A Dance in Riyadh, a Blackout in Gaza

AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File

Palestinians walk on a dark street next to a grocery shop lit with battery-powered lamps during a power cut in Gaza City. 

Viewed from close up, it makes little sense for Israel to cut the supply of electricity to the Gaza Strip—which is just what the Israeli government decided to do at the start of this week. The cut will make the humanitarian crisis in the besieged Strip even worse. In the worst case, it might also lead to yet another war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Viewed from a slightly wider perspective, the move does fit into a regional pattern—a pattern that includes the crisis over Qatar, and Donald Trump happily bopping along with a sword dance in Riyadh last month.

Gaza is an anomaly. It's a rebel province of the Palestinian Authority, which itself is an autonomous entity subject to Israel. Israel removed its army and its settlements in 2005, but still tightly controls access to Gaza—partly to try to limit Hamas's ability to make war, partly to put pressure on the Hamas government. Gaza also has a border with Egypt. But since the 2013 counterrevolution in Egypt, when the army seized power from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt has helped isolate Gaza.

The supply of electricity to Gaza is just as complicated. Most comes from the Israeli grid, paid for indirectly through the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. There's one power plant in Gaza, but the fuel also has to come through Israel. It's been shut since April, due to a financial dispute over the fuel supply between the Hamas regime and the Palestinian Authority. Some more electricity reaches Gaza, undependably, from Egypt.

The total falls far below Gaza's needs. The Israeli human rights group Gisha (Access) reports that entire hospital wings shut down during blackouts. People's homes get four hours a day of electricity. Without power for treatment plants, raw sewage flows into the Mediterranean. This is a short selection from a long list of miseries.

On Sunday, the Israeli security cabinet—the senior ministerial body responsible for defense and foreign affairs—voted to cut Israel's share of the electricity supply by another 40 percent. The explanation: Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas requested the reduction, saying that the Gaza regime wasn't paying its bills.

It shatters credibility to think this is really about finances, especially since the sums are small. Abbas apparently wants to use popular misery in Gaza to tighten a vise on Hamas—either to get it to sign a unity deal on his terms or to drive it out of Gaza altogether.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that electricity was an internal Palestinian matter. That's nonsense several times over. Israel's external hold on Gaza means it has a major share of responsibility for the humanitarian crisis.

Besides, Abbas has been asking to dial down power to Gaza at least since April. So if it's purely a Palestinian matter, why did Netanyahu's government decide to act only now?

The answer, it seems, lies in a different Middle East crisis: the sudden move last week by Saudi Arabia and allies to isolate Qatar.

The Saudi-Qatari tensions date back to 1995, when Qatar began to show independence from its much bigger neighbor. By creating the Al Jazeera network, Qatar quite literally broadcast its desire to upstage the Saudis. The network supported the Arab Spring uprisings. Riyadh opposed them. Qatar sought to get along with Iran—which is a good way not to get along with the Saudis.

Qatar also backed the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot, Hamas. The Saudi regime sees the Brotherhood's version of political Islam as a danger, and supported the overthrow of the Brotherhood-led government in Egypt.

With the Qatar crisis, too, there's a question of timing. The Saudis picked a particular moment: just after Trump came to visit, when they managed to stroke his ego perfectly, when he smiled like a kid who'd fallen into a fantasy book when they gave him a sword to dance with. Never mind that a year ago Trump was tweet-trashing Saudi Arabia. Once the Saudis showed they loved him, they were the bulwark against terrorism. Carefully managing tensions is not part of Trump's skill set. He deals in a simple line-up of good guys and bad guys.

With America managed, Saudi Arabia, along with Egypt, the Emirates, and friends could cut tie ties with Qatar, ban its planes from their air space and ban Al Jazeera from their airwaves. Among the Saudi demands from Qatar was that it stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

Place the Israeli move to starve Gaza of electricity in that context. Netanyahu has been arguing for a while that “many Arab states now understand that Israel isn't their enemy.” The subtext is that Israel can live comfortably without need for a final-status agreement with the Palestinians—or perhaps with an agreement imposed on the Palestinians by Israel's Arab friends.

Punishing Hamas is an opportunity for Netanyahu not only to demonstrate toughness at home, but also to show that he's on board with the Saudi-Egyptian coalition. The squeeze on Gaza may be a particular favor to Egypt. The pro-Saudi, London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat reported Tuesday (Arabic here) that Cairo has offered more electricity to Gaza, for a price: It wants Hamas to turn over 17 wanted men now in Gaza, and to stop arms smuggling from Gaza to Islamic State rebels in Sinai.

There are just a couple problems with Netanyahu's move. One is that Israel—like Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas itself—is holding the suffering civilians of Gaza hostage to its political goals.

The other is that contrary to the reported estimations of Israeli intelligence, Hamas could decide to respond with rockets fired into Israel. From there, no one knows how far an escalation could go. For that reason, Netanyahu may prefer to leave the decision on electricity as a threat and let the crisis fade. Sometimes, surprisingly, sense prevails. 

But it won't be because the man in the White House urged caution. He's already shown he prefers sword dances, with little concern for the consequences.

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