BICOM podcast: The crisis in Gaza and Israeli-Palestinian relations

Brigadier General (Res.) Michael Herzog is a Senior Visiting Fellow at BICOM and an International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Since 1993, Herzog has participated in most of Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, Jordanians and Syrians, whilst serving in senior positions in the IDF and in Israel’s Ministry of Defence. He spoke with BICOM’s Director of Research Calev Ben-Dor on the energy crisis in Gaza, Israel’s strategic policy dilemmas towards Hamas, and the significance of the recent visit by Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt. Below is an edited transcript.

The energy crisis in Gaza

Calev Ben-Dor: Over the past few weeks the energy crisis in Gaza has been getting increasingly worse. The Palestinian Authority (PA) reduced its funding for electricity, as part of a power play with Hamas. Israel subsequently reduced its supply – even though some ministers warned it might raise the spectre of a conflagration with Hamas. There was a subsequent agreement between Egypt and Hamas to deliver diesel fuel that was reportedly facilitated by Mohammed Dahlan, one of the PA President’s rivals. Can you give some perspective on these events, and also talk about how likely another conflict between Israel and Hamas is in the future?

Michael Herzog: What we are witnessing in Gaza is not merely an electricity or energy crisis but a very basic and severe political, economic and humanitarian crisis. We just marked a decade of Hamas rule in Gaza, and during this period there has been deterioration in every aspect of life there. Hamas very skilfully managed to isolate the Gaza Strip from the outside world, triggered three rounds of armed conflict with Israel, and brought about a situation in Gaza where infrastructure is collapsing, people live in poverty, and there’s a lack of basic needs as well as frustration and despair.

This situation was exacerbated in recent months by a decision by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the President of the PA, to “disengage” from Gaza. This is a new direction by Abu Mazen, driven by the misguided thinking that he can use Hamas’s weakness to bring the Islamist movement to its knees and force it to accept his terms for national reconciliation, which include relinquishing powers and responsibilities in Gaza. He gradually started cutting funding for Gaza, in salaries to public servants, payments to the healthcare system, and now to electricity, and more to come.

I believe there are two key triggers behind this course of action being adopted by Abu Mazen at this particular time. The first was the recent change in leadership for Hamas in Gaza, now headed by Yahya Sinwar, and its decision to form an administrative committee for the Strip, which the PA saw as deepening the divide through an alternative government. So the response was, “If you want to go your own way and separate from us, don’t expect us [the PA] to continue to fund you”.

Another, perhaps deeper reason is due to the Trump administration’s stated policy of fighting Islamists and launching a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. In this context, it was important for Abu Mazen to say to the Trump administration: “I’m a partner in fighting Islamists. This is my share in the Israeli-Palestinian context.” After all, President Trump lumped Hamas and ISIS together in the “bad guys” camp when he spoke against Islamists during his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. But obviously the people in Gaza are paying the price, and it also presents policy dilemmas for Israel.

On the one hand Israel doesn’t want to come across as siding with Hamas against the PA, enhancing Hamas, or paying for electricity in Gaza, especially because Hamas has the money to deal with this, yet prefers to invest in digging tunnels and building rockets.

On the other hand, Israelis realise that the dire situation in Gaza could ultimately bring about escalation, which nobody wants. The government ultimately decided to cut the provision of electricity to Gaza as the PA requested, hoping that someone else would come up with a solution. Indeed, we’ve seen Dahlan talk to Hamas in Egypt and provide a solution through Egypt, but it’s only a partial and temporary solution which raises the number of hours people get electricity from three hours a day to between four and six hours. It doesn’t solve the underlying problem in Gaza.

Conflict is possible but unlikely

I don’t think another round of violence is likely in the foreseeable future as it is in neither party’s interest. Hamas is still weak, isolated and deterred from the last round in 2014. Reconstruction has not reached a breakthrough point, mainly for lack of international funds. Hamas could find itself in an even worse situation if it triggers another war, while Egypt also regards the Islamist movement as an enemy to its national security. Hamas’s weakness has been further exacerbated by the recent Gulf pressures on Qatar – a key supporter of Hamas – including its close relations with the Islamist movement. Hamas is publically saying that it has no desire to confront Israel at this point, and has recently invested much effort in mending fences with the Egyptians (including the establishment of a buffer zone on the border between Gaza and Egypt). It is clear that Hamas prefers a partial deal with Egypt and Dahlan to confronting Israel at this moment.

However, Gaza is a pressure cooker and things could escalate in the future in more than one way. For example, one way is by jihadi groups increasingly challenging Hamas by firing rockets into Israel and dragging Hamas into a kind of escalatory cycle with Israel. Another is Hamas encouraging its people to demonstrate along the Israel-Gaza barrier, which it is already doing, and this could also trigger escalation. A third is through Hamas’s repeated attempts at carrying out terror attacks in the West Bank. Let’s remind ourselves that in 2014, what triggered the escalatory cycle that led to the war that summer was the kidnapping and the assassination of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, initiated and perpetrated by Hamas. Ultimately, pressure on Gaza could build up to the point where Hamas might not be able to contain it any longer and may resort to violent escalation. I think people should put their minds towards finding a basic solution – rather than just a temporary provision of diesel fuel – in order to ease the pressure and decrease chances of escalation down the road.

The role of Mohammed Dahlan

CBD: You touched on the PA-Hamas tension. Where do you see Dahlan within this tension? He was a senior member of Fatah until being expelled from the party, and has just now facilitated an agreement.

MH: Dahlan is a major rival of Abu Mazen. He’s also a contender for the next (post Abu Mazen) leader in the PA. And although he was expelled from the Fatah leadership and subsequently the West Bank, he is still very active in the Palestinian arena. He has strong relations with the Egyptian leadership and the UAE, which also provides a deep-pocket for him.

Dahlan essentially took advantage of the rift between Abu Mazen and Hamas, and filled a vacuum with his own initiative. He recently met Sinwar in Cairo when a Hamas delegation went there for talks with the Egyptians, and very skilfully provided a temporary solution by convincing the Egyptians to send diesel fuel. This allows Dahlan to present himself as someone who could provide solutions for Hamas and helps him establish a foothold in the Strip. In the future he could present himself to the Palestinian people as the only one who can prevent a split between Gaza and the West Bank, and who can maybe bring about a compromise. Recent publications in the Arab media claimed that Dahlan and Sinwar not only discussed the energy crisis, but also touched on the idea of Hamas giving up on some of its powers and responsibilities in Gaza and handing them over to some kind of a new administrative committee – which is neither the PA nor Dahlan as some suggested – but some other group that can take over and serve as a bridge between Hamas and the outside world, while Hamas would maintain responsibility for internal affairs in Gaza.

Through Dahlan’s mediation, Hamas undertook to establish a buffer zone along the Gaza-Egypt border so as to better thwart cross-border smuggling, terror infiltrations and ties between Gaza and ISIS in Sinai. For its part, Egypt undertook to supply Gaza with some amounts of fuel and medicines (parts of which will be paid by Hamas!) and to renovate and ultimately open the Rafah Crossing, which has been closed in recent years. There is even talk of creating a long-term solution to the energy crisis in Gaza with the help of Egypt. Dahlan will naturally cash in from these arrangements, including the re-establishment of a foothold inside Gaza, especially in the border crossing. It’s clear that Abu Mazen is upset with what Dahlan is doing but it was Abu Mazen’s own choice to separate or disengage from Gaza, and he shouldn’t be surprised that others are filling the void.

These new developments  can be a positive for Israel, not only in alleviating the humanitarian pressure in Gaza, but also by making Hamas more dependent on Egypt (and with it some other moderate Sunni states) at the expense of Qatar and Turkey. There are also some risks, concerning the ability of Hamas to continuously arm itself (including through the about-to-open Rafah Crossing) and Israel’s freedom of action against such efforts. However, these issues could be addressed in an Israeli-Egyptian dialogue. In any case, Israel ought to be careful to not appear as meddling in internal Palestinian politics.

Israel’s policy dilemmas towards Hamas

CBD: You discussed the policy dilemmas for Israel. There were some interesting statements by Israeli officials – Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who blamed Abbas for the situation, and Yuval Steinitz who said Israel should have refused the PA request and continued paying electricity. In your opinion, what should Israel’s strategy towards Gaza be, both in the short-term and long-term?

MH: First, Israel should define for itself what its strategic goal is for Gaza. Looking at Gaza and Hamas, what is realistic for Israel to achieve? I think it is an unrealistic goal to try to topple Hamas. It is too costly to apply military means, which would require conquering Gaza for some time. And it’s not something that is on the cards right now through a popular uprising, or through Palestinian elections, or reconciliation – because Fatah and Hamas cannot agree on anything. Also, we cannot expect a reorientation [of policy] from Hamas in the form of strategic moderation.

Even if Hamas were toppled in Gaza, there is no guarantee that the alternative would be better for Israel. You could have an array of jihadi groups fighting among themselves, creating total chaos. In a way, it’s better to have one responsible address, rather than several addresses even more extreme than Hamas, if that is imaginable.

Israel’s policies towards Hamas have always been characterised by the tension between conflicting goals and considerations. Israel doesn’t want to allow Hamas, an arch enemy calling for its destruction, to strengthen itself militarily and politically, thus it has to apply and does apply pressure, but Israel doesn’t want this pressure to bring about escalation to an all-out armed conflict or a humanitarian crisis.

Israel has additional considerations, such as maintaining its close relations with Egypt, which also regards Hamas as an enemy. A further consideration is that Hamas is holding three Israeli hostages, and the remains of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

In addition, we now have the current dilemma between Hamas and the PA. It’s clear to any observer that what Abu Mazen is doing vis-à-vis Gaza is very cynical. He doesn’t care about the people of Gaza or whether war erupts between Hamas and Israel. Indirectly, he’s actually pushing us towards war by cutting his funding for Gaza. And if war erupts, he will stand on the side-lines – behind the scenes – encouraging Israel to destroy Hamas, while publicly condemning Israel for war crimes. We saw that in 2014. We don’t want to play Abu Mazen’s cynical game. That’s not what Israel should do.

A long-term strategy for Gaza

My own opinion is that Israel should take a long-term view of Gaza, and decide on a strategic course which will extricate itself from these dilemmas. And here I would recommend three basic courses of action:

1. First, it is in Israel’s interest to encourage the international community (and regional actors) to fix the very basic infrastructure of Gaza, especially water, electricity, and sewage. There are available solutions but they require international funding, encouragement, and policy priority, because until now, Gaza has been neglected and has unfortunately not been a major priority for all the actors. People only pay attention to it when there is a crisis and they are afraid of escalation, and then it’s once again forgotten. So, as noted, even if Egyptian fuel solves the current crisis, it just raises the amount of electricity from three hours to between four and six hours a day. The crisis is still there, long-term.

It is true that in order to prevent Hamas’s armament and threats against Israel, Israel has to apply pressure on Hamas. But there’s a basic layer of fixing infrastructure which should be dealt with regardless of anything else. Beyond that line, you can apply any pressure you want. Today, when there’s no electricity in Gaza and therefore the sewage system is not functioning, sewage is flowing into the Mediterranean towards Israel, and in some cases it has already paralysed Israel’s off-shore desalination plants. So Israel is already paying the price for this crisis, not to speak of potential future violent eruptions between Israel and Gaza, which is definitely not in our interest. This is the first and most important thing that we should do through the international community, independent of anything Hamas commits to. I think it serves both a moral and strategic purpose for us. People in Gaza should have water, electricity and sewage. Beyond that, you can apply any pressure on Hamas.

2. Second, Israel should think about completing its own disengagement from Gaza. Israel is in a paradox. We left in 2005, yet we continue to bear most of the burden for providing humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Almost all humanitarian needs to Gaza go solely through Israel – every day over 1000 truckloads of food, medicines, and reconstruction materials. We remain responsible for most of their electricity, water and basic needs. We disengaged in 2005 but are still considered by the international community as bearing responsibility, and are still seen as controlling Gaza because the Egyptian border is normally closed and things could only go through Israel.

In order to complete its disengagement, Israel should encourage Egypt’s shouldering of some of the burden in Gaza as well as promote the establishment of an offshore naval port. This wouldn’t be on Gaza’s territory because it would present a security concern, which we cannot control and would be too risky. However, there are other ideas, some of which are supported by the Israeli defence establishment. Establishing a port outside Gaza’s territory under strict security arrangements, controlled by Israelis and the international community, would absolve Israel of the continual responsibility for Gaza. Gaza would receive its humanitarian needs and not remain dependent on Israel, and at the same time Israel could look after its own security needs and would continuously be able to apply any pressure on Hamas to the extent that it threatens Israel’s interests.

CBD: Is this along the line of the artificial island advocated by Minister of Transportation and Minister of Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz?

MH: Katz’s plan is to establish an artificial island four and half kilometres offshore with a relatively deep-water port and some infrastructure facilities, which would provide for all of Gaza’s needs but would come under very strict security arrangements, including very heavy Israeli involvement. There is more than one way of doing this but I think it’s time to seriously consider it. As I noted, despite having disengaged Israel is still considered responsible for Gaza. More than this, Hamas exacts taxes on all humanitarian assistance that goes from Israel to Gaza, so Israel is indirectly helping to fund its military build-up. It is therefore time to take a long-term strategic view.

3. My third recommendation is to make use of the first two policy measures in order to get Hamas to agree and commit to a long-term ceasefire with Israel. In this case we would have leverage because we would be providing things that Hamas needs; if used correctly, we could get a long-term ceasefire in return. It is not in Israel’s interests to fight a war with Hamas every few years. We achieved considerable deterrence in the last round in 2014, but it erodes over time.

In order to implement these policy recommendations Gaza must be prioritised policy-wise, which has not been the case up to now. If the Trump administration wants to advance the peace process they must also consider the Gaza dimension. It’s not enough to focus on the political horizon between Israelis and Palestinians because even if you ultimately come up with such a horizon, another war in Gaza may undermine the process that you’re trying to generate. People have to think about the whole picture of the Israeli-Palestinian arena.

The political process between Israel and the PA

CBD: Last week Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt were in Israel, which followed a Presidential visit last month. There have been reports that US President Donald Trump and his aides have been more sympathetic to the Israeli position on incitement, salaries to terrorists, and that there has been greater US pressure on the Palestinians. What are your impressions of last week’s visit? And how serious do you think this US administration is about forging ahead with the peace process?

MH: Little has been disclosed about the contents of the closed room meetings between the US delegation and the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships. I am quite convinced that the US administration is very serious about launching a peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. They repeatedly say so and have highlighted this point to both leaderships in the recent visit. However, it is still unclear to observers and to the parties themselves, how exactly the US administration would like to design and launch the peace process. There are many open questions. When and how exactly do they intend to address the issue of political horizon? Will they start with confidence building measures and only later move to deal with the political process? What role will the Arab states play in such an initiative? How far is the US willing to push the parties?

Talking to people in both governments, amazingly they still don’t know what process the US wants to launch. It was made public that the returning US delegation will brief President Trump and discuss the way ahead with him. It is clear that the administration did not solely focus on a political horizon but also on the situation on the ground and on improving the atmosphere and conditions for peace. In this context they have discussed the issue of settlement activities with Israel, and while the US and Israel did not reach a bilateral agreement, there was a public Israeli statement that was accepted positively by the US administration. With the Palestinian leadership, the US administration raised the issue of incitement and encouraging terrorism, including the issue of funding terrorists and their families. I don’t think that this issue was resolved. What I hear from Palestinians is that unlike the recent Trump visit, this time they are less optimistic and more frustrated. Several months into the new US administration’s efforts, the US has yet to utter the words “Palestinian state” or a “two-state solution,” and in Palestinians’ minds it is not seriously dealing with the issue of Israeli settlements. On the Israeli side, there is an expectation that the issue of payments to terrorists and their families will be seriously and practically addressed, and there is a feeling that the PA is trying to dodge this.

We are all in waiting mode. The US administration is moving from the initial phase of listening to the parties and creating an atmosphere that would bring them into a process, to asking many questions – including mapping out each party’s positions on the core issues – before the US makes its decision on what process it wants, how and when it will launch it, and how far it is willing to go with it.

One thing we are already seeing is that whilst Trump initially spoke about launching a process very soon, now the administration is saying that the process requires time and mustn’t be rushed. This reflects a learning curve for the administration and a realisation that it is a complex issue and that it is no coincidence that the parties and the US have tried and failed for so many years.

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