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 surprises. It is highly cautious, hinting at moderation while still adhering to Hamas’s hardline tenets. It clearly rejects the so-called Quartet principles, the three conditions on diplomatic and financial support to any PA government: recognising Israel; renouncing violence; and abiding by past agreements (the document explicitly rejects the Oslo agreements). At the same time, Hamas wanted the document to be interpreted as a sign of moderation and a potential opening for engagement with governments that have boycotted it.
In attempting to please all, the document risks pleasing none. It hints at compromises in such a tepid manner that, on one hand, hardliners were not too angered, and, on the other, Western and Arab governments were not too impressed. The document fell short of expectations that the movement had itself helped set: dissociating Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood (which would have been a positive signal to Egypt); accepting a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines without recognising Israel; and endorsing so-called “popular” or more-or-less unarmed resistance as a legitimate tool.
The document’s ambiguous circumlocutions are open to many interpretations. Despite the lack of explicit dissociation from the Muslim Brotherhood, some see significance in the fact that the words Muslim Brotherhood do not appear in the document, or the vague affirmation that “Hamas stresses the necessity of maintaining the independence of Palestinian national decision-making. Outside forces should not be allowed to intervene”. The much-promised acceptance of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines was not an acceptance but rather an assertion that “Hamas considers” the establishment of such a state, without recognising Israel, “to be a formula of national consensus.”
The document emphasises continued armed resistance to Israel, and offers less than expected to those hoping Hamas might embrace nonviolent tactics and accept a two-state settlement. The text only makes a weak allusion to non-military methods: “Managing resistance, in terms of escalation or de-escalation, or in terms of diversifying the means and methods, is an integral part of the process of managing the conflict and should not be at the expense of the principle of resistance”.
Senior Hamas leaders had publicly made far more explicit statements in support of compromise than the ones appearing in the document. More than five years ago, Mish‘al himself offered more clearly and strongly worded support for both popular resistance and a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders: “Now we have a common ground that we can work on … the popular resistance, which presents the power of people …. We have political differences [with Fatah and the PLO], but the common ground is the state on the ‘67 borders. Why don’t we work in this common area?”
For years, political forces seeking engagement with Hamas and those seeking its continued boycott and isolation have screamed past one another without changing many minds. Those in favor of engagement remain a minority, and the new political document is unlikely to boost them. They will point to the document’s clauses on the pre-1967 borders, but those upholding the boycott of Hamas will point to the clauses on liberating all of Palestine, from the river to the sea. Those in favor of engagement will point to the allusion to “diversifying the means and methods of resistance”; their opponents will point to the document’s emphasis on armed resistance. The debate will continue, and the document will now be cited by both sides. It’s hard to see what will change as a result of it.
The majority of observers expect that when President Trump eventually encounters serious difficulties, as he inevitably will, he will give up and turn to another issue. For now, though, it is deeply troubling to both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships that unpredictable outcomes are even possible.
What that means for the Trump administration is that he may have more coercive power than other U.S. presidents have had in getting the parties to agree to talks and accompanying confidence-building steps. In March, when Netanyahu threatened to dissolve the current government, the Israeli press was rife with speculation that one of his primary motivations in considering early elections was to buy time — from the moment an election is called until the next government is formed can take over half a year — in order to forestall a new Trump-led peace process. This might include demands on Israel that would be difficult for the present government to accept but also risky to reject, since Trump’s reaction to Israeli intransigence is wholly unknown. Elections could also potentially allow Netanyahu to form a governing coalition that would give him greater freedom to meet challenging U.S. requests.
When Trump was first elected and during the early weeks of his administration, the PLO leadership (it is the PLO, not the PA, that engages in negotiations with Israel) appeared quite nervous because, as was widely reported, it had difficulty establishing contact with senior members of the new administration. Those fears subsided considerably after Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo’s visit to the West Bank in mid-February, the March visit to Israel and the West Bank by Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Special Representative for International Negotiations, and, especially, the phone call in which Trump invited Abbas to the White House.
The other important thing for the Palestinians is to show goodwill to the U.S., to assure this administration of the PA’s utility to the U.S., and to make sure that the PLO is not seen as the obstacle to Trump achieving a historic agreement. The Palestinian leadership is keenly aware that U.S. officials view the PA primarily through a security and counter-terrorism prism. The U.S. spends a large portion of its aid to the Palestinians on training, equipping and otherwise supporting its security forces in the West Bank, and the primary aim of this support is to thwart attacks against Israel and more generally minimise friction between Israelis and Palestinians. When talking to U.S. officials, PA leaders typically emphasise their close and ongoing coordination with Israeli security forces, as well as the fact that the Palestinian security forces are praised and valued by Israel. PA leaders also contrast the PA and PLO with Hamas and argue that support to the PA can strengthen self-identified Palestinian moderates and help the U.S. achieve its broader counter-terrorism aims in the region.
For his part, Trump seems determined to start a new peace process and, for now, the parties seem determined not to openly upset him. On 9 May, Abbas said that he told Trump that the Palestinians “were ready to collaborate with him and meet the Israeli PM [Benjamin Netanyahu] under his auspices to build peace”. It took President Obama nearly two years to get Abbas and Netanyahu to launch a very short-lived set of direct negotiations. If Trump’s visit secures that alone, it will be a success for him.
Whether Abbas and Netanyahu are any more likely to reach a peace agreement once they do start negotiations is another matter, as is the question of whether a new war over Gaza may overtake them all.
Nathan Thrall, Senior Analyst, Israel/Palestine .