By Afro-Middle East Centre

The threat of the collapse of Gaza Strip as the siege on the territory and the consequent humanitarian crisis worsens resulted in the Hamas leadership seeking help from neighbouring Egypt. This especially after Israel drastically reduced electricity supply to Gaza because of Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, deciding to cut electricity payments for Gaza. Delegations from Hamas’s political leadership met on numerous times with representatives of the Abdel Fattah El-Sisi government in recent months.

Marking ten years of its control in the tiny besieged territory, Hamas seeks to end the blockade (imposed by Israel in 2007 and followed by Egypt) by Egypt, and to ease the deteriorating life conditions faced by the two million Palestinians in Gaza. Pushed to desperation by the alarming humanitarian situation, Hamas has even agreed to Egyptian requests that the Palestinian resistance movement meets with Mohammed Dahlan, the strongman that once ruled the PA security apparatus in Gaza with an iron fist.

The renewed relations with Egypt have also allowed Hamas to engage with the Israeli government on a prisoner-exchange deal through Egypt, negotiate with Egypt over the supply of fuel for Gaza’s electricity generating plant, and receive a commitment for the opening of the Rafah border crossing in September to allow for free crossing of Palestinians between the strip and Egypt.

During the one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Hamas enjoyed good relations with Egypt, which eased the blockade and allowed for trade and movement of Palestinians through Rafah. With the overthrow of Morsi in a military coup, the Egyptian government cracked down on MB members and supporters, and put pressure on Hamas. The Palestinian group’s historical links with the MB, and the warm relationship between the Egyptian government and Israel had made Hamas’s relationship with the Sisi government hostile, and led to the closure of Rafah. Relations were further complicated by fighting in Sinai as claims were made of Gaza residents joining the fighting alongside Islamic State group (IS) fighters behind the Sinai insurgency. The impact of this was felt in Gaza by ordinary Palestinians who now face even worse living conditions due to electricity shortages. The Ramallah-based PA has been on a campaign to tighten the noose around Gaza after reducing the salaries of thousands of civil servants in Gaza, and retiring 6 000 of them.

Rafah is critical for Gazans since Israel has blocked access for them, and many have resorted to using underground tunnels to smuggle goods in and out of the enclave. Previous relations between Hamas and Egypt have been strained because of good relations between Egypt and Israel, which also resulted in an Egyptian blockade on Gaza. The Egyptian military has waged a war against Gaza’s tunnel economy since the blockade began. Egypt has razed thousands of homes in the Sinai and flooded tunnels to quell the smuggling of goods. Egypt contends that the tunnels allowed for the arming of IS insurgents in Sinai.

Hamas has been promised that an arrangement with Dahlan could see Gaza receiving the basic supplies it needs to survive. Such an arrangement will, however, also bolster Dahlan’s campaign take control of Fatah, the PA and the PLO. Dahlan has denied he has any designs on leadership in Gaza, but his supporters have already started making their way back as part of the Egypt agreements.

Discussions between Hamas and Egypt have also covered a possible prisoner exchange between the Palestinian movement and Israel. Hamas head Ismail Haniyeh said the group was in talks with the Israeli government through a ‘third party’ to release Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. The ‘third party’, Egypt, has communicated to Israel that Hamas wants the release of fifty-four detainees who were part of the 2011 swop for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldier Gilad Shalit who was held by Hamas. The Palestinian prisoners were rearrested in 2014, and Israel has refused to release them unconditionally.

The Hamas visits to Cairo in February, June and July saw talks with Egyptian officials, including members of the intelligence sector. The Hamas officials also met with Dahlan, who is a trusted friend of the Egyptian government and an advisor to the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Zayed. Dahlan has been working to find a way back into the Fatah leadership after being expelled from the group in 2011. He was responsible for planning a coup against Hamas in Gaza after the Islamist movement won legislature elections in 2006. After the Hamas delegation, headed by Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, returned from the Cairo meeting in June, Egypt delivered fuel to resuscitate a power plant in Gaza. In return, Hamas began constructing a security buffer zone along the southern border with Egypt in response to Egyptian demands for increased security in the area.

Dahlan’s involvement comes with the promise of funds from the UAE, which will help him to re-launch his leadership bid. It is a plan masterminded by the UAE, implemented by Egypt and backed by Arab leaders (and Israel). For Hamas, turning to Dahlan is a means to an end; finding common cause with an enemy of an enemy has led to Egypt agreeing to open the Rafah crossing, if the security situation in Sinai is improved, and the UAE has pledged $100 million for the construction of a power plant on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza.

Certain Arab leaders hope to neutralise Hamas, while Israel prefers to eliminate it completely. Gaza’s dire humanitarian plight, which threatens Hamas’s rule in the strip, is an ideal opportunity to marginalise Hamas and bring into leadership a man who has proved to be a reliable proxy for the USA, Israel and the UAE. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas is in a precarious position, and his delaying in forging a reconciliation with Hamas could result in him losing power to his rival, his long-time rival.

By Ramzy Baroud

Judging by its size, the Gaza Strip may look too small to matter in the ongoing regional intrigues involving Israel, the United States, Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. However, the 365 square kilometre coastal strip, which has been under Israeli-Egyptian siege for over ten years, outweighs its size many times over in the ongoing political gamble involving the region’s most powerful players. The many players that are involved are 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 that the outcome is always in its favour. But what exactly does Israel want? Shortly after Hamas won Palestinian elections in 2006, Israel imposed a siege on Gaza. The siege has remained in place since, and has grown to define the status quo. Dov Weisglass, a senior Israeli adviser to the then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, aptly described Israel’s motives behind the siege ten years ago: ‘The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.’ That single quote 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’s near-starvation diet has been in effect ever since, with little done to remedy the suffering of Gazans. Second, with time, the Israeli siege also became an Egyptian blockade, thus making the most populous Arab country an accomplice to the Israeli plan to control Palestinians. Third, the Palestinian Authority (PA) 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, now dominated by an aging, quisling leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is experiencing a power struggle within its ranks, while fighting hard to keep its Hamas rivals weak, isolated and discredited.

Egypt’s share of and role in the siege cannot be underestimated. Since his ascent to power following a military coup against an elected government on 3 July 2013, General - now President - Abdel Fattah el-Sisi moved quickly to deepen the isolation of Gaza, and, by extension, Hamas. Sisi’s coup managed, decisively and violently, to overthrow a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government in Cairo, but not its Palestinian affiliates in Gaza.

Hamas, widely seen as the Palestinian extension of the Brotherhood, still reigned supreme in the besieged Strip despite determined Israeli attempts at destroying it, and any semblance of resistance there. Three major onslaughts launched by Israel (in 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’s 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. Some Arab Gulf governments, which wanted to ensure the complete demise of the Brotherhood, saw in Hamas’s survival a threat to their own existence. Now into its eleventh year, the siege has become a shared Israeli-Palestinian-Arab long-term investment. However, this is not a matter of politics or ideology only.

Following various popular uprisings in several Arab countries, Arab regimes with no democratic mandates moved quickly to suppress any dissent, no matter how seemingly harmless. Bloggers were dragged to jails; poets were imprisoned; peaceful activists were shot; and thousands disappeared in massive purges to ensure the failed uprisings do not resurface.

Meanwhile, Israel continued with its illegal land grab and Jewish colonial expansion, unhindered. With plans set in motion for ‘security coordination’ between Israel and the PA to crack down on dissenting Palestinians, the Israeli plan to annex most of the West Bank and all of East Jerusalem was developing without many obstacles. Except, of course, 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 in the past decade. 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. Further, 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 Arab region has been experiencing rapid changes in recent years, where three civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen and the spread of militancy and ‘terror’ has reached almost every Arab country. The political uncertainty in the USA 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 USA 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 had governed the Middle East through clearly defined doctrines, now seems to have no doctrine, only impulsive decisions made by a Twitter-obsessed president.

The American retreat offered the kind of political space that could be filled by those vying to control the region. 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-manoeuvring the rest. According to this new ‘vision’, Hamas, which could not be defeated by sheer force, could be relegated into an ineffectual political entity through an alliance with Mohammed Dahlan.

Once upon a time, Dahlan was the strongman of Gaza, commandeering ten 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 diktat. 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 later 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 found common ground: 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 political machinations began intensifying in an unprecedented fashion. Abbas quickly lost favour with Cairo, and Dahlan became Fatah’s strongman, as far as Egypt was concerned. Abbas’s sin was his refusal to join forces with Dahlan, with the ultimate objective of defeating Hamas. Meanwhile, with Abbas and Hamas failing to achieve even 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 had been negotiating the return of the former strongman to Gaza, to head a government there in exchange for an Egyptian easing of the siege. According to the plan, Hamas would remain in control of Gaza’s interior ministry and would not disarm, but, in the words of 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 PA refused to pay for much of the electricity that Gaza is supplied by Israel, 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 forty-four per cent. Those who are employed still struggle to survive, with eighty per cent of all Gazans said to be dependent on humanitarian assistance. In 2015, the UN warned that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020. A Red Cross report in May 2016 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 include even cooking gas. Following the most recent energy reduction which started on 11 June, 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 14 June 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 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 isolated, unable to move freely, or to 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 enlisting the support of 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 is an internationally-syndicated columnist, media consultant, 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.

By Ashwin Pienaar

On Thursday 3 June 2010, South Africa announced it would be recalling its ambassador to Israel, following the latter's raid on a flotilla of ships carrying aid to Gaza. The incident, which took place in international waters early on Monday, 31 May 2010, left nine activists dead and over 30 wounded.

In a media conference held in Pretoria on Thursday 3 June, South Africa's Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ebrahim Ebrahim, announced that, "the recall of Ambassador Ismail Coovadia is to show our strongest condemnation of the attack. This recent Israeli aggression of attacking the aid flotilla severely impacts on finding a lasting solution to the problems of the region. The South African government also joins the international community in its call for the siege of Gaza to be immediately lifted." Ebrahim added that the siege had brought "untold hardships" to the ordinary people of Gaza, making their lives "nightmarish".

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The United Nations (UN) fact-finding mission on the Israeli attacks on Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009 has slammed Israel for committing serious war crimes and breaches of humanitarian law, saying that these may amount to crimes against humanity.

The 575-page report (6.8MB) by the four-person mission, headed by South African Judge Richard Goldstone, was released on 15 September 2009, and a presentation to the UN's Human Rights Council in Geneva is scheduled for 29 September.

The four members of the mission were appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council in April 209, with a mandate to investigate all violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law that might have been committed before, during and after Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" in Gaza.

The latest United Nations report on last year's lethal flotilla incident – in which nine people were killed and many injured by Israeli commandos on board a humanitarian ship bound for Gaza – was released at the beginning of September, and generated much controversy. On the one hand, the report makes clear that Israel's use of force on board the Mavi Marmara and in the treatment of those detained on the ship was excessive and unreasonable. It acknowledges that forensic evidence indicates at least seven were shot in the head or chest, five of them at close range, and recognises that Israel still refused to provide any accounting of how the nine people were killed. It calls on Tel Aviv to compensate the families of those killed, eight Turks and one American, and also those who were seriously injured during and after the incident, passengers roughed up while in Israeli custody and whose cameras, cell phones and other belongings were confiscated.

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