Threats & Ultimatums: The PA Pressures Hamas As Violence Flares Up Along The Gaza-Israel Border
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to cut funding for Gaza if Hamas does not give up its control of the enclave by the end of the month
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged to cut off nearly $100 million in monthly funds earmarked for Gaza in a bid to wrest political control of the coastal enclave from Hamas, the terrorist group that controls it.
After talks between Hamas and the PA collapsed in Cairo late last week, Abbas issued an ultimatum: Hamas has until the end of the current month to disarm and hand over full control of the Gaza Strip to the PA; if it fails to comply, the funding cuts will go into effect.
Analysts, however, have warned that depriving an already cash-strapped Hamas could push it into launching a full-scale war against Israel. To stave off that possibility, Israel, the United Nations and the U.S. are reportedly working with Qatar, which has allocated funds to provide fuel to Gaza for six months, effectively relieving the energy shortage in the Strip. According to Arab media, Doha has already begun funneling funds to Israel for fuel that will supply Gaza’s lone power station.
The Qatar plan would also give the PA and Hamas more time to hash out their differences, as well as provide Israel and Hamas—via indirect talks—time to resume stalled ceasefire negotiations.
But Abbas has reportedly voiced anger over the move which appears to bypass the PA. According to a report by Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held a tense phone conversation over the weekend in which the latter—who acts as mediator between Israel and Hamas—voiced strong concerns that the PA president’s aim of choking off funds to Gaza would create a security nightmare.
Egyptian authorities, the Kan report added, fear that a conflict in Gaza between Israel and Hamas could ignite a wider regional conflagration, especially in the Sinai Peninsula, where Egypt has been fighting an Islamic State-linked terrorist cell. Israeli analysts echoed those concerns, saying that larger-scale violence in Gaza could easily spill over into the West Bank.
In the meantime, smaller-scale violence flared up over the weekend along the Gaza-Israel border, as some 20,000 Palestinians converged on the security fence for the weekly so-called “March of Return” protests.
Demonstrators threw explosive devices and rocks at Israeli soldiers while some attempted to breach the barrier, prompting clashes that killed at least three Palestinians and injured hundreds more, including many by live-fire, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Israeli fighter jets also carried out two strikes against Hamas targets in response to the upheaval.
To punish the enclave for the uptick in violence, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman ordered the reduction of Gaza’s fishing zone from nine to six nautical miles from the coast. He also increased Israeli troop deployment along the border and ordered the installment of more Iron Dome anti-missile defense batteries in the area. The defense minister cautioned the Israeli army to maintain “maximum preparedness for any scenario.”
If Abbas follows through on his threat to withhold funding to Gaza, thereby inflaming the situation, analysts are pondering what Israel’s options would look like.
Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Israel Ziv, formerly the head of the Israeli army’s Operations Directorate, which oversees the military’s border strategies, told The Media Line that it is not in Israel’s interest to serve as a tool for Abbas, who hopes to leverage the tensions to gain the full obedience of Hamas.
The PA and Hamas “should solve the issues that separate them, and not put Israel in the middle, as Abbas is trying to do,” Ziv said.
For Israel, he added, there are several choices. “One of them is to tell Abbas the road could be opened for Israel to talk directly with Hamas, and maybe even to recognize Hamas as a different Palestinian entity.
“It is not easy for many Israelis to accept Hamas—a designated terrorist organization—as a legitimate partner,” he added. “This is a frog that is very hard to swallow for any Israeli government. But for us Israelis, we don’t have a lot of options. It is not an option for Israel to enter into another adventure of taking over Gaza and trying to establish a new government there, kicking Hamas out,” Ziv said.
He concluded that Israel should retain the “military option” if no solution comes to pass between the PA and Hamas.
“Right now, what’s happening along the border fence every Friday is unbearable, especially for the communities and Kibbutzim in the area.” He speculated that Israel could intervene militarily by creating a buffer zone in some areas to better contain the Hamas-organized protests.
According to Lt. Col. (ret.) Peter Lerner, a former spokesperson for the Israeli army, the chances for violence are higher if Abbas executes the funding cut.
“The types of infighting that take place among the Palestinians always seem to spill over into Israel. So, we are probably closer to conflict than we have been in the last four and a half years,” Lerner told The Media Line.
He explained that over the last three months, the process of trying to find an agreement that alleviates the situation in Gaza is based on two factors: addressing humanitarian concerns for Palestinians living there, and increasing security on the Israeli side.
“You could expect that there will be more pressure in trying to overcome these troubles, but why should the sides come to an agreement if there is nothing that implies that they can actually succeed, as could something else being offered on the table. This is the challenge that Israel faces,” Lerner concluded.
Charles Bybelezer contributed to this report.