Extending its hand ‘in peace,’ Hamas backs Abbas into a corner
Analysis: In its decision to dismantle Gaza’s administrative committee, Hamas has moved the ball into Abbas’s court. A refusal to lift all the sanctions he imposed on the strip five months ago would portray the Palestinian president in a very negative light, especially vis-à-vis Egypt.
The Gaza Strip’s administrative committee was established in March after Hamas argued, quite rightly, that the unity government was almost completely ignoring the strip and investing most of its activity, efforts and budgets in the West Bank.
The committee is made up of seven people, each responsible for a number of government ministries with offices in the Gaza Strip. Each of the representatives is essentially the minister in charge of those offices, which is why the committee acted as a sort of shadow government. The head of the administrative committee in Gaza is Abdul Salam Siam, who served in the past senior positions in the Hamas government in Gaza when it was led by Ismail Haniyeh.
Hamas stressed at the time that the committee was not a government and did not come as an alternative to the unity government. It said its members were not ministers and it was only established due to temporary constraints. According to Hamas, the committee’s job was to coordinate between the government ministries in Gaza following their neglect by the unity government in Ramallah.
In practice, however, the committee did act as a government and its members made decisions as ministers. It was, in fact, a weakened and smaller version of the Hamas government that had ruled the strip and was dissolved following the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas.
Abbas’ response to the committee’s establishment was particularly aggressive. He began imposing serious sanctions on the strip: He stopped paying for the electricity supply from Israel to Gaza, refused to pay the excise tax on diesel fuel for the power station, which led to severe power outages in the strip, cut government workers’ wages, forced an early retirement plan on Gaza’s government employees, stopped injecting money in the strip’s banks, refused to guarantee medical care for seriously ill patients wishing to be treated in hospitals in Israel or the West Bank, etc.
These sanctions led to a serious electricity crisis, leaving the strip’s residents with only two hours of electricity a day. Abbas also hoped that the sanctions would prompt the civil population in Gaza to rise up against the Hamas government in the strip and maybe even try to topple it.
Aware of the explosive situation, Hamas began importing diesel oil from Egypt to reactivate the power stations. Abbas’ wish didn’t come true, and the strip’s residents didn’t protest against Hamas. Nevertheless, he threatened to step up the sanctions even more.
Efforts to renew reconciliation talks
The dramatic announcement on the dissolvement of the administrative committee followed marathonic discussions held between Hamas leaders, Ismail Haniyeh and Yahya Sinwar, and Egyptian intelligence officials.
Haniyeh and his people were scheduled to return to the strip several days ago, but accepted Egypt's request to remain in Cairo and discuss the crisis with Fatah and the efforts to renew the reconciliation talks between the parties. Egypt invited a Fatah delegation to Cairo to discuss the situation as well, and Azzam al-Ahmad and Hussein al-Sheikh arrived at the Egyptian capital.
In its decision to dismantle the committee, Hamas basically moved the ball into Abbas’ court. The announcement conveys to the Palestinians, the Egyptians and whoever else it may concern, that Hamas is extending its hand in peace and doing everything it has been asked to do by Cairo. The organization also demanded an implementation of the reconciliation agreement and called (again) for elections.
This move embarrasses Abbas, who is now facing an important test. He must now cancel the sanctions and restore the situation in Gaza, which will cost him quite a lot of money. A refusal to lift all the sanctions would portray him as a rejectionist and place him in a very negative light, especially vis-à-vis Egypt, whose relations with Abbas are already unstable.
As Hamas emphasizes its sacrifice for the national unity, for the Palestinian people, for Egypt and for brotherhood, Abbas is realizing that any other decision apart from restoring the situation before the crisis could further warm up the relations between Cairo and Hamas at his expense, at Ramallah’s expense and at Fatah’s expense.
Abbas thought he would be spending the coming days in the prestigious and international atmosphere of the United Nations General Assembly, which he is so fond of. But now, Gaza’s neglected buildings will likely overshadow New York’s skyscrapers.
Hamas leaders are already taking pleasure in the serious challenge they have imposed on Fatah, as all eyes are now on them. Hamas’s hand is seemingly extended in peace, but will Fatah accept the challenge and, albeit unwillingly, shake Hamas’s hand?