamas condemns. Although Palestinian reconciliation remains elusive at best (despite periodic proclamations by both Fatah and Hamas), if a peace agreement is reached between Israel and Fatah, Hamas will face further pressure to either leave power or transform radically—which would necessitate a recognition of Israel and entail a contentious and divisive internal debate. Remaining defiant in the face of a negotiated agreement that has been endorsed by both the PA and Israel would cement international consensus against Hamas and would make its predicament worse—possibly triggering a coordinated economic or even military campaign from Israel, Egypt, and the PA to topple Hamas.

In any case, while it is too early to prophesize about the outcome of the US-led Israeli-Palestinian talks, many analysts believe that the secrecy surrounding them is a positive sign, as is the recent release of 26 long-serving prisoners.

The recent deal between Iran and the West also threatens Hamas, since many analysts believe that an eventual comprehensive deal would cover not only the Iranian nuclear program, but also the entire Iranian system of alliances in the region, including in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. Worse still, Hamas leaders are reportedly struggling to reach a consensus on how to respond to the many threats and to the rising tensions in Gaza. According to a media account of a recent interview with a senior Hamas member, “Hamas . . . has no direction. The leaders of Hamas do not know what to do. There are struggles within the movement between those who think that they should realign with Iran and Hezbollah.”

While the region changes dramatically around it, Hamas is struggling to adapt. This inability to redefine itself amid these major regional shifts—increasing popular discontent and the loss of key regional supporters—could force some unfavorable changes and jeopardize its grip on Gaza.

Victor Kotsev is an independent journalist and political analyst focusing on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to Sada.

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