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Abbas goes to Washington/ Fatah-Hamas escalation fuels Gaza electricity crisis

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Update from AIJAC

 

Update 05/17 #01


This Update deals with two issues, previewing Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas's important trip to Washington to meet US President Donald Trump later this week, and also providing the background to the escalating tension between the PA and Hamas over control of Gaza, which has resulted in serious electricity problems for Gazans (including most recently a PA refusal to continue paying Israel for the large amount of electricity it supplies to Gazans.)

We lead with a preview of the Abbas visit  from Israeli strategic analyst and former deputy National Security Adviser Eran Lerman. Lerman argues that there is today an opportunity to forge a more realistic framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that those occurred under the Obama Administration. He says that hints the Palestinians may be willing to attend a summit with Israeli PM Netanyahu under Trump's auspices may seem surprising but are not if you look at the wider regional picture and Trump's improved relations with US friends in the region. For Lerman's complete argument, CLICK HERE. Another relatively optimistic view of the Summit's potential for kickstarting peacemaking comes from former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, but Palestinian Affairs analyst Khaled Abu Toameh argues Abbas' increasingly shaky hold on power means he is likely unable to advance peace.

Next up, Israeli Palestinian Affairs reporter Avi Issacharoff look at the plight of Gaza as Hamas and the PA/Fatah face off over control of the territory. He notes the real story of the electricity shortages there, the way Hamas worsens the standard of living and how it quells all internal criticism. He notes the current showdown is a bout a new "management committee" for Gaza Hamas has set up, and PA demands that it be disbanded or else Hamas cut the territory off from the lifeline of PA money helping keep it afloat in various ways. He predicts an explosion is sooner or later inevitable, and to find out why, CLICK HERE

Finally, Israeli security reporter Yaakov Lappin looks at Hamas stance in the standoff with the PA. Basically, the group remains committed to both attacking Israel and toppling the PA, but for the time being, is seeking quiet to prepare for future violence, especially in views of its week support from Arab and Muslim governments and reduced revenue. He sees the new political manifesto, using somewhat more moderate language,  Hamas just released as a way to make itself more acceptable as it seeks to consolidate power in Gaza and continues its military build-up until times are ripe for a new clash with Israel. To read his full analysis, CLICK HERE

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Article 1

Mahmoud Abbas Goes to Washington: What Is at Stake?


By Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 455, April 27, 2017
 
Mahmoud Abbas via Office of the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Flickr Creative Commons


EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The preparatory visit to Washington now underway by a Palestinian delegation, headed by Saeb Erekat, underscores the importance attached to the forthcoming visit early next month by Mahmoud Abbas. The indications that Abbas is now willing to contemplate a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu under Trump’s auspices may seem surprising, given the latter’s firm stand on issues important to Israel. But it should be considered in the context of the broader consolidation of the pro-western forces in the region, who felt on unstable ground during the Obama years.

An opportunity is now arising to forge a more realistic framework for negotiations than the one former Secretary of State John Kerry tried, and failed, to get the Palestinians to agree to in 2014 (and which they had no reason to accept, knowing full well that the Obama administration would put the blame on Israel). Straightforward messages would be of great help in setting the stage for purposeful talks. Those messages should address the need for long-term security measures; for mutual recognition (i.e., of Israel as the embodiment of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, and vice versa); and for a territorial compromise reflecting realities on the ground. It would also be helpful for President Trump to send a message on the need to “park” the Jerusalem issue, which cannot be resolved at this time.

If, in return, the Palestinians garner a delay in the transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and an understanding on restrictions (not a freeze) of construction, limiting it to existing settlements, this would be a reasonable price to pay in order to break the dangerous lock of unrealistic terms of reference that Obama (and Condoleezza Rice) led the Palestinians to expect. Given regional and global dynamics, this is not quite as impossible as it may sound.

What is likely to be on the table between the Palestinians and the Trump administration in the preparatory talks and the summit meeting? The most important aspect may, in fact, remain unspoken. It can be defined as “strategic reassurance”: the realization that after years of uncertainty under Obama, the American administration – for all its obvious faults – is once again committed without reservation to its friends in the region, the so-called “camp of stability”.

Obama’s abandonment of Mubarak, regardless of the merits of the case, was catastrophic in terms of the loss of any residual political courage on Abbas’s part. Obama was sympathetic to the Palestinians’ cause, but his policies generated an acute level of uncertainty for the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, laced with what seemed like a measure of support on Obama’s part for the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. This was not an environment in which to take fateful decisions.

The Trump team seems to be working to restore confidence and reconstruct what was referred to during the Reagan years as the “Strategic Consensus”, which includes both Israel and the pro-Western Arab states. In this new environment, it could be safer for Abbas to take measured risks and enter into an open-ended negotiation with Netanyahu. The effort may still fall apart, if only because the Palestinians have fallen into the habit of posing preconditions. But there seems to be a better chance of drawing them in when they feel that their traditional patrons in the Arab world, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are once again basking in the sunshine of American strategic support.

The familiar Palestinian need to latch onto preordained terms of reference, a “closed-end” process, is to some extent a direct function of their sense of weakness and uncertainty (as well as a way to avoid the painful decisions that a real peace with Israel must entail). At least in theory, it should therefore be easier now for Jason Greenblatt and the White House to persuade Abbas to accept a point of entry into negotiations that stays within the two-state paradigm but is no longer predicated on strict adherence to the 4 June 1967 lines (with minimal 1:1 swaps). These parameters could be more in line with what Israel can accept and implement. Clarity on the US agreement with Israel with regard to limited settlement construction – not a “freeze”, which brought both sides nothing but grief when it was tried in 2009-10 – can further set the stage for realism on the broader question of territorial compromise.

As to security, there needs to be a greater recognition of the dangers that flow from the rise in regional tensions; the ambitions of Iran and the virulence of IS; the wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq; and the real possibility of a bid for power by Hamas in the areas now under Ramallah’s control. All this requires arrangements for a long-term Israeli military presence in areas vital not only to the defense of Israel and her citizens but also to the stability and survival of the Palestinian government, as well as the security of Jordan. The level of openness on the Palestinian side on these issues will be highly indicative of the seriousness of their intentions.

In the debates of recent years, recognition has often come across as the most difficult problem to solve. The Palestinians’ almost instinctive reactions – “Call yourselves whatever you wish”, “We do not want to turn this into a religious conflict” – sound plausible at first, but they reflect a profound misreading of the very nature of the Zionist project as a national movement. While this is not a precondition and will ultimately be settled at the table, it would be useful for the Trump team to explore whether the Palestinians can live with more elaborate language than a “Jewish State” – for example, a text asserting that Israel is the embodiment of the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, while the future Palestinian state would be the embodiment of theirs.

Ultimately, it may be wise for the Trump administration to leave the question of Jerusalem on the back burner at this stage. There is no middle ground to be found there, and it would be better to “park” it for the time being. By using the embassy issue as a lure, it should be possible to persuade the Palestinian side that their interests will not be served by forcing the Jerusalem issue now.

As to the sensitive question of PA subsidies to terrorists and their families, which has recently come into focus (thanks in part to the message of Israeli organizations and think tanks), there needs to be a realization on both sides that this is unlikely to be resolved overnight. The conceptual and moral chasm is too wide. Key people in the US administration have already expressed forthright opinions, during their previous service in the House or Senate, about this practice, and have supported legislation aimed at putting an end to it. At the same time, amidst the turmoil caused by the prisoners’ hunger strike (apparently organized by Bargouthi for his own political purposes), it will be impossible for Abbas to simply turn his back on a key aspect of PA policy. The best way to handle this would probably be to increase the pressure, use the issue to legitimize Israel’s security concerns, and then leverage it in order to secure a more practical Palestinian position on the terms of reference – one which will open the door to effective and implementable solutions.

Col. (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman is a senior research associate at the BESA Center, and former deputy for foreign policy and international affairs at the National Security Council. He is also a member of the faculty at Shalem College.

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Article 2
 

Cynically led, and out of electricity, Gaza is close to breaking point again

Hamas is funneling all available resources into its military infrastructure to fight Israel, complaining that Abbas won’t pay for its fuel, and milking everything it can from Gazans. It won’t end well

By Avi Issacharoff

Times of Israel, April 22, 2017, 10:55 am

‘As usual, the situation is shit,” says A., a resident of the Gaza Strip. “It is so bad here that all we can do is laugh about it. We have four hours of electricity and then there’s none for half a day. Then we get another four hours, and then 12 more hours without it. Do you understand?

“So there is all kinds of black humor now. Kids tweet and post things like, ‘In other countries, the snow comes down; here, it’s the electricity.’ I saw a photo on Facebook of two teenagers looking at a sign belonging to Gaza’s electric company and laughing. What are we going to do? After all, we dare not speak out against Hamas, and speaking out against the Palestinian Authority won’t help.”
 
Power outages in Hamas-ruled Gaza, combined with abject poverty, have turned into an all too familiar routine for the Strip’s inhabitants. Every few months, the Palestinian Authority announces its refusal to pay the excise tax that Israel collects for the fuel that enters Gaza. Hamas, the Islamist terror group that seized control of the Strip in 2007, also refuses to pay, the power station in Gaza stops working, and Gazans lose their electricity.

The last time the power station ceased operations, Qatar stepped in and paid Israel for the fuel. Qatar may do the same now as well, but sooner or later even the Qataris may become fed up with the fact that Hamas is living it up at their expense.

The PA is already infuriated. Hamas continues to demand that PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his people, or Qatar, pay for the diesel fuel that gives Hamas electricity. This, despite the fact that Hamas collects taxes from the residents of the Gaza Strip, and all the money goes into its coffers.

But then, this is Gaza, where anything is possible — including stealing residents’ money by imposing new taxes on top of old taxes, and manufacturing a humanitarian crisis in order to blame it on the Palestinian Authority and on Israel.

Gaza supporters of the Palestinian Hamas movement hold crossed-out portraits of Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas (C) and prime minister Rami Hamdallah during a protest on April 14, 2017, in Khan Yunis. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Hamas has a well-oiled policy of screwing things up, then crying foul. It is astonishing to watch it funnel tens of millions of dollars each year to its military wing, its rocket makers and its tunnel diggers, in pursuit of its relentless goal of destroying Israel, while simultaneously pleading that it cannot pay for water or fuel. Almost every day this past week, Hamas has organized marches of thousands of furious residents, who burn photographs of Abbas and of his prime minister, Rami Hamdallah, together with Israeli flags, of course.

Anyone who dares wonder aloud about Hamas’s cynical mismanagement is asking for trouble. A man named Mahmoud el-Zak, who is not a member of Fatah, was arrested and beaten this week. His crime? He dared to write about Hamas consuming electricity in Gaza without being willing to pay for it. The deterrent message was clear — it’s safer for Gazans to blame the PA and Israel.


The power plant in Gaza City pictured from behind a fence on April 16, 2017. The Gaza Strip’s only functioning power plant is out of action after running out of fuel. (AFP/Mahmud Hams)

No imminent solution appears likely. For years, the Abbas government in Ramallah has paid Gaza’s water and electricity bills. But recently something in the PA and Fatah leadership seems to have snapped. Hamas supplies electricity to its own units and institutions, as well as to its military, civilian and political wings — all at the PA’s expense. And the PA may not be willing to take it anymore.

In 2016, the PA’s overall budget was $4.14 billion, of which the Gaza Strip’s share was $1.65 billion. In other words, approximately 40 percent of PA funds is going to an entity under Hamas rule. Hamas, for its part, bolsters its coffers with various taxes that go to its military wing, which fights not only against Israel but also against the PA.

Hamas claims that the figures are misleading. It says that the PA receives hundreds of millions of dollars per year from the Gaza Strip, directly or indirectly (taxes, customs, and so on), and that the PA’s overall investment in Gaza is disproportionately small.

About a month ago, Hamas appointed a new management committee that functions as a de facto Gaza government. This did not go down well with the PA. It felt like a slap in the face for Ramallah, which pays not only Gaza’s bills, but also the salaries of 60,000 PA officials living and working in the Gaza Strip, almost all of whom are sitting at home with no real work because of Hamas’s takeover of Gaza’s government offices. Those officials’ salaries are actually the main economic engine of the Gaza Strip. Ramallah cut the salaries of those 60,000 officials by 30% — a signal to Hamas that unless it transfers the powers of government to Hamdallah, it will have to bear all the Gaza costs from now on.

Two leaders of Fatah, Ahmed Hils and Rawhi Fattouh, met with high-ranking Hamas officials on Wednesday in an effort to resolve the crisis. But afterward, the senior figures who had attended the meeting sounded skeptical about the possibility of compromise.

Fatah demands that Hamas first of all disband the new management committee, and ultimately give up its control of Gaza.

Khalil al-Hayya, a high-ranking Hamas official in Gaza, said that Hamas has no intention of doing so. The committee will not be disbanded, nor does Hamas intend to relinquish the last territorial bastion still under the control of a movement created by the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Hayya would say only that if Hamdallah’s government wanted to come to Gaza and solve its problems, it was welcome to do so. Hamdallah is unlikely to take up the invitation.

Meanwhile, the average Gazan is left paying more for many products than his compatriot in the West Bank, even though life in the Strip is much worse.

How so? Because of the multiple taxes Gazans pay on goods: one tax goes to the Palestinian Authority and another goes to Hamas’s treasury.

If Ahmed from Jabalia has his heart set on a new car, he will first pay the price of the car, plus the tax that the Palestinian Authority imposes. When the vehicle is brought into Gaza, however, he must also pay a “passage toll,” and yet another tax that Hamas collects based on the car’s value.

The same goes for other items including televisions and electrical appliances.

Hamas is not kind to the Gazans. If a Gazan merchant imports beef, Hamas collects a tax of 90 shekels ($25) for each head of cattle in addition to the tax on the truck that arrives to load the merchandise at the Kerem Shalom border crossing.

All of this underlines why tension and frustration are growing in Gaza. Unemployment is sky high — 41.7% in Gaza as compared with 18.2% in the West Bank (Israel’s unemployment rate is approximately 4.3%). Monthly salaries for those who do have a job are low — 1,600 shekels (a little over $400), compared to 2,000 shekels ($550) in the West Bank. Poverty is everywhere. And now the power is down again.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out what is going to happen, eventually, to this barrel of gunpowder.

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Article 3

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