Palestinians walk on a road during a power cut in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If war breaks out in Gaza, the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank will be to blame. That was the curious claim Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman made at the Herzliya Conference on Thursday.
His reasoning went like this: Because Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas decided to stop paying for electricity provided to Gaza by the Israel Electric Corporation, and because Israel acquiesced to Abbas’s request and reduced the electricity supply to Gaza, and because this cut will lead to a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Hamas will likely be pushed to start a war with Israel.
Liberman’s claim was curious because he made it seem as though Israel has no control over its own fate. Abbas’s intention might very well be to force Hamas into a war with Israel that could undermine Hamas’s control over Gaza and open the way for his Fatah movement to regain control there. This does not mean that Israel has to play along.
Why should Israel take Abbas’s advice and cut the electricity supply to Gaza by 40%? We don’t take his advice on the issue of repatriation of Palestinian “refugees.” We don’t listen to him when he demands that Israel relinquish military control over the Jordan Valley. Abbas’s input on settlement policy is never sought after by Israel.
So why on the issue of Gaza’s electricity supply is Israel suddenly so sensitive and responsive? If Liberman believes that reducing electricity to Gaza might lead to another war with Hamas, he can decide not to cut the electricity. On the other hand, if Liberman believes that war with Hamas is inevitable sooner or later and the electricity crisis is just an excuse, the defense minister should say so instead of hiding behind the dubious claim that Abbas and the PA want the cut and Israel is just following orders. Nor should Liberman blame Abbas if war breaks out with Hamas.
Clearly there is a moral argument to be made for and against cutting electricity to Gaza. Hamas rules Gaza with a large degree of popular support. Gazans chose for themselves a political movement that prioritizes strengthening its “military” capabilities over and above humanitarian support or economic growth. In a June 15 interview with the Al-Munaseq website, established 10 months ago to provide news in Arabic from an Israeli perspective, Liberman explained that Hamas collects NIS 100 million in annual taxes from residents of the Gaza Strip but uses the money to fund terrorist activities rather than to pay for electricity and invest in water security.
Providing free electricity to Hamas enables the terrorist organization to devote all of its limited resources to building up its military capabilities. And it increases the risk to Israelis.
At the same time, one cannot ignore the humanitarian crisis that might result from cutting electricity to Gaza.
Back in April, when Abbas announced his intention to stop transferring funds to Gaza, Gazans stopped using their limited electricity to treat sewage before allowing it to flow into the Mediterranean or into riverbeds in the Strip. There is real concern about an outbreak of infectious disease, especially among babies and children. With electricity available for only two to three hours a day, hospitals are unable to properly care for patients.
And Israel will inevitably be affected by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Israel does not live in isolation from Gaza. Untreated sewage released into the Mediterranean pollutes beaches in Ashkelon and Ashdod and Bat Yam and Tel Aviv. Epidemics that break out in Gaza would be contagious and could find their way into Israel.
Ultimately, the so-called electricity crisis is of Hamas’s making. As with the Islamist movement’s use of human shields, its purposeful positioning of combatants and rocket launchers in the midst of population centers, so too the default on Gaza’s electricity bill presents Israel with a difficult moral dilemma. Hamas is willing to sacrifice the lives of Gaza’s civilians in order to win the battle of public opinion. The image of a sick Palestinian baby lying untreated in a darkened Rantisi Pediatric Hospital in Gaza City is a blow to the gut that is impossible to explain away.
There are no easy answers. But whether or not Israel decides to renew the full electricity supply to Gaza, our defense minister should make a compelling argument for the action taken instead of playing the victim or hiding behind Abbas.