Our pal Mohammad Dahlan returns to the fray

The humanitarian situation in Gaza is on the verge of exploding in our faces. But commentators continue to reassure us that Hamas has no interest in another round of war. In Israel, we want this summer to pass quietly. At least four governments are responsible for the humanitarian disaster in Gaza: the Palestinian Authority (PA), Hamas, Israel and Egypt – each helping to bring Gaza to the brink of collapse.

Since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the humanitarian situation has taken a turn for the worse. Initially, tunnels dug from Gaza into Sinai provided passage of goods and some breathing space for Gaza residents. However, since the coup in Egypt which sent President-elect Morsi to prison, these tunnels have been blocked and the situation in Gaza has deteriorated. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt resulted in the tightening of the siege on the Strip. With Turkish strongman Erdogan reconciled with Netanyahu, the Qatari ruler remained the only and last patron willing to back Hamas. But now that the Saudis, the Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt have severed ties with Qatar, Hamas runs the risk of losing the last of its political and economic support.

When PA President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) saw Hamas was on the ropes and helpless, he decided that this was the time to go in for the kill. He launched a series of measures that have further aggravated the humanitarian disaster. First, he slashed the salaries of tens of thousands of government employees in the Strip who have been sitting idly for a decade; he stopped paying for the electricity that Israel supplies to it, so that Gazans are living with only three hours of power in the terrible heat of this summer. Finally, and the crushing blow, Abbas stopped the supply of medicine to hospitals, as well as permits for chronically ill patients to leave the Strip and receive treatment in Israeli hospitals.

The Israeli cabinet discussed the PA demand to reduce the supply of electricity to Gaza. After some soul-searching, the cabinet decided to comply with Abbas’s request, arguing that there was no moral justification for funding electricity while Hamas continues to dig attack tunnels. This decision is irrational. Should power cuts cause a humanitarian crisis, Hamas could be forced to attack Israel and Israeli citizens would suffer the consequences (not to mention that the cost of a war would far exceed the cost of paying for electricity.) Israeli fears were reinforced when Yahya Sinwar, military leader of Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades in Gaza, was elected prime minister there. This was viewed in Israel as a takeover by the Hamas military arm.

However, pressure exerted on Hamas did produce results. Instead of firing rockets toward Tel Aviv, Yahya Sinwar went to Egypt to seek assistance in easing the siege imposed by Abbas. The Egyptians, as a condition for taking any step, demanded that Sinwar reconcile with Mohammad Dahlan. Here is a small reminder: Dahlan headed Preventive Security in Gaza when the PA was established. While in that position, he pursued questionable deals and is considered a friend of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He was forced out of the Strip during the Hamas takeover there in June 2007. His hands are stained with the blood of many Gazans. However, the hatred and abhorrence that Hamas feels toward Abu Mazen brought newly-elected Sinwar and his friends to drink the cup of poison. Sinwar met Dahlan in Cairo and reached a simple agreement with the Egyptians: they would lift the closure of Gaza (from the Egyptian side) and open the Rafah crossing; in exchange, Hamas would let Dahlan return to the Gaza Strip and control the border crossings.

It was Sinwar’s and Dahlan’s shared hatred of Abu Mazen that enabled them to fall into each other’s arms. For a long time, Dahlan has been demanding that he take over from Abu Mazen and exercise control over Fatah with the support of the Arab Emirates. Six years ago, Fatah’s Central Committee removed Dahlan from its ranks and declared him persona non grata. Since then, Dahlan moved to the emirates and became a close adviser to Emir Muhammad bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. From there he strove to return to Fatah as its leader, but all his efforts failed when the last Fatah conference chose not to allow him to run for the leadership, leaving Abu Mazen as chairperson—and without an heir.

On the one hand, Abu Mazen has been weakened by the “deep freeze” in the peace process with Israel. On the other, Hamas has been hurt as a result of the savage blockade on Gaza. Dahlan does not particularly want to take control of the Strip, but he sees it as a stepping stone. His agreement with Hamas allows him to build a political base in Gaza with the aim of taking charge of Ramallah in the West Bank. According to the agreement with Egypt, Dahlan would serve as prime minister of the unity government in Gaza, while the security services, including the Interior Ministry, would remain in Hamas hands. Thus Dahlan would return to his favorite job – control of the crossings in return for generous “donations,” while Hamas remains the de facto ruler.

For Netanyahu, the Hamas-Dahlan agreement is a gift from heaven. First of all, it undermines Abu Mazen’s legitimacy and creates new possibilities. All he need do is wait for the return of “our pal” Dahlan to Ramallah, and this time not as head of Preventive Security but as president of the PA. Second, with the siege partially lifted, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza would be somewhat eased, and this could guarantee quiet on Israel’s southern front for years. Third, and no less important, Egypt is finally accepting responsibility for Gaza and relieving Israel of that onerous burden. In return, Egypt succeeded in pressing Hamas to end its association with the Muslim Brotherhood and to police the Sinai border, thus cutting off ISIS gangs that had taken control of the El Arish area.

It seems that all the pieces of the puzzle have fallen into place, and Netanyahu’s policy has paid off: Gaza stays in the hands of Hamas and Dahlan, the West Bank is ruled by a weak PA, and the Trump government continues to back the Israeli right. BDS can go on with its campaign to boycott Israel, Breaking the Silence will continue to oppose the occupation, the Labor Party will self-enthuse about a regional conference, Meretz will raise the banner of two states for two peoples, while the Egyptians, the Palestinians in all their factions, and the Israeli right wing continue unhindered in their campaigns for political survival. Meanwhile, the suffering of the Palestinians increases. The Israeli right dominates the public narrative, and an unholy alliance is being formed between players who have long lost all moral foundation and are motivated by a lust for power.

But this scenario seems too perfect for the chaotic reality in which we live. The members of the strange partnership have lost the trust of their citizens: Al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt is weak and repressive; Dahlan is corrupt and uncontrollable; Hamas has shown that power is more important than the principles of which they boast; and Abu Mazen has turned out to be spineless. These are the partners of the Israeli right, and unfortunately, of the Israeli left as well. Therefore, the current diplomatic victory–to the extent that it materializes— will be short-lived. In the long term, the Palestinian question will remain unresolved, the Occupation will continue, and the distress and misery in Gaza will only deepen.

Hope for peace cannot rely on corrupt, obsolete, and benighted regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Nor can it be based on people like Dahlan or Abu Mazen who cooperate with the Israeli right and view Trump as a savior. Hope for peace lies in the hundreds of thousands of young Egyptians who persist in fighting for democracy and social justice, in Palestinians who aspire to freedom and equality, and in those Israelis who understand that peace cannot be made between corrupt regimes, but only between Palestinians and Israelis sharing one common goal – a life of peace, democracy, and social justice.

* Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman

About Yacov Ben Efrat