To say that the besieged Gaza Strip is on the brink of collapse is an understatement as the UN warns of a “constant humanitarian emergency” affecting more than two million Palestinians. In addition to the dire living conditions, high unemployment at about 46 per cent, massive poverty at 65 per cent and total reliance by one million Palestinians on food provided by a cash-strapped UNRWA, tension between Israel and Hamas has reached dangerous levels, threatening the break out of yet another war.
Even the chief of staff of Israel’s army warned that Gaza is facing a humanitarian crisis that could expedite the threat of war. But neither Israel nor the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) is willing to admit responsibility for the beleaguered inhabitants of Gaza.
Since the 2014 Israeli onslaught on Gaza, the overcrowded strip has been victim of a tight economic blockade that has crippled attempts to rebuild a dysfunctional infrastructure. Today, most Gazans have no access to clean drinking water, resulting in waterborne diseases made even worse by the inability of a sewage treatment plant to function because of daily power shortages. In fact, the UN has warned that strategic fuel reserves will run out in a matter of days, leaving Gaza’s hospitals, already understaffed and short on medicines, without power.
The situation will only get worse as the US, the biggest contributor to UNRWA’s annual budget, is slashing its aid package. Political squabbling by Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza, and the PNA has derailed Egyptian efforts to reach reconciliation. The Raffah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt is closed most of the year and when it opens, it is only for few days and passage is restricted to few cases.
So far, response to the UN’s appeal to deal with the humanitarian situation in Gaza has been limited. Few countries have stepped in; the UAE donated $2 million (Dh7.34 million) this week to a UN fund to provide fuel to Gaza’s hospitals. But such contributions will not resolve Gaza’s long-term problems.
Making things worse is the US decision to put Hamas leader Esmail Haniyeh on its terrorist list. Such a step will hamper Egyptian mediation efforts and will make it more difficult for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to pursue a deal with his Gaza rivals. In fact, it now seems that the PNA government is reluctant to take over responsibility in Gaza, as was agreed with Hamas, for a variety of reasons. Abbas believes he can extract additional concessions from the Islamic movement, especially concerning its military wing. It is unfortunate that Israel and Abbas are on the same page when to comes to dealing with Hamas. Israel has hindered reaching a deal for a prisoner exchange with Hamas, hoping to put additional pressure on the movement.
While neither Hamas nor the Israeli military want to risk an open war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may consider waging an operation for a number of reasons. It could be a way for him to deflect attention from possible indictment on corruption charges. He may also be considering plans to remove Hamas by force and pave the way for the PA to take control of Gaza, which for his right-wing coalition partners constitutes the only piece of real estate where a Palestinian state can be established.
For Hamas hawks, along with the Islamic Jihad, reconciliation with the PA is a myth and a waste of time. The economic blockade is seen as a ploy to force the resistance, with its stockpile of rockets, into submission. In their view, President Donald Trump’s purported peace plan aims at liquidating the Palestinian cause and from that perspective they see the defunding of UNRWA as a step towards that goal.
The worsening of humanitarian conditions in Gaza will only embolden the hawks within Hamas. They will be pushing towards confrontation with Israel, as evident from the reckless firing of rockets into southern Israel in the past few weeks, as a way to derail US and Israeli schemes and override growing domestic resentment of Hamas rule by Gazans.
“The worsening of humanitarian conditions in Gaza will only embolden the hawks within Hamas.””Share on facebookTweet this
If war does break out between Israel and Hamas there is no way of telling what both sides have up their sleeves. It could be a short-lived duel but it could also drag on as it did in 2014. The cost for ordinary Gazans, especially women and children, will be huge.
On the other hand, maintaining the status quo is no longer tenable, both from a humanitarian and political aspects. There has to be a creative approach to dealing with the plight of Gazans but at this stage none can be found. In the meantime and as Gazans continue to suffer, the world is largely silent and herein lies the danger.
No one can imagine what a total collapse in Gaza will mean or what its outcome will look like.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.