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Will Palestinian energy feud spark surge in violence against Israel?

Palestinian security officers stand guard as Egyptian trucks carrying fuel drive down a street after entering the Gaza Strip from Egypt, June 21, 2017. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Palestinian security officers stand guard as Egyptian trucks carrying fuel drive down a street after entering the Gaza Strip from Egypt, June 21, 2017. Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.

By Sean Savage/

The long-running feud between Hamas and Fatah has led to a deepening crisis in the Gaza Strip, as a cut in the electricity supplied to the coastal territory is stoking fears of a surge in violence, both between the Palestinian factions and against Israel.

Since the Hamas terror group seized control of Gaza from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in a 2007 coup, Hamas has persistently carried out rocket attacks against Israel—including during several major rounds of conflict, most recently in the summer of 2014.

“The situation in Gaza is incredibly dire. Gazans get by on substandard water and just hours a day of electricity. These awful conditions can fuel unrest and cause violent actors to become militant,” Grant Rumley, a research fellow on Palestinian affairs at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told

Gaza’s only power plant ran out of fuel in April, with Hamas blaming the energy shortage on high fuel taxes imposed by the PA. Since then, Gaza has primarily relied on electricity supplied by Israel and paid for by the PA—approximately 125 megawatts daily. Yet the PA recently decided to reduce its payments to Israel for the electricity, leading the Jewish state to cut the power supply to Gaza by almost a third, precipitating the current crisis.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he’s not seeking “an escalation with Hamas” over the move to cut power, and the “issue of electricity is a dispute between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.”

“Hamas is demanding that the PA pay for the electricity, and the Palestinian Authority is refusing to pay. It is an internal Palestinian dispute,” said Netanyahu.

But Abbas’s motives for cutting the electricity payments remain unclear, Rumley said.

“Perhaps [Abbas] simply wanted to turn the heat up on his rivals while also projecting some power to a new American president. Perhaps he thinks he can actually pressure Hamas into submission,” he said.

“Either way, his steps are unprecedented and don’t seem to be tied to any grand plan for [the PA] re-entering Gaza,” added Rumley. “I think it only sets the stage for future conflict, as Hamas will likely only dig in its heels.”

Human rights groups and environmentalists have criticized the PA’s move.

“A further increase in the length of blackouts [in Gaza] is likely to lead to a total collapse of basic services, including critical functions in the health, water and sanitation sectors,” the United Nations’s humanitarian coordinator for the disputed territories, Robert Piper, said in a statement.

“The people in Gaza should not be held hostage to this longstanding internal Palestinian dispute,” he said.

Egypt Wednesday began supplying Gaza with 1 million liters (220,000 gallons) of diesel fuel to address the electricity crisis. The Egyptian fuel is expected to provide 50 megawatts of power per day to make up for the recent shortfall, but will only represent a temporary fix, as Gaza needs about 400 megawatts of power to meet its daily energy needs.

“There will still be troubles, but not the maximum troubles. Re-running the power plant is better than keeping it shut down,” said Fathi Sheikh Khalil, who heads the Hamas-run energy authority, The Associated Press reported.

“The electricity deal with Egypt is not a lifesaver,” Rumley said. “At best, it’s a band-aid on a gaping wound. The fuel to Gaza’s power plant can only cover a portion of the Strip’s electric needs, so Gazans are likely only to see a bump in electricity from two to three hours a day to closer to six, and only for as long as Egypt continues to ship fuel into Gaza.”

Egypt’s deal to provide the diesel fuel to Gaza was brokered by Mohammed Dahlan, the PA’s former Gaza chief, who had a rupture with Abbas in 2011 and is seeking a comeback in Palestinian politics.

“Our relationship with Egypt is getting better and Egypt showed high understandings of the crisis in Gaza,” said Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas official, according to The Associated Press. “We agreed with Dahlan’s group on finding solutions to the humanitarian crisis.”

Egypt may be seeking Hamas’s help in securing the border between Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, as the Egyptian military has been engaged in a years-long struggle to combat radical Islamic terror groups there, including Islamic State.

While brokering the deal to supply Gaza with diesel fuel may undercut Abbas, Rumley cautioned against considering Dahlan a current threat to the PA leader.

“Dahlan and Hamas have parallel interests right now, and they have coordinated on alleviating the crisis in Gaza in the past, but where has that gotten them with Abbas?” he said. “In terms of actual change, not very far.”

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