When violence erupts in Jerusalem and the West Bank, it is usually not long before the Gaza Strip follows. At Gaza’s border with Israel on Friday, a Palestinian teenager was killed while protesting in solidarity with Palestinians in Jerusalem. Several days earlier, two rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza, and the next day Israeli tanks destroyed a Hamas position.
It’s an all-too-familiar echo of the events that preceded the Gaza conflict of 2014: widespread Palestinian protests in Jerusalem, Israelis murdered in the occupied territories, a sharp rise in Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, mass arrests of Hamas officials in the West Bank, and a steadily tightening noose around Gaza.
In February, Israel’s state comptroller released a report that strongly criticized the government’s failure to prevent the 2014 conflict. The report highlighted a statement made by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon days after the war began: “If Hamas’s distress had been addressed a few months ago, Hamas might have avoided the current escalation.”
The population of Gaza is now suffering far more than it was before the 2014 eruption. Once again, the three parties responsible for the blockade causing that distress — Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority — are bringing the next war closer.
The 2014 violence was precipitated by a change in Egyptian policy: Upon taking power in July 2013, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt closed his country’s sole border crossing with Gaza for long periods and shut nearly all of the tunnels that had smuggled in fuel and other goods that the Gaza government taxed. Starved of revenue, the Hamas-led government could not sustain itself. In desperation, Hamas agreed to hand administrative responsibility to a Palestinian Authority government that was dominated by the rival Fatah party.
But the new government changed little for Gazans: civil servants remained unpaid, most residents were trapped inside the territory and spent half their days without electricity. A new war — leading, as in November 2012, to a new cease-fire deal easing restrictions on Gaza — was seen as the only way out.
Today, it is the Palestinian Authority worsening Gaza’s distress. In recent months, the Authority has conditioned the supply of fuel to the Strip on the payment of a large tax; severely cut compensation to Palestinian Authority employees in Gaza; reduced payments to Israel for providing Gaza’s electricity; prevented large numbers of patients from receiving treatment outside the territory; forced thousands of Gaza government employees into early retirement; barred Gaza banks from transferring payments to Egypt in order to obtain fuel for the Strip’s only power plant; and threatened to cut off welfare payments to some 80,000 families.
The result has been a humanitarian catastrophe. Gaza is on the verge of collapse. Electricity is in short supply, water is undrinkable and raw sewage is being dumped in the sea. Patients denied transfers out of Gaza have died.
The crisis has awoken some Israeli analysts and policy makers to the increased risk of a new conflict. In late April, Giora Eiland, a national security adviser under former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, warned that the Palestinian Authority “is pushing Hamas to take the only option they have and this is to open fire on Israel and attract again the attention of the international community.” He added: “The P.A. wants to make the situation in Gaza as poor as possible in order for Fatah to succeed against Hamas. So both the people of Israel and of Gaza are going to pay the price of the P.A.’s cynical political game.”
But the Palestinian Authority is not the only, or even primary, party to blame. The real basis of Gaza’s problems lies in Israeli and Egyptian moves to isolate Gaza, as well as in Israel’s and the international community’s decision to uphold the fiction that the Palestinian Authority controls the territory and should therefore be entitled to tax its goods and receive and administer its aid.
For 10 years, Israel and most of the international community have sought to weaken Gaza’s rulers by pretending they don’t exist. Israel collects taxes on all the goods it sends into Gaza and transfers that money to the Palestinian Authority, knowing full well that the Authority spends most of it not on services for Gaza but on the Palestinian Authority’s former employees there, who for a decade have been paid to stay home in order to cripple the Hamas-led government.
To compensate its own employees and cover its operating expenses, the Gaza government had relied on taxing goods that came through the Sinai smuggling tunnels. Unlike goods that enter from Israel, these did not arrive with price tags inflated by taxes that went to the Palestinian Authority. When the tunnels were almost entirely closed by Egypt in 2013, the amount of goods entering Gaza from Israel greatly increased. Gazans were now doubly taxed on many imports — first by the Palestinian Authority, before the goods entered the territory, then by the Gaza government.
While the switch to goods from Israel put an extra burden on the people living in Gaza, it was a boon to the Palestinian Authority’s coffers. But instead of spending more on the Strip, the Authority started to spend less, hoping to bring an already weakened Hamas to its knees. Meanwhile, the international community helped uphold this unjust system, refusing to engage with the Gaza government and instead directing much of the budgetary aid that was ostensibly intended for the people of Gaza — roughly 40 percent of Palestinians in the occupied territories — to the Palestinian Authority.
To stabilize Gaza, Egypt has begun to allow in some fuel. That is a positive first step. But much more needs to be done, above all changing the system in which the people of Gaza are taxed by a government that not only does not represent them but is actively seeking to do them harm.
This can be achieved in three ways. First, Israel — which refuses to engage with any Hamas-led government — could transfer tax revenues on Gaza-bound goods to the people of Gaza, either through an internationally supervised trust or by using the tax revenues to pay for increased electricity. Second, Egypt could export more goods to Gaza, thereby reducing the amount taxed by Israel and increasing the amount taxed directly by Gaza’s government. Third, Hamas could allow the formation of a new administrative body in Gaza, led by a non-Hamas figure, in which case Israel and the international community could engage with it directly to improve life in Gaza and establish a long-term cease-fire.
The objection to any of these options in Ramallah — beyond the blow to the Palestinian Authority’s budget — is that they would deepen the separation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and sound the death knell for the Palestinian national movement. (The irony of the Palestinian Authority warning against division as it chokes Gaza seems to be lost in Ramallah.) Some in Gaza have a similar concern: that changes to its status could leave the territory even more vulnerable if they required it to rely on a single lifeline to the outside world through Egypt, which might act even more harshly and with greater impunity in the event of, for instance, another attack near Gaza’s border in Sinai.
But fear of potential consequences should not lead to the perpetuation of harm and the disregard of imminent threat. In the foreseeable future, a new Gaza-Israel conflict, and another after that, are much more likely than bridging the West Bank-Gaza rift. The easiest and most sustainable way to head off that even more catastrophic future is for the goods consumed by two million people in Gaza to be taxed solely by the government that serves them.
Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, is the author of The Only Language They Understand: Forcing Compromise in Israel and Palestine. Robert Blecher is senior adviser and acting Middle East and North Africa director at the International Crisis Group.