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Tensions with Egypt fan Gaza fuel follies

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A serious strain in Egypt-Gaza relations, although given scant media attention here, is very revealing eabout the strange complexity of developments in the region.

The story revolves around a severe fuel shortage in Gaza caused by Egypt and Hamas – and not Israel.

Contrary to what one might expect following the “Arab Spring” and the resulting rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian authorities have in recent months refused to allow inexpensive gas to be smuggled through tunnels into the Hamas-run enclave. As reported by Associated Press (AP), the 1.5 million people of Gaza have thus suffered repeated, lengthy blackouts – including some lasting upwards of 18 hours per day. The fuel shortage has extended beyond motor vehicles, even affecting backup generators in hospitals.

According to AP, “[t]he fuel crisis has its origins in the decision by Hamas, more than a year ago, to use smuggled fuel to run the territory’s only power plant instead of paying for more expensive fuel coming through an Israeli cargo crossing. The plant normally provides 60 per cent of Gaza’s electricity.” The power plant in question has been mostly down since mid-February.

After the fall of Mubarak, while Cairo has allowed Gazans greater access to Egypt through the Rafah border, it has refused Hamas’ desire to use the crossing as a cargo route.

What angered Egyptian authorities was that while Egyptians, facing an economic crisis, were experiencing fuel restrictions, Hamas raked in profits via its standard cut from smuggled Egyptian fuel. At the same time, Hamas wanted to avoid paying back the Palestinian Authority for more expensive fuel that was previously imported into Gaza from Israel.

When Cairo cut off the supply of cheaper fuel to Gaza, a senior Hamas official accused Egypt of “political blackmail” and called on the newly elected fundamentalist-dominated parliament to “solve this problem.”

Still, it was Israel that transferred half-a-million litres of diesel fuel to Gaza on March 23, paid for by the EU-backed PA, enabling the territory’s power plant to operate at full capacity for the first time since the crisis began.

The deeper issue at play here is three-fold:

First, Egypt doesn’t want to assume responsibility for Gaza, and, therefore, insists that the onus still falls on Israel to supply goods and services to the territory.

Second, although Israel would love for Egypt to take over full responsibility for Gaza, it’s not going to press the issue at this time, given the tense and tenuous nature of the current relationship.

Third, Egypt has its own concerns about Hamas, given divisions within the organization itself, including those within Gaza who are trying to maintain ties with Iran. Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ Gaza-based prime minister, visited Iran in March, reportedly seeking fuel subsidies, among other financial aid.

To thwart signs that Gazans might go on “strike” to protest Hamas’ failed management, the organization’s security services arrested more than 100 local residents last month, including taxi drivers, for spreading “rumours” of a fuel and electricity crisis in the strip.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian military, still in control of the country against the will of the Brotherhood, has offered some limited assistance to Israel in a bid to counter efforts by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Iranian-backed terror groups that have used the Sinai as a platform for attacks. (On March 9, Israel killed Zuhir al-Qaisi, head of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, who Israeli intelligence revealed had been planning another such terror operation.)

While Hamas is counting on the Egyptian Brotherhood to come to its aid, it’s still the generals who are making the decisions, at least for now. In fact, the military may have struck a deal with the Islamists to retain major elements of control even after the June presidential election, the writing of a new constitution, and the formation of a new government.

What this means for Israel remains to be seen, but observers would be remiss to ignore the complex and shifting Egypt-Gaza relationship, and how it will shape the future of the region.

Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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