Column: Is War in Gaza Unavoidable? Why the Current Peace Won’t Hold

BY: Grant Rumley & Ghaith al-Omari*

Earlier this summer, it seemed like war in the Gaza Strip was inevitable. Israel had accepted Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’ request to cut off electricity for the approximately two million Gazans who live under Hamas rule. Abbas hoped to pressure Hamas into relinquishing control over the strip, which was plunged into darkness as the cornered faction faced pressure from Israel and Abbas on one side and Egypt on the other. It seemed only a matter of time before Hamas lashed out. That is, until an unlikely savior emerged: exiled Fatah leader Muhammad Dahlan. The archrival of Abbas rushed to Egypt and brokered an agreement between Cairo and Hamas for an emergency fuel shipment. As the situation calmed, Dahlan announced a new arrangement for Gaza: he would raise money for Gaza abroad. In return, Hamas would allow his supporters to return to Gaza and operate freely there.

Yet this latest Middle East agreement is only a temporary fix. Hamas leaders have few goals in common with the exiled leader of their rival party, save two important ones: to ameliorate the hardships of life in Gaza and thwart their mutual rival, Abbas, in the West Bank. The current arrangement ostensibly serves these two purposes, but it does so only in the near term. It may have delayed a war this summer, but it has made a future conflict more likely.

For Hamas, siding with Dahlan was the only realistic option to avoid launching another war. Strapped for cash and facing a restive population (10,000 Gazans marched on Hamas’ electricity headquarters in January in protest), Hamas was starting to feel the effects of the Saudi and United Arab Emirates–led blockade of one of its patrons, Qatar. Dahlan, too, was desperate for a way to remain relevant. Ever since Abbas exiled him in 2011, the former security chief in Gaza has made his home in the UAE, courting regional favor and pumping money into the Palestinian Territories. Yet Dahlan has been increasingly marginalized in Palestinian national politics after Abbas engineered a purge of his allies in last year’s general conference of the Fatah movement. So a crisis involving Dahlan’s native Gaza and potentially Egypt—with which Dahlan maintains strong relations—presented an opportunity for him to reassert some relevancy. Egypt, eager to stabilize Gaza as a matter of national security and having given up on Abbas playing a constructive role there, was more than willing to coordinate with Dahlan.

The Hamas-Dahlan-Egypt cooperation against Abbas is typical enemy-of-my-enemy strategy. Many factors threaten its sustainability. For one, although their tactical interests may converge, the parties’ ultimate objectives are at odds. Hamas and Dahlan each aspire to exert full control over Gaza and eventually lead the entire Palestinian national movement. Hamas will try to use Dahlan to gain access to external funding, mainly from the UAE and the Gulf states, and to establish links with these—and possibly European—countries. Already the UAE has pledged $15 million a month to a joint rehabilitation committee with Hamas. Once the group feels that it has made sufficient headway it is likely to turn on Dahlan. For his part, Dahlan will try to expand, reorganize, and rearm his supporters in Gaza. Once he feels sufficiently empowered, he will inevitably seek to assert his primacy, likely through force. And Egypt is part of a regional coalition that is hostile to Islamist movements. It has its own grievances with Hamas because of the group’s role in supporting Sinai jihadists, and it will be sympathetic to and supportive of Dahlan’s aspirations.

These are not the only factors jeopardizing the current arrangement. Hamas has grievances stretching back decades. Not only was Dahlan its archrival in the civil war of 2007, which saw Hamas boot his forces from Gaza, but many remember the brutal repression of PA security forces under Dahlan’s command in the 1990s. Many Fatah members in Gaza still vividly recall Hamas’ own brutality during its violent takeover of Gaza as well, and its subsequent repression against them since. Although Hamas’ leadership and Dahlan may be able to swallow their pride for the sake of the arrangement, there’s little to suggest that their respective parties will continue to do so for long.

Each of the players is, of course, aware of the dynamics and will try to maneuver delicately. Abbas, who rightly perceives this alliance as a direct challenge to his authority both as the leader of the Palestinian national movement and the leader of Fatah, is not without options. He may try to show more flexibility in meeting Hamas’ demands, such as restarting fuel payments, and strike his own deal with the movement. That option seems to have been behind his recent meetings with West Bank–based Hamas leaders. Elements in Hamas might be interested in such a plan, some because they see him as less objectionable than Dahlan and others because they see him as less capable of undermining them in the longer term. Alternatively, he may seek reaffirmation of his leadership—and denunciation of the new arrangements—from formal PLO bodies. Indeed, chatter from Palestinian leaders has already started about convening the Palestinian National Council (PNC), the PLO’s parliament. Such a step would face opposition from Abbas’ critics within the PLO, but he will likely hope to repeat his experience last year in which, faced with Arab pressure to reconcile with Dahlan, he convened the Fatah general conference. That conference was flawed and unrepresentative, to be sure, but it nevertheless was sufficient to consolidate his power and repel Arab pressure to reconcile with Dahlan.

Dahlan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have more shared interests for the future than their Islamist partners in Hamas. Both view the Muslim Brotherhood as an ideological threat to their rules, and both want firm, stable leadership in Gaza. Dahlan has long been viewed as the only actor who can broker an opening of the all-important Rafah crossing into Gaza. Were the Palestinians to experience a sudden succession crisis, it’s likely that Cairo would back whichever Fatah figure could guarantee stability in Gaza, and right now that is Dahlan.

In the near term, the arrangement may hold. Dahlan and Egypt will pump much-needed fuel into the coastal enclave while Hamas staves off public unrest. But the moment the status quo changes—whether by additional energy sources coming online or the 82-year-old Abbas suddenly vacating the presidency—the parties will have little reason to keep the agreement alive. War with Israel may have been delayed, but conflict within Gaza seems inevitable.

*Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and coauthor of The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas. The article was published on Foreign Affairs on August 22, 2017. The article was co-authored by Ghaith al-Omari.