Israel does not want another war with Hamas in Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday as he blamed the Fatah-Hamas dispute for the electricity crisis in the Strip.
“We have no interest in an escalation [of violence], and any other interpretation is erroneous,” Netanyahu said at an event in Beersheba.
He spoke two days after the security cabinet agreed to cut by 40% the amount of electricity Israel supplies to the Gaza Strip.
The ministers did so after the Palestinian Authority informed Israel that it only planned to pay NIS 25 million of Gaza’s NIS 40m. monthly power bill.
Gaza power crisis
Israel now plans to only supply electricity for which payment is promised, but the implementation of that decision could be delayed due to bureaucracy.
The electricity flow was not reduced on Tuesday while political debate took place in Israel about whether such a step would lead to war, as Hamas has warned.
Critics of the proposed move accused Israel with interfering in internal Palestinian affairs and supporting PA President Mahmoud Abbas in his bid to regain control of the Gaza Strip.
“It’s important to understand that the problem of electricity in Gaza stems from an internal dispute between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas is demanding that the PA pay for its electricity and the PA is refusing to do so,” Netanyahu said at an event in Be’er Ya’acov.
Israel, however, does have security concerns, the prime minister said. “Our security policy has not changed,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu visited the headquarter of the army’s Southern Command in Beersheba and met with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. Eyal Zamir.
Former defense minister MK Amir Peretz (Zionist Union), who lives in Sderot near the Gaza Strip, told Army Radio that Israel had to take responsibility for a decision to supply less electricity to Gaza, and could not blame it on Abbas.
“There is a critical moment when the situation can blow up in our face,” he said, charging that cutting power was a “populist” move that could lead to violence.
Israel should think of outside of the box, he said. Saudi Arabia’s actions against Hamas are much more significant then whether Israel sides with Abbas and reduces electricity to Gaza, Peretz said.
It is better for Israel to take diplomatic steps against Hamas than take this kind of a measure, he added.
Maj.-Gen. (res) Yaakov Amidror, an analyst at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan, told The Jerusalem Post that there are three major issues in Gaza that combined increase the chances for conflict.
“Hamas charges taxes on all goods coming into Gaza, whether through legal routes through Israel or their tunnels [from Sinai]. They have money but they use that money to build their military capabilities,” he told the Post, adding that “Abu Mazen [Abbas] decided to stop paying for electricity in Gaza, and with all due respect we cannot and should not subsidize it.”
According to Amidror, the pending reduction of electricity is only one of several elements of pressure on Hamas at the moment. In the beginning of April, the PA cut 30% from the pay of its Gaza employees, in an attempt to exert pressure on Hamas to cede power in the enclave to the PA , and according to Amidror, Abbas has threatened to stop paying all of Hamas’s bills.
The crisis in Qatar, which is now expelling Hamas members, also risks making a desperate situation worse if the Gulf nation cut financial aid to Hamas. “Almost 50% of financial aid to Gaza comes from Qatar, and if Qatar stops supporting Gazans it will be a major issue,” Amidror said.
“The people of Gaza cannot do anything to change the situation.
Hamas is a despotic, cruel regime which does not allow the people to voice any opposition.
“Will Hamas use the situation to launch rockets into Israel? I cannot exclude this, it might happen. There is no logic in it [firing rockets], as what will happen then? Nothing good for Hamas. But I cannot trust the logic of Hamas.”
On Monday, former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon told the audience at the Israel Peace Conference organized by Haaretz in Tel Aviv that “there is a deep awareness among the IDF leadership about the need to maintain balance vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip.
“For nearly three years, Hamas did not fire one bullet into our territory while other elements try to escalate the situation. The right combination is sticks and carrots. Sticks for those who raise their heads [attack] while on the other hand allowing the Gazans to live their lives.”
Hamas has in the past provoked confrontation with Israel to detract from internal issues, and while there is sporadic rocket fire by smaller Salafist groups challenging Hamas’s rule, a senior IDF officer recently said that it is surprising that no large-scale “classic terrorist attacks” have been attempted by Hamas for some time.
On Sunday, Eisenkot, Military Intelligence head Maj.- Gen. Herzi Halevi, and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Yoav “Poly” Mordechai briefed the security cabinet on the worsening humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. While the IDF believes Hamas is not interested in a war with Israel at the present time, the senior IDF officials told the ministers that Israel must nevertheless be prepared for one to break out if either side makes a miscalculation about the other’s actions.
On Monday, PA spokesman Yousef al-Mahmoud blamed the electricity crisis on Hamas, explaining that it failed to transfer the tax revenue it had collected to Ramallah so that the power bill could be paid.
Mahmoud called on the Gaza Electricity Distribution Company to pay the outstanding bill, the Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.
Should Israel reduce electricity to the Strip, the two million people living there would have only two to three hours of power a day, down from the four hours they have had since April.
In April, the PA imposed an onerous tax on the diesel fuel needed to operate the sole Gaza power plant.
The plant, which had provided between 90 and 120 MW, shut down because it could not afford the tax, which doubled its operating costs.
This left Israel, which provides Gaza with 125 MW, as Gaza’s sole provider of electricity.
Egypt provides 27 MW, but its three electricity lines are rarely operational.
Cairo extended an offer to Hamas to provide power to the Gaza Strip in exchange for security changes at the Sinai border, Ashraq al-Awsat, the international Arab newspaper based in London, reported on Tuesday morning.
According to the report, Cairo said it was willing to ease up restrictions at the Rafah crossing and provide additional humanitarian aid to the Strip if a list of security demands that was passed on to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar will be met.
Among the demands, according to Ashraq al-Awsat, was that Hamas extradite 17 wanted terrorists to Egypt, crack down on security along the border between Sinai and the Strip, and stop weapons smuggling to Sinai.
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.