Op-Ed

In challenging Hamas, Abbas leaves people of Gaza in the dark

Gazan family in the city of Khan Unis live by the light of a fire during daily power outages.
Gazan family in the city of Khan Unis live by the light of a fire during daily power outages. AP

Something bad is happening in Gaza, Israel’s back yard, and Israel should take action before this Godforsaken piece of land explodes again.

The recent issue is electric power. Israel is the main supplier of power to Gaza, currently giving it 125 megawatts monthly — around 30 percent of what is needed to power Gaza for 24 hours a day. The only electric plant in Gaza itself isn’t working, and Egypt is not keen on giving Hamas-controlled Gaza any assistance. The result is that the Gazans have electricity only for about three hours a day.

The immediate harm to the people there is doubled by the indirect damages — for example, the inability to treat sewage, store frozen food, desalinate water, or pump drinking water.

Nevertheless, the Israeli government decided this month to cut the electricity supply to Gaza from 125 megawatts to 75. Why? Because Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, asked it to do so.

Since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has been struggling to bring it back home. In 2014 a “national unity government” was formed, but it failed to bridge the widening gap between Gaza and the West Bank.

Recently, Abbas seems to have lost his patience and consequently asked Israel to reduce the electricity supply, to put pressure on the defiant Hamas.

Allegedly, this internal Palestinian struggle plays into the hands of the Israeli government. If the Palestinians can’t get their act together, then Israelis are right in claiming that there is no credible Palestinian partner, and therefore the two-state solution is not viable. Furthermore, Israelis may be right in arguing that they left Gaza in 2005, only to get rockets in return. If the ungrateful, perhaps suicidal, Gazans chose Hamas as their leader, then they should bear the consequences.

There is, however, a popular dictum, taken from the savage Israeli driving scenario: “On the road, don’t be right, be wise.” Punishing Hamas may perhaps be the right thing to do, but definitely not the wise one. It will only produce — with high level of certainty — another military confrontation, with more destruction, loss of life, and suffering on both sides.

Here is how it works: Hamas, caught between the rock and the hard place of Israel and Egypt, and pressured by the Palestinian Authority, maneuvers to maintain its hegemony in Gaza against all odds. Desperately needing funds to feed the Gazans, it leans on the generosity of Qatar. But now that Qatar is in trouble, it turns to Iran. Vis-à-vis the Egyptians it is willing to curb ISIS-related cells in Sinai, and in response to the Israeli pressure it curtails the erratic rocket launching from Gaza by renegade Salafist gangs. And responding to the consensus among the Palestinians, it published recently a new, unprecedented policy document, accepting a two-state solution.

However, when backed against the wall, Hamas will react in another military confrontation with Israel, regardless of the cost for the people of Gaza. This is exactly what happened in 2014, when Hamas — because of its feud with the Palestinian Authority — failed to pay the salaries of the many civil servants in Gaza. Its only way of attracting the world’s attention and preserving its power was by invoking the wrath of Israel. Indeed, in the meeting of the Israeli government, the chiefs of the IDF warned that the decision to cut electric power to Gaza might lead to a military escalation.

Does this mean that Israel should sit idly and let Hamas harass it whenever it feels like? Nothing of the sort. Israel should deter Hamas militarily and constantly blunt its sting: Iron Dome has already minimized the effect of the Hamas rockets, and intensive work is being done in addressing the threat of the Hamas attack tunnels.

At the same time, Israel should help Gaza recover from the destruction of 2014 and, indeed, ministers in the Israeli government support building a modern port in Gaza, which would boost the economy of that wretched place. Such use of the carrot alongside the stick is not only the right thing to do: It is wise as well.

To borrow a page from the history books, after the defeat of Germany in World War I, Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for war and air, received news that the Germans, long under heavy blockade, were starving. He told the War Cabinet that it was essential to give the Germans, “some hope of the future security and of at least a partial recovery.” Then, in a public speech, he summed up the British government’s responsibility: “To disarm Germany, to feed Germany, and to make peace with Germany.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his crusade against Iran’s nuclear race, liked to portray himself as Churchill, a lone voice sounding the alarm against the rising threat — Nazi Germany then, Iran today. Yet Netanyahu should look at all of Churchill’s statements, and if really following in his footsteps, he should try “to disarm Gaza, to feed Gaza, and to make peace with Gaza.”

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