Abbas' electricity deal an olive branch to Gaza

By convincing Israel to restore Gaza's power supply, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hopes to regain the trust of Gazans ahead of a Palestinian National Council meeting.

al-monitor Palestinians ride a motorcycle during a power cut on a street in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, Jan. 11, 2017.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Jan 9, 2018

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories on Jan. 7 made the announcement Gaza residents had waited over more than seven months to hear. On the administrative body's Arabic Facebook page, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai wrote, “Recently the Palestinian Authority turned [to Israel] with the request to turn on the electricity after its supply was constricted in June 2017, and promised to pay the requisite costs. Israel discussed the request and after much indecision and misgivings, it accepted the Authority’s appeal only out of humanitarian considerations and in light of the deep suffering of the residents. In the next few days, Israel will increase the currently limited electrical supply to 120 megawatts via the 10 high-power lines that extend from Israel to the Gaza Strip, as had been the case until June 2017.”

Mordechai said the security-diplomatic Cabinet had agreed more than a year ago to add 100 megawatts to the Strip's supply on condition that a humanitarian issue be resolved: the return of the bodies of Israeli soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, held by Hamas since the 2014 Gaza war. The families of the two soldiers expressed their objection to Israel’s willingness to restore power to Gaza despite Hamas' refusal to return the bodies of their sons. Perhaps as a show of goodwill to the families, Mordechai also shared a message from Leah Goldin, Goldin’s mother, directed at the people of Gaza. “Do not allow yourself to be held hostage by the Hamas terror organization,” Leah Goldin wrote. “Humanitarianism and benevolence must go two ways.”

The PA's request had taken Israel by surprise. Until recently, the Palestinian reconciliation process had reportedly remained stuck over President Mahmoud Abbas' refusal to remove the sanctions on Gaza, until control over the armed forces in Gaza was resolved. Israel had based all its plans on these reports. High-level Hamas members even complained that despite Hamas' clearly stated willingness to forfeit civil control in the Strip and allow for far-reaching compromises, Abbas stubbornly refused and showed no signs of readiness to put an end to the crisis. All this changed during the past weekend.

Abbas’ agreement to fund Gaza’s electrical supply even as the United States threatens to reduce aid to the PA is no small thing. The cost of Gaza's electricity consumption is estimated at about 40 million shekels ($11.6 million) a month. Some of the money will come from the PA’s taxes that Israel will deduct, some from countries around the world and some from international aid foundations.

Of course, restoring the power supply does not completely resolve the energy problems of the Strip’s residents, but does alleviate them somewhat. When the supply is restored, households in Gaza will receive between two to four additional hours of electricity a day, for a total of about 10 hours of electricity over a 24-hour period. To Gaza residents who have suffered long days of only two hours of electricity, it will be a tremendous improvement.

“This is, clearly, a first step toward reconciliation,” an Israeli defense source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “To residents of the Strip, Abbas’ cutbacks in electricity were his most unpopular acts adopted toward Hamas, and turned him into their number-one enemy.” Signs vilifying Abbas were hung up on the streets. People scrawled graffiti on Gaza’s walls, calling Abbas a “child murderer.” Abbas was held responsible for the deaths of babies and children who were unable to receive medical treatment in Gaza’s hospitals due to electrical outages.

Yet in spite of it all, the Palestinian president refused to back down. Abbas was willing to accept the curses of the Strip’s residents, about half of his people, to teach Hamas a lesson. Indeed, the pressure on Hamas bore fruit. If not for Abbas’ steadfastness, it is doubtful whether Hamas would have been willing to hold reconciliation talks with Fatah and discuss power-sharing, including sharing control over the security apparatuses in Gaza. Certainly, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar would not have announced that his movement had made a strategic decision to forfeit civil control in Gaza.

But what caused Abbas to give in and compromise now? The timing is most likely connected to the Palestinian National Council convening Jan. 14 in Ramallah. All the Palestinian factions are supposed to take part in the council, including Hamas representatives residing in the West Bank. The council is meeting amid a crisis in US-PA relations as well as difficulties in the reconciliation process between Fatah and Hamas.

A high-placed source in the Fatah movement told Al-Monitor that the PA is now in its most severe crisis in recent times, and the council meeting will produce important decisions. The Fatah source said on condition of anonymity, “Abbas does not have many options. He is aware of the intricate and thorny situation. In order to restore confidence among the Gaza residents toward the Palestinian president, he must show them that he is not ignoring them but is willing to resume responsibility for their welfare.”

According to the source, while Abbas’ decision to resume payment for Gaza's power supply is an important step, there is still a long way to go toward reconciliation. The concession on electricity was not meant to soften Hamas. Instead, it sends a message to Gaza residents that the PA and Abbas have not abandoned them. It is Abbas, not Hamas, who assumes responsibility for their welfare. The Fatah movement cannot discuss the future of the Palestinians at the council in Ramallah and ask them for support and loyalty while Gaza suffers from an electrical shortage at the height of winter, the source concluded.

It is up to the residents of Gaza to decide whether to forgive Abbas for his belated kindness.

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