The acute energy crisis that has consumed Gaza is a symptom of realities that have forced Hamas to recalculate its alliances after hedging its bets that a post-Mubarak Egypt would translate into solidified power.
Massive queues for gas and daily 18-hour blackouts and hospitals unable to cope without fuel for backup generators has Gaza in a state of panic. The energy crisis has also affected water supplies and sewage treatment.
The Hamas government has been smuggling fuel supplies from Egypt to Gaza’s main power plant. The alternative is fuel from Israel, which is more expensive. Until recently, illicit supplies from Egypt had been plentiful enough, with Egypt allowing smuggling to flourish; but Egypt’s own shortages have reduced those supplies, and Hamas is demanding that Egypt now open a direct trade route with Gaza for the transport of licit supplies – a move that would certainly solidify Hamas’ power in Gaza.
Egypt has so far refused to open up a direct trade route, but has offered to ship fuel to Gaza through Israel.
While Cairo was indeed irked to learn that Hamas was adding tariffs to the fuel it was smuggling from Egypt – fuel subsidized by the state to make it affordable to Egyptians – there are much more significant regional realities behind the Gaza energy crisis.
The political wing of the Hamas militant outfit took control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority (headquartered in the Wes Bank), led by President Mahmoud Abbas, in 2007. With that development, Israel and Egypt (under Mubarak) sought to minimize Hamas control by imposing a border blockade. This relationship, however, has been in flux since Mubarak’s ouster. This is the root of the energy crisis.
Hamas has been disappointed with post-Mubarak developments, having banked on the “new Egypt” offering its support to solidify power against the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. That support has not been forthcoming.
Egypt has not notably changed its policy towards Hamas. While Cairo did move to open the Rafah crossing, there has only been a limited exchange of goods, and has done nothing to alleviate the energy crisis. Cairo clearly maintains its support for Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and much as under Mubarak, remains mostly concerned with not being drawn too deeply into the Gaza conflict, which it views as Israel’s problem more than anything.
Egypt military leaders are decidedly anti-Hamas, while the country’s new parliament has some strong pro-Hamas voices. The military still controls Egypt, and even if parliament were to be rendered more powerful in the near future, it is doubtful that it will have enough power to change this reality. Hamas is not likely to make too much headway in Egypt.
The alternative, legal fuel transportation deal Egypt has offered to Gaza would go through the Kerem Shalom border crossing, which is controlled by Israel. This crossing is the purview of the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is in charge of import taxes here. Hamas understands the message from Cairo: Egypt’s support for the Palestinian cause will require Hamas to join forces with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. But as Cairo appears to be pushing for a unification of Hamas and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, Israel is warning Abbas against a unity deal with Hamas, telling Abbas he must choose Hamas or peace with Israel.
Hamas’ political leadership has gone back and forth between blaming Egypt and Israel. While some have blamed Egypt, treading less cautiously with the “new” regime in Cairo as relations hang in the balance, other Hamas leaders have seen the danger in this and attempted to distance themselves and blame Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority instead.
The end of the ‘resistance axis’?
Syria was an important moment. Hamas turned on the Syrian regime lest it be perceived to be actually supporting the bloody crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood there, as Hamas itself is the culmination of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.
Though Tehran offered no official response, Iran was not pleased with Hamas’ ungratefulness. That said, the dust has not settled in Syria, and Iran will not give up on Hamas so easily. Official Tehran is torn over a response, which is illustrated by the widely differing analysis of the situation on official websites and by official mouthpieces.
It would be a mistake to assume that Iran will now stop supporting Hamas. In fact, the threat of the demise of the “resistance axis” is all the more reason for Iran to offer increased support.
When Hamas left Damascus, some of its leadership relocated to Doha, Qatar – which welcomes anyone and everyone, from the US military to the Taliban.
Official Iran is clearly displeased with what looks to them like Hamas has given into petrodollars and pressure from the Sunni-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), but it will compete, not quit the relationship.
While Egypt, Israel and Jordan seem to be conspiring against Hamas to manipulate more power for Fatah, Qatar’s role is more elusive, though not too much should be read into its relations with Hamas. Doha, which has its fingers in a number of geopolitical pies, aspires to be a world-class mediator, and indeed, mediated the early February 2012 Doha Declaration for a unity government of Hamas and Fatah. Qatar also brokered a deal with Jordan to allow Hamas to re-establish its presence there after more than a decade. Egypt is certainly happy to hand the mediation responsibility over to Qatar as much as this is possible. Saudi Arabia, for its part, supports the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
While both Fatah and Hamas are ostensibly committed to new elections for a unity government, the likelihood is minimal at this juncture. Neither wishes to share power; nor will Israel and the West condone a Fatah deal with Hamas; nor would Iran condone a Hamas deal with Fatah. Fatah would lose a large amount of US and EU financing and Hamas would stand to lose generous Iranian financing.
Divisions in the ranks
Hamas is experiencing growing divisions, with the leadership in Gaza taking more of a hardline, while external leaders are making moderate moves, particularly post Syria, the latter possibly losing their authority as a result.
Despite these divisions, Hamas remains firmly in control in Gaza, and is capable of closing ranks swiftly in the Fatah-controlled West Bank if necessary.
Still, there are a number of challenges, not the least of which is that public opinion for both Hamas and the Palestinian Authority is at a very low point. The fallout from Iran’s own economic woes and the growing desperation over the energy crisis could chip away at support for both.
Then there is Syria – again. Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad has not been defeated, and indeed he may win this battle, at which point Hamas would crawl back to Damascus, aided by Tehran, and the “resistance axis” would be repaired. Iran will welcome its proxy back into the fold, and Hamas will be forgiven for having put the Palestinian cause first.
By Charles Kennedy