Mohammed Salem / REUTERS During a power outage in Gaza City, September 2015.

Gaza on the Brink

How to Forestall Another Conflict Between Hamas and Israel

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An ongoing electricity crisis is placing an inordinate amount of pressure on Gaza. If not addressed, it could end with a political implosion, a full-blown humanitarian disaster, and yet another round of violence between Hamas and Israel. 

A dangerous combination of intra-Palestinian rivalry, the lack of a long-term Israeli strategy for dealing with Hamas, international inertia, and the absence of a political process heightens Gaza’s dire predicament and the possibility of conflict. Even worse, these same factors are plunging the strip into the deepest humanitarian crisis it has seen in a decade. In short, Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian, and possibly political, point of no return.

The episodes of escalation between Hamas and Israel over the past ten years follow a remarkably similar pattern. Although Israel has repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to remove Hamas from power by isolating Gaza, it continues to rely on that same system of restrictions to keep Hamas at bay. The guiding assumption has been that Hamas, interested in continuing to rule the Gaza Strip, can be kept from initiating military hostilities through the threat of increased economic sanctions and military action. Implicit in this reasoning is the belief that it is possible to put enough pressure on Hamas to keep it weak while not putting toomuch pressure on the group to make it desperate—left with nothing to lose and thus undeterrable.

This assumption has proved wrong time and again. The pressure on Gaza cyclically mounts until Hamas opts for force in an attempt to change the rules of the game. Thus, short-lived military conflicts are followed by temporary relaxations of the isolation policy. As time goes on, the trend is reversed, eventually leading to additional rounds of conflict. The same pattern unfolded after the most recent war in 2014. A temporary easing of regulations on the inflows and outflows of goods and people was followed by a significant increase in the political and economic pressure on Gaza, ultimately heightening the chances of yet another round of war.

Hamas fighters during a parade in Gaza, August 2015.

Hamas fighters during a parade in Gaza, August 2015.

In the post-“Pillar of Defense” era, Israel has acted according to two separate, potentially opposing logics. On the one hand, it has embraced the notion that placing too much pressure on Gaza can be counterproductive. It recognizes that reconstruction and humanitarian relief can play a key role in providing a measure of stability. On the other hand, the country’s actions have not been in line with that policy on a practical basis. Israel has placed increasing restrictions on the freedom of movement of people and goods, especially since late 2016.

Although this pattern of growing restrictions is familiar, the amount of pressure placed on Gaza in the past few months is unprecedented, pushing the strip to a point of no return. After all, in addition to Israeli policy and Egypt’s complex relationship with Hamas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) from Ramallah is also aggressively advancing a series of policies aimed at weakening Hamas. Among others, these policies include salary cuts for civil servants on the PA payroll in Gaza, the announcement of a plan for the early retirement of a significant chunk of PA-salaried security personnel in the strip, and reductions in the shipment of medications and medical equipment to Gaza.

To head off a humanitarian disaster and prevent another summer war between Israel and Hamas, Israel must rescind the recent electricity cuts.

The most worrisome development is that Gaza’s access to electricity has also become a political weapon in the ongoing strife between Hamas and the PA. Even before the latest electricity crisis reached its peak in mid-June, the strip could meet only half of its total energy needs, chiefly through shipments from Israel. However, the situation quickly took a turn for the worse in the past few months. Gaza’s only power plant stopped working in April because the plant could not afford fuel inputs, the price of which was inflated by PA-imposed taxes. Things escalated with the PA’s announcement that it did not intend to keep footing Gaza’s entire electricity bill, a development followed by Israel’s decision to implement PA requests to slash over 40 percent of Gaza’s supply of electricity. In the short term, disaster has been staved off by Egypt’s last-minute decision to provide Gaza’s only power plant with fuel; however, unless the electricity cuts are reversed, Gaza’s electricity supply risks going well below the already-meager four to six hours a day available now.

The International Committee for the Red Cross has already announced that the lack of electricity jeopardizes “essential services including healthcare, wastewater treatment and water provision.” Concretely, this means a worsening of Gaza’s dire public health situation; the lack of power severely hindering Gaza’s already over-stretched water and sanitation facilities, resulting in limited access to clean water and potential sanitation problems, including the spread of waterborne diseases. Beyond worsening Gaza’s humanitarian situation, the lack of energy also diminishes its future potential, possibly inflicting permanent, pervasive environmental damage and making Gaza uninhabitable in the near future. For example, the area’s coasts are increasingly polluted and its waters compromised due to partially treated and untreated sewage pumped into the sea.

Palestinians watching a carnival in Gaza, April 2016.

Palestinians watching a carnival in Gaza, April 2016.

Even as it pushes Gaza to the point of no return from a humanitarian perspective, the current strategy further polarizes the Palestinian political landscape and lowers chances of reconciliation. Furthermore, even though Hamas may be trying to solve the electricity crisis with Egypt, the chances of a violent confrontation between Hamas and Israel will only increase unless the pressure subsides.

To head off a humanitarian disaster and prevent another summer war between Israel and Hamas, Israel must rescind the recent electricity cuts. Honoring the PA’s request to withhold the electricity supply is not just highly problematic from an international humanitarian law perspective; it also runs against Israel’s interests.

In the longer term, successfully tackling Gaza’s dire humanitarian situation requires all parties, including Hamas, Israel, and the PA, to stop politicizing access to basic public goods and services such as water and electricity. In addition, it is important to remember that the current troubles are not the result of the PA’s increasingly more aggressive policies alone but that they are the inevitable culmination of a decade of punishment-driven policies based on the notion of isolation. Only policy revisions and investments in Gaza’s reconstruction and development can stop the strip from drifting to a dramatic humanitarian and political point of no return.

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