Mahmoud Abbas’ High Stakes (and Cruel) Gamble in Gaza

The decision by Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, to suspend payments to Israel for electricity for Gaza, coincided with his decision to slash funding to Gaza’s hospitals and clinics and to cut the salaries of Gaza’s public sector employees. This is a high stakes gamble. Abbas is prepared to look like he is making common cause with Israel against Hamas while playing politics with the welfare of the two million Palestinians living in the Gaza strip.
Omar Karmi
June 27, 2017
Presidents Donald Trump and Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas, in his 13th year of a four-year term as president of the Palestine National Authority, has lost any semblance of popular legitimacy.
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The English philosopher John Locke wrote one of the first recorded warnings we know of the unforeseen consequences of a policy proposal, a rather dry, admonitory letter dated November 7, 1691 to an unnamed member of the British parliament about interest rates.

The application to the social sciences and politics of a law of unintended consequences had to wait another two-and-a-half centuries before gaining popular currency, however, with the publication in 1936 of Robert K. Norton’s essay “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action.

Some 66 years later, the idea was given a contemporary twist (in every sense) by Donald Rumsfeld’s attempt to explain what the US administration – in which he served as secretary of defense at the time – could and couldn’t say about the impending invasion of Iraq. (He neglected to mention that one of the “known unknowns” was the existence of any weapons of mass destruction or indeed any program to pursue such munitions in Iraq, the subsequent war’s very casus belli.)

The invasion of Iraq and all that followed may stand as the mother of all examples of the law of unintended consequences. Its effects are still tearing through a region today that is more sharply divided between Sunnis and Shiites (read: Saudi Arabia and Iran) than ever before. It helped set in motion the latest such ripple, the ostracism by Saudi Arabia and its allies of Qatar.

The latest crisis forced on Gaza by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has also produced unexpected side effects. Notably, it has prompted Hamas to cooperate with a previously bitter rival.

High stakes

The decision by Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, to suspend payments to Israel for electricity for Gaza was made back in April.

That month, the Fatah-led, occupied West Bank-based PA also decided to reinstate taxes on fuel destined for Gaza, leaving Hamas, which administers the coastal strip, unable to pay.

This caused the shutdown of Gaza’s only power plant, which was already operating at reduced capacity due to damage sustained in repeated Israeli bombardments over the past 11 years and reduced the amount of electricity available to Palestinians in Gaza to four hours a day.

April – clearly the cruelest month – also saw the PA slash funding to Gaza’s hospitals and clinics as well as put into effect a salary cut of between 30 to 70 percent to public sector employees who had hitherto been paid to stay home rather than work for a Hamas administration, but whose salaries have provided a vital stream of revenue in the impoverished Gaza Strip.

The PA has long argued that Hamas has been diverting money from taxes for its own ends rather than pay for fuel. But the ultimate intention was clear and explicit: the PA was going to squeeze Hamas financially to secure concessions that would allow the West Bank leadership to regain some measure of control over Gaza 10 years after Hamas quelled a Fatah insurgency sparked by the Islamist movement’s parliamentary election victory in 2006.

Hussein Sheikh, head of the PA’s civil affairs committee, stated: “We are not going to continue financing the Hamas coup in Gaza.”

But this is a high stakes gamble. Abbas is effectively prepared to look like he is making common cause with Israel against Hamas while playing politics with the welfare of two million Palestinians. He does so to no obvious end, and offering no alternative. There is no peace process and Israeli settlement building in the West Bank continues apace.

If the PA president thought this was the way to curry favor with the US administration of Donald Trump, a blazing row with Washington over welfare payments to families of prisoners, as well as the Trump administration’s general unpredictability, should put paid to that notion.

My enemy’s enemy

Moreover, two can play the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” game. Abbas may have hoped that there would be an uprising against Hamas in Gaza, but he surely couldn’t have expected it. He may have hoped for a conflagration with Israel that would achieve what three previous all-out military assaults failed to do and dislodge Hamas from power. But that too would have been a far from certain outcome and Israel has already said it does not want to be dragged into any such confrontation.

What Abbas could not have foreseen – here’s that law of unintended consequences – is an unlikely alliance between Hamas and Muhammad Dahlan, the erstwhile Gaza security chief, sworn enemy of Hamas and longstanding Abbas rival who was sacked from Fatah in 2011 amid corruption charges that were eventually dropped.

But that is exactly what is happening.

Earlier this month, Hamas publicly called for the establishment of a “national rescue front” to challenge the PA and announced an agreement to cooperate with Dahlan. Meetings have already taken place in Egypt, and Dahlan is seen as instrumental in forging the agreement with Egypt that saw Cairo deliver 1.1 million liters of diesel fuel for Gaza’s power station on 21 June.

A leaked document publicized this week now suggests Dahlan could become the leader of Gaza’s government under a secret agreement with Hamas.

This is quite a turnaround for both parties. Dahlan was not just any senior Fatah official in Gaza. He was the senior Fatah security leader in Gaza in 2007 and instrumental in leading Fatah into conflict with Hamas after the latter had won parliamentary elections in 2006.

The eventual insurgency was supported by the US and was meant to nip Hamas rule in the bud.

New doors open

Much will depend on whether Egypt keeps up fuel deliveries, and whether these can be both sustainable and paid for. But Cairo has its own interests. Egypt wants order in the Sinai, where it has been battling a self-styled Islamic State group for several years, and believes Hamas can help.

Hamas has for some time been keen to improve relations with Cairo – which operates the only crossing into Gaza not directly controlled by Israel. Relations had suffered dramatically after the military coup that ousted Muhammad Morsi, the democratically elected Egyptian president, in 2013, and saw Abdulfattah al-Sisi seize power and then outlaw Morsi’s Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Notable in this context, but not much remarked upon at the time, was the publication earlier this year of a new Hamas charter that omits any mention of the wider Muslim Brotherhood.

Instead, the document stresses Hamas’ role as a national liberation movement and explicitly condemns any outside interference in Palestinian decision making. In effect, the charter saw the Palestinian Islamists formally sever ties with the regional Muslim Brotherhood.

Hamas needs international support: its charter was a clear attempt at making the movement more acceptable to outside, but especially regional, actors. Qatar’s current isolation makes this need acute.

An alliance between Hamas and Dahlan opens the door for the United Arab Emirates, which hosts and supports the former Fatah official, to step into a breach that has hitherto been filled by Qatar’s financial assistance.

Moreover, the so-called Arab Quartet – the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – was frustrated by Abbas’ refusal before last year’s seventh Fatah general conference to make nice with Dahlan, who appears to be the Gulf states’ favored candidate to succeed Abbas, an octogenarian smoker.

What that will mean for Hamas is not clear. What it means for Palestinians generally is also not obvious, though as the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Israel have been casting come hither glances at each other, the signs are not propitious.

A crisis of legitimacy

What it could mean for Abbas seems less difficult to discern. Rather than facing an outcast and isolated Islamist movement struggling to feed the population over which it exercises control, he may well face a new alliance of wealthy Gulf states, Egypt, Fatah dissidents and a Hamas movement bent on payback.

Abbas did get one calculation correct: there was no discernible protest in the West Bank at the decision to cut electricity payments for Gaza. That should not be mistaken for support for the move, however. Ten years of division and enforced physical separation have rendered Palestinians divided not just politically but emotionally. Gaza is almost like a foreign country.

More importantly, though, Palestinians in the West Bank are wary of a PA security apparatus that has become increasingly draconian in quelling dissent. Just this month, the PA shut down 11 websites, all allegedly affiliated to Hamas or Dahlan, even if officials denied a political motivation.

Poll after poll after poll after poll find that more than 60 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, even in the absence of a popular alternative.

It’s one thing to be less popular than a rival. It’s quite another to lose out to no one in particular. What the polls and the resort to authoritarianism both suggest is that Abbas – in his 13th year of a four-year presidential term – has lost any semblance of popular legitimacy.

Abbas might do worse than to brush up on his John Locke. Back in 1690, before he fired off his aforementioned turgid letter, Locke published his Two Treatises of Government, the core of his political philosophy.

No political authority is absolute, the philosopher argued. It rests ultimately on the consent of the governed. Not only can that consent, Locke said, be withdrawn. Under the right circumstances, there is a right to revolution.

He wrote:

“And thus the Community perpetually retains a Supreme Power of saving themselves from the attempts and designs of any Body, even of their Legislators, whenever they shall be so foolish, or so wicked, as to lay and carry on designs against the Liberties and Properties of the Subject.”

[Omar Karmi is a former Jerusalem and Washington, DC correspondent for The National newspaper, an English-language daily newspaper published in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.]

July 1, 2017