Quarterly Updates for (16 May 2017 — 15 Aug 2017)

DISCORD AND STRIFE

Rather than provide a foundation for future presidential elections, as originally intended, last quarter’s scuttled municipal elections further exacerbated the rift between the Palestinian factions. With Hamas refusing to participate and Gaza excluded, the fiasco formed the backdrop of increasingly acrimonious relations between the Ramallah-based leadership and Hamas this quarter, with both sides jockeying for power.

Further to last quarter’s electricity rationing and salary cuts to Gaza-based former PA employees (see “Gaza Electricity Crisis” and JPS 46 [4]), Pres. Abbas ratcheted up the pressure on Hamas to relinquish control of the territory this quarter. First, the PA suspended its monthly stipends to 277 Hamas-affiliated prisoners in Gaza, according to a Palestinian official on 6/4. Abbas came under pressure from Israel and the U.S. to end the PA’s monthly payments to Palestinians convicted of serious crimes against Israelis and to the families of “martyrs,” i.e., Palestinians killed in confrontations with Israeli forces (see “The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict” above). Second, the PA withheld the 6/2017 salaries of 37 Hamas-affiliated mbrs. of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), a move that PLC dep. speaker Ahmed Bahar called (7/10) a “declaration of war” in a statement to Safa Palestinian Press Agency. The PA provided no official explanation for either decision, and it remained unclear what the new policies entailed or how long they were intended to last.

Meanwhile, Abbas began to crack down on public dissent. PA atty. gen. Ahmad Barrak blocked (6/15) 11 websites affiliated with Hamas and other rivals, alleging that these violated regulations banning defamation and misinformation. Abbas himself then approved (6/24) a new so-called electronic crimes bill, which went into effect in early 7/2017.* According to Social Media Exchange, which monitors digital rights in the Arab world, the new legislation: required internet service providers to cooperate with PA intelligence agencies; empowered PA officials to block any website and record online conversations; allowed violators of “public morality” online to be imprisoned for a year and fined the equivalent of $7,000; and made online acts deemed to undermine “national unity” or “social harmony” punishable by 3–15 years of hard labor. By the end of the quarter, the PA had blocked 30 more websites and arrested at least 5 journalists under the new law, according to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms (8/11).

The PA’s next move against Hamas focused on the health sector, and had immediate, and deadly, consequences for ailing Palestinians in Gaza. According to data from Physicians for Human Rights–Israel (PHRI), the PA began blocking or delaying Gazan patients from traveling to Israel or the West Bank for treatment in 4/2017 (Haaretz, 6/26). Palestinians needing medical treatment unavailable in Gaza require permits from Israel and referrals from the PA, and the PA cut the funding required by patients needing to travel, after having provided the bulk of such funding alongside a number of humanitarian programs. According to PHRI, the PA was only approving around 10 of the 120 daily requests for referrals in 5–6/2017, and only a few dozen were approved in 5/2017, down from an average of over 2,000 per mo. in 2016.

After the PA Ministry of Health denied (6/26) making any changes to the referrals policy, Hamas got involved. A spokesperson from the parallel Hamas-run ministry in Gaza said (6/27) that 3 infants born with life-threatening conditions had died that week as a result of the PA’s conduct. The spokesperson alleged that another 11 Gazans had died for the same reasons since the beginning of 2017. “What is going on is a crime . . . and the international community and human rights organizations must intervene immediately to stop this behavior,” a doctor at al-Shifa Hospital declared (6/27).

In the wake of these allegations, Ramallah issued a measured response. Dr. Bassem al-Badri, the PA official responsible for the medical referral program, argued (6/28) that Israel was to blame for the infants’ deaths because it had only approved approximately 50% of travel permit requests, adding that it rejects hundreds of such applications every mo. with no explanation. Later in the quarter, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed al-Badri’s assertion, when it published a study showing that Israeli authorities had approved only 47.2% of the 2,282 requests for permits in 5/2017.

The PA couldn’t escape the story of the dead infants, however. After COGAT stated (6/28) that it had received no request from the PA to permit the travel of the 3 infants from Gaza, international pressure ramped up and the PA yielded ground. According to Israeli and Palestinian sources on 6/29, the PA Ministry of Health pledged to lift its restrictions and resume funding medical referrals beginning on 7/2 (Haaretz, 6/29).

Once the medical referral controversy had subsided, the PA went back on the offensive and sent into early retirement (7/4) some 6,145 former employees in Gaza as PM Hamdallah called (7/4) on Hamas to allow the PA to take control of Gaza. The same day, a PA spokesperson said that any “previous procedures and any possible future procedures in this regard” were only temporary, and that Abbas would roll them back as soon as Hamas conformed with his reconciliation proposal, first outlined last quarter. Abbas called for Hamas to dissolve the new administrative comm. it formed earlier in 2017 (see JPS 46 [3]), allow the PA to take control of the territory, and agree to a new round of elections in both the West Bank and Gaza.

Under pressure from Abbas, and given its increasingly precarious position in the region (see “Regional Affairs” below), Hamas sought to buttress its position by eliciting the support of archrival and exiled Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan. From his base in Abu Dhabi, Dahlan had in recent years been trying to reenter Palestinian politics, notably by facilitating reconstruction projects in Gaza (see JPS 44 [4] and 45 [1]). Since Dahlan had led the Fatah forces that attacked Hamas after the latter’s 2006 election sweep in Gaza, his volte-face came as something of a surprise. According to senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya (6/18), it was the Egyptian govt. that had facilitated a deal between Dahlan and his erstwhile rivals during the 6/4–12 visit to Cairo by a Hamas delegation.

Details of the Hamas-Dahlan deal emerged on 6/26 when a document, titled “A National Consensus Document for Trust-Building,” leaked to Ma‘an News Agency. It included 15 provisions for ameliorating conditions in Gaza, and would see Dahlan appointed to lead a govt. in the territory, with Hamas retaining control of the Ministry of Interior and Internal Security.

Neither side confirmed the veracity of the document, but several related developments in late 6/2017 and 7/2017 pointed to growing Hamas-Dahlan cooperation: Samir Mashrawi, Dahlan’s top lieutenant, was set to return to Gaza soon according to a senior Hamas official (7/3); the Associated Press (7/20) reported that Dahlan had opened a Gaza office in 6/2017 to administer $2 m. in new aid he had secured from his United Arab Emirates (UAE) patrons; on 7/20, Hamas allowed more than 2,000 Palestinians to gather in Gaza City for a pro-Dahlan rally; and in a rare interview he gave AP on 7/22, Dahlan stated that his deal with Hamas was designed to revive Palestinian national institutions such as the PLC and to pave the way for a new consensus govt. He reaffirmed that he had no desire to become PA pres., and invited Abbas to lead the new reconciliation efforts but added, “We are not going to wait for him [to make a move] forever.” Also of note: Dahlan announced that Egypt would be opening the Rafah border crossing more frequently and that the UAE had pledged to fund a new $100-m. power plant in Gaza in the context of his deal with Hamas.

Dahlan’s reemergence spurred Abbas to formulate a new reconciliation offer. On 8/1, the Arab press reported that PA intelligence chief Majid Faraj had conveyed to Hamas officials the broad outline of a potential agreement by telephone on 7/27. The framework envisioned return of the electricity supply in Gaza to pre-crisis levels and allowing Gazan banks to resume trading in foreign currency; in exchange, Hamas would publicly renounce its reported power-sharing agreement with Dahlan and dismantle its civil service bureaucracy in Gaza. Hours before a Hamas delegation was to meet with Abbas in Ramallah, Hamas responded publicly by demanding (8/1) that the PA commit to keeping on all employees of the Hamas-run govt. in Gaza and to allow a new leadership group, including representatives of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine (PIJ), to take control on an interim basis until a new round of elections could be held.

Various offers and counteroffers, both official and unofficial, appeared in the press throughout the end of the quarter. Abbas reportedly restored the monthly stipends of more than 50 Hamas-affiliated former prisoners in Gaza but there were no official announcements by the end of the quarter, and the reconciliation process appeared at a standstill.

 

NEW POLICY AGENDA

At a conference in Ramallah on 5/22, the PA PM launched a new National Policy Agenda (NPA) for 2017–22, with strategies and goals—national reconciliation, economic independence, statehood, etc.—meant to “provide direction and reinforce resilience as we advance along the inevitable path to a free, independent, and prosperous state of Palestine,” Hamdallah said. UN Special Coordinator Nickolay Mladenov hailed the NPA as “an ambitious policy agenda for Palestine that articulates a strong, clear vision for the Palestinian people.” Others, however, viewed the NPA’s ambitious goals as a potential liability. Writing for the Middle East Monitor on 5/23, Ramona Wadi noted that many of these were contingent on Israeli concessions. She argued that the NPA conference only served “as another public relations opportunity . . . for yet another façade depicting the illusion of progress.”