June 13, 2017

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — As Gazans prepare for the dire humanitarian consequences of an Israeli decision to cut down its electricity supply to the besieged coastal enclave by some 40 percent, Egypt has offered to provide more electricity to Gaza — but only if Hamas cooperates with Egypt in its harsh ‘counterterrorism’ crackdown.

Israeli authorities approved the electricity cuts Monday, upon the request of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the occupied West Bank, which foots Gaza’s monthly electricity bill from Israel by subtracting from taxes collected by Israel on behalf of the PA.

According to a report Tuesday from London-based Arabic daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, Egypt has since offered Hamas, the de facto ruling party in Gaza, increased electricity supply and more freedom at the Rafah border crossing in exchange for a list of security demands.

Egypt has reportedly demanded that Hamas hand over 17 men wanted by Cairo on terrorism charges, more protection by Hamas at the border, the cessation of alleged weapons smuggling into the Sinai Peninsula, and information on the movement of “elements” into Gaza via underground tunnels.

According to al-Sharq al-Awsat, the demands were presented by Egyptian security officials to the head of Hamas’s politburo in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, during his nine-day trip to Cairo that ended on Monday.

The report also claimed that Egypt believes it has more influence over Hamas’ leadership, now that both Sinwar and Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh reside in Gaza, as the two need Egyptian permission to travel abroad via Rafah. Hamas’s previous political bureau chief, Khalid Meshaal, resided abroad.

The Rafah crossing is also the primary lifeline to the outside world for Gaza’s two million residents, but has been severely restricted by Egypt, largely due to a militant insurgency in the northern Sinai Peninsula, which has coincided with forced disappearances and possible extrajudicial killings at the hands of Egyptian authorities amid its shadowy counter terrorism campaigns.

The Egyptian government has in the past accused Hamas of assisting the insurgency, although Hamas strongly denies the allegations.

Al-Sharq al-Awsat’s sources also suggested that Egypt believes it has more leverage over Hamas due to an ongoing political crisis that saw Egypt join Saudi Arabia and a number of other Arab countries in severing diplomatic ties with Qatar — a critical ally of Hamas. Saudi Arabia specifically mentioned Hamas as an extremist group supported by Qatar as a primary justification for the move.

However, it remained unclear to what extent Egypt is capable of mitigating Gaza’s power crisis, since the power lines from Egypt that supply electricity to southern Gaza are often out of operation due to technical issues. When the Egyptian lines do work, they provide 25 megawatts — just 6.25 percent of the amount necessary to power Gaza for a full day.

The Gaza electricity company said on Monday, after news broke of Israel’s decision to slash electricity supplies, that it had been informed by Egypt’s power company that it could cut off power lines feeding Gaza at any time, without providing further details.

However, according to reports, the Egyptian power lines have not been providing any power lately anyway due to malfunctions, which left the Israeli power lines Gaza’s only source of electricity after the enclave’s sole power plant ran out of fuel and Hamas refused to purchase more from the PA over what it said were unfairly high taxes.

Hamas has suffered poor relations with the Egyptian government ever since the Muslim Brotherhood, with whom it was closely allied, was thrown out of power in Egypt in July 2013. However, Hamas’ new charter makes no reference to the Muslim Brotherhood in a realignment and softening of the group’s political agenda.

Meanwhile, critics have said the PA has attempted to use the electricity crisis to exert pressure on the Hamas government to release control of the small Palestinian territory.

“The Israeli occupation and the Palestinian Authority, who have been collaborating with each other to achieve Israel’s agenda of liquidating the Palestinian cause, will solely bear the consequences of this decision,” Hamas said Monday.

The PA and Israel have continued to cast blame on Hamas for the electricity crisis. PA spokesman Yousif al-Mahmoud accused Hamas of being responsible, reiterating Israeli and PA claims that Hamas collects millions of shekels in taxes from Gazans every month without transferring the money to the PA.

Al-Mahmoud called on Gaza’s electricity company to pay the remaining monthly cost of electricity, which is estimated at $10 million and which the government has been buying from Israel since 2007 when Hamas took control of the territory, according to PA-owned Wafa news agency.

PA intelligence chief Majid Faraj for his part said Monday that “Hamas is dragging us to a place that can lead us to a place in which the consequences will be grave,” according to Israeli news daily Haaretz.

Responding to worries that the the electricity cuts could lead to fresh confrontations between Israel and Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israel was “not interested in an escalation vis-a-vis the Gaza Strip,” adding that “we are interested in security and our policy hasn’t changed.”

Netanyahu went on to argue that the provision of electricity to the besieged coastal enclave was “an internal Palestinian issue.”

“Hamas wants the PA to pay for it and the PA refuses,” his statement deduced. However, rights groups have insisted on Israel’s responsibilities towards Gazans.

Noting the destabilizing effects of the dispute between Hamas and the PA, Israeli NGO Gisha argued that Israel “is not just a service provider, responding neutrally to a client’s request.”

“The collective responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, the de facto Hamas government in Gaza, Egypt, and the international community for the dire state of Gaza’s infrastructure does not diminish Israel’s marked accountability for the situation, nor its inescapable role in fixing it,” the statement said.

“Given its extensive control over life in the (Gaza) Strip, Israel is responsible for enabling normal life for its residents. Israel is obligated to find solutions that will allow for the continued supply of electricity at existing capacity, and to take active steps toward increasing supply in order to allow residents, whose taxes are collected and held by Israel, access to acceptable living conditions.”