Residents reflect on how life has changed since Israel blockaded the Strip and Hamas took control.
However, the 365sq km coastal strip, which has been under Israeli-Egyptian siege for over 10 years, outweighs its size many times over in the ongoing political gamble involving the region’s most powerful players.
The “game” has many players, all motivated by sheer self-interest and self-preservation. Israel has maintained the upper hand thus far, watching alliances emerge and others fold, manipulating the various variables as it sees fit, and ensuring the outcome is always in its favour.
But what exactly does Israel want?
Shortly after the Hamas movement won the Palestinian elections in 2006, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza. The siege has remained in place ever since, and has grown to define the status quo. Dov Weisglass, a top Israeli adviser to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, described Israel’s motives behind the siege 10 years ago as follows:
“The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
That single quote, ignored by many in mainstream western media came to define the standard of cruelty with which Israel treats Palestinians. Yet, there is more to it than an expression of Israeli malice.
First, Weisglass’ near starvation diet has been in effect ever since, with little done to remedy the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.
Second, with time, the Israeli siege also became an Egyptian blockade as well, thus making the most populous Arab country an accomplice to the Israeli plan to control Palestinians.
Third, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah learned not only to co-exist with the Israeli siege on Gaza, but also to benefit from it.
The West Bank-based authority is controlled by the Fatah Movement, credited with launching the Palestinian revolt decades ago. But times have changed. The movement, which is now dominated by an aging, quisling leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is undergoing a power struggle within its ranks, while fighting hard to keep its Hamas rivals weak, isolated and discredited.
Egypt’s share of the siege cannot be underestimated. Since his advent to power following a military coup against an elected government in July 3, 2013, General – now President – Abdul Fatah al-Sisi moved quickly to further the isolation of the Gaza Strip and, by extension, Hamas.
Hamas, widely seen as the Palestinian extension of the Brotherhood, still reigned supreme in the besieged Strip despite determined Israeli attempts at destroying it, along with any semblance of resistance there. Three major wars (2008-9, 2012 and 2014) killed thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of Hamas’ fighters and leaders, but the political balance has remained firmly in Hamas’ hands.
With time, the Israeli siege became an Egyptian one, all with the tacit approval of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and with Arab approval, as well. Some Arab Gulf governments, which wanted to ensure the complete demise of the Brotherhood, saw in Hamas’ survival a threat.
Now into its 11th year, the siege has become a shared Israeli-Palestinian-Arab long-term investment.
Yet, this is not a matter of politics or ideology only.
Following various popular uprisings in several Arab countries, Arab regimes with no democratic mandate moved quickly to suppress any dissent, no matter how seemingly harmless. Bloggers were dragged to jails; poets were imprisoned; peaceful activists were shot; thousands disappeared in massive purges to ensure the failed uprisings do not resurface.
Meanwhile, Israel continued to move with its illegal land grab and Jewish colonial expansion, unhindered. With “security coordination” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to crack down on dissenting Palestinians afoot, the Israeli plan to annex most of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem was shaping up without many obstacles.
Except, of course, that of Gaza, which symbolised a kind of resistance that could not be eliminated – neither by starvation, incarceration nor firepower. Nearly, 5,000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza during Israel’s three major offensives against the Strip. Yet, although much of the Strip was destroyed as a result of Israel’s deadly wars, the spirit of the resistance there remained strong, and eventually, it rekindled the resistance of Palestinians in the West Bank, as well.
In fact, despite every attempt at creating two different political entities in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in both regions continued to be bonded by their resistance.
Israel, nonetheless, succeeded. While it could not defeat Gaza, it managed to turn the siege on Gaza into an Arab affair, too.
The political uncertainty in the US wrought by the election of Donald Trump, however, has offered a rare opportunity to some embattled Arab regimes.
Even prior to Trump’s unexpected election victory, the US was in the process of redefining its rule in the Arab world, and a “pivot to Asia“ was already downgrading US’ leadership and influence in the region.
Trump’s ascendency, however, has mixed the cards like never before. Washington, which has governed the Middle East through clearly defined doctrines, seems to have no doctrine, but impulsive decisions made by a Twitter-obsessed president.
The American retreat offered the kind of political space needed to be filled by those vying to control the region in the future. With Israel remaining on top of the pyramid, an alliance involving Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia began moving into a clear formation to achieve dominance, through destroying some foes, isolating others and out-manoeuvering the rest.
According to this new “vision”, Hamas, which could not be defeated by sheer force, could be relegated into an ineffectual political force through an alliance with Mohammed Dahlan.
Once upon a time, Dahlan was the strongman of Gaza, commandeering 10 security branches, torturing resisters and controlling the Strip in a way that was both consistent with the interests of his Fatah party and also with Israeli diktats.
A few months after it won the elections, Hamas reportedly pre-empted a coup by Dahlan and, since then, controlled the Strip alone. That was when the Israeli siege became complete.
Dahlan fled to the West Bank and a power struggle within Fatah led to his dismissal by Abbas, who also accused him of a coup attempt in 2011.
In 2012, Dahlan settled permanently in the UAE.
Following the Egyptian coup in 2013, Dahlan and Sisi had something in common: initially to defeat Hamas, and eventually to coopt Hamas.
As Arab countries began moving to fill the gap left by receding US foreign policy, the plot began to thicken like never before.
Abbas quickly lost favour with Cairo, and Dahlan became Fatah’s strongman, as far as Egypt is concerned.
Abbas’ sin is his refusal to join forces with Dahlan, with the ultimate objective of defeating Hamas.
Concurrently, with Abbas and Hamas failing to achieve a minimal form of unity, Abbas remains confined to the West Bank, desperately trying to find new channels to win political validation.
The “Dahlan plan” then emerged. A leaked document, widely reported in Israeli and other media, purported to show that Dahlan and Hamas have been negotiating the return of the former to Gaza, to head a government there in exchange for an Egyptian easing of the siege.
According to the plan, Hamas will remain in control of the interior ministry and will not disarm, but, as worded by Haaretz’s Zvi Bar’el, Israel, at least, “would have a partner in Gaza who supports reconciliation.’
Overwhelmed by the unexpected move, Abbas is now trying to make life even more difficult for Palestinians in the Strip, hoping to exert more pressure on Hamas to end its possible partnership with Dahlan.
A few months ago, Abbas slashed salaries for thousands of employees, many of whom were loyal to Fatah, and to Dahlan, in particular.
More recently, the Palestinian Authority refused to pay for much of the electricity that Israel provides to Gaza, leading the Israeli government to order yet more electricity cuts to the Strip.
The suffering of Palestinians in Gaza is now compounded.
Unemployment in the Strip is already among the highest in the world, presently estimated at 44 percent. Those who are employed still struggle to survive. 80 percent of all Gazans are said to be dependent on humanitarian assistance.
In 2015, the UN had warned that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020.
A Red Cross report last May warned of another “looming crisis” in the public health sector, due to the lack of electricity.
The energy crisis has extended from electricity supplies to even cooking gas.
Following the most recent energy reduction which started on June 11, Gazan households now receive two-to-three hours of electricity each day, and not even at fixed hours.
Magdalena Mughrabi, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, sounded the alarm on June 14 when she warned that “the latest power cuts risk turning an already dire situation into a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe.”
To think that Palestinian “leaders” are actually involved in tightening or manipulating the siege to exact political concessions from one another is dismaying.
While Israel is invested in maintaining the Palestinian rift, Palestinians are blinded by pitiful personal interests and worthless “control” over occupied land.
Between Israel’s dismissal of international calls to end the siege and the Palestinians’ pathetic power game, Palestinians in Gaza are left alone, unable to move freely, or live even according to the lowest acceptable living standards.
The suicide rate in the Strip is at all-time high and despair is believed to be the main factor behind the alarming phenomena.
Failing to subdue Gaza, Israel has succeeded in spreading the burden of tormented Palestinians there by involving Palestinian, as well as Arab hands, each playing a role in a dirty game of politics that has no regard for human rights, life or dignity.
Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include “Searching Jenin”, “The Second Palestinian Intifada” and his latest “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story”. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.