Three years ago this summer, Israel and Hamas fought a bruising seven-week war that claimed the lives of thousands of Palestinians, dozens of Israeli soldiers and left the Gaza Strip with billions of dollars in economic damage.
Since then, both sides have observed a fragile cease-fire, and the Gaza-Israel front has remained relatively quiet. But that quiet belies what many consider gathering war clouds as Hamas and Gaza’s population of 2 million are facing growing isolation and a dangerous electricity shortage.
Speaking to foreign reporters, Housing Minister Yoav Galant said that Israeli security chiefs worry that as Israel progresses on building an underground barrier to block Hamas’ network of cross-border attack tunnels, the Islamic militant group may decide that it better use the tunnels now before they are sealed off by Israel.
“We have to be ready for this point in order to make sure that we aren’t surprised by Hamas,” Galant said in the briefing. “We have to be on alert this summer.”
Another factor undermining stability in the Gaza Strip might have an even more immediate effect on the situation there: Gaza’s chronic electricity shortage is poised to deepen after Israel’s security cabinet late Sunday approved a request by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to cut power to the Hamas-run enclave.
The blockaded coastal strip, which still hasn’t fully recovered from the devastating 2014 war, has already seen the daily residential supply drop from 12 hours to four this year. The new power cuts could cut the daily electricity supply by an additional 1 to 2 hours.
The decision is stoking concern that it could trigger a humanitarian crisis among Gaza’s 2 million Palestinians and also contribute to an outbreak of a new round of hostilities between the Islamic militant group and Israel.
The power cuts are already jeopardizing everything from Gaza businesses, to residential water supply, to sewage treatment, to health services and students studying for matriculation exams. Families are holding Iftar break-fast meals for the holy month of Ramadan by candlelight.
“All of the produce that I put in the refrigerator goes bad and has to be thrown out, a Gaza resident, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of arrest by Hamas, told The Jewish Week by phone. “You can’t buy meat either. Now we’re in the summer, and people want to turn on the air conditioner. People are suffering from this. At the night it’s hot, you can’t sleep because of the heat. Life is very difficult.”
The resident said that fellow Gazans are blaming Hamas for the electricity crisis while it builds underground tunnels: “The people pay the price. It’s clear that all of the electricity goes underground. They built a state underneath a state.”
Haim Yellin, a legislator from the centrist Yesh Atid Party, warned at the Knesset that “Gaza is a ticking powder keg. Israel’s patchwork policy will not help.” He said that Israel should offer an economic recovery plan in return for curbing Hamas’ military infrastructure: the construction of a seaport for Gaza City.
Observers fear that Hamas, if backed into a corner, might decide that renewed fighting with Israel is its best option. In a statement on Monday afternoon responding to news of the Israeli decision, Hamas said that power cuts are “dangerous” and would lead to an “explosion.”
Hamas, which wrested control of the Gaza Strip a decade ago this month from Abbas’ Fatah Party, faces growing isolation: Abbas has cut funding for electricity and salaries in Gaza since the beginning of the year. Elias Zananiri, a Palestinian official with the government in Ramallah, said in April that the PA would no longer subsidize Hamas’ rule.
Even though Israel has an interest in avoiding a humanitarian crisis in the strip, government ministers said that Israel approved the electricity cuts because it doesn’t want to intervene in the battle between Hamas and Abbas.
Galant, the housing minister, said that for Israel, Hamas is the equivalent of the Islamic State for the Western world. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said that Israel shouldn’t be expected to foot the electricity bill for Gaza.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in for the first time: “The subject of electricity in Gaza is an item for a debate between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. This is a domestic Palestinian debate,” he said. “Israel has no desire to escalate the situation.”
Meanwhile, Qatar, Hamas’ main political patron, kicked out top members of Hamas’ political office in the country last month. And now Doha is grappling with a boycott by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The economic siege on Qatar puts the future of its aid to Gaza — some $100 million per month — in jeopardy.
“Most of the Israeli analysts are predicting an escalation; I’m not so sure, at least not now,” said Bjorn Brenner, a Hamas expert at the Swedish Defense Ministry. “They tend to forget how badly the infrastructure was damaged in the war, and it hasn’t been fully rebuilt. Houses of ordinary people haven’t been rebuilt, and arms supplies haven’t been fully replenished.”
Brenner predicted, however, that Hamas will seek to become closer to Turkey or Iran to offset the lost support from Qatar.
Human rights groups have warned Israel’s government about the impending crisis. Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit that monitors Israel’s long-running restrictions on Gaza’s border crossings, warned that new electricity cuts should be considered a “red line” that shouldn’t be crossed. “Reducing the electricity supply will have devastating consequences,” Gisha warned.