Analysis from Israel

The Jerusalem Post reported last week that, according to Israeli intelligence estimates, Hamas had cut its annual military budget from $200 million in 2014—the year of the last Hamas-Israel war—to just $50 million this year. Granted, the cut is partially offset by renewed donations from Iran, which, flushed with cash thanks to the 2015 nuclear deal, has resumed funding Hamas for the first time in five years. But even with the Iranian contribution, estimated at $60 million to $70 million in 2017, Hamas’s military budget remains around 40 percent lower than it was in 2014. This has substantially reduced the risk of a new war. The less Hamas spends on its military, the longer it will take to rebuild the military capacity it lost in the last war.

Moreover, Hamas is investing these limited funds primarily in defensive tunnels within Gaza rather than cross-border tunnels for attacking Israel. That, too, makes another war less likely. After all, Hamas’s cross-border tunnel attack in July 2014 is what prompted Israel to send ground forces into Gaza that month. Until then, the war had been strictly aerial, with Hamas firing rockets and Israel responding with airstrikes. Thus, if Hamas is no longer building cross-border tunnels, the risk of another ground war is reduced.

Israel attributes Hamas’s shift from offensive to defensive tunnels primarily to its new underground barrier, which makes it harder for Hamas to build cross-border tunnels undetected. But financial constraints also likely play a role: Whereas a cash-flush Hamas might be willing to gamble some money on trying to sneak a tunnel past the barrier, organizations with no money to spare tend to be risk-averse.

None of the above happened because Hamas suddenly decided to beat its swords into plowshares. Rather, it happened because Gaza faced a humanitarian crisis so severe that Hamas felt compelled to take the unprecedented step of spending its own money on Gaza’s civilian needs just to preserve its own political position.

Until now, Hamas has felt free to devote all its money to its military, secure in the knowledge that Gaza’s civilian needs would be financed either by its rival, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority, or by international donors. But this spring, PA President Mahmoud Abbas decided he’d had enough of serving as Hamas’s ATM, as he put it. So he simply stopped.

Abbas stopped paying for diesel to run Gaza’s only power plant. He stopped paying for the electricity Gaza gets from Israel through high-voltage lines, causing Israel, after several weeks of providing free power, to cut that supply. He stopped paying for medicines for Gaza’s hospitals. And so forth. The result was an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, with Gaza’s power supply dropping to as little as four hours a day and its hospitals completely out of critical medications.

Eventually, the situation became so bad that Hamas felt its own position was in danger. And therefore, it did the previously unthinkable: It began paying for critical civilian needs like diesel for the power plant out of its own pocket. Last month alone, it spent $25 million to buy diesel from Egypt, and will apparently spend as much or more in each of the coming months. And because it’s been forced to pay for some of Gaza’s civilian needs, it can no longer afford to spend as much on its military wing.

There’s a double irony here. The first is that, for once, Abbas really has done something to reduce Palestinian violence. His reputation as a peacemaker was never dented by his serial rejection of peace offers, his vicious anti-Israel incitement or his incentivizing of terror through above-market salaries paid to jailed terrorists. But now, when he’s made another Gaza war less likely by forcing Hamas to divert funds from military to civilian purposes, he has actually suffered (muted) international criticism for causing humanitarian suffering.

The greater irony, however, is that all three Hamas-Israel wars of the past decade might have been averted had the international community not tried so hard to “protect” Gaza’s civilian population. Ten years ago, after Hamas first seized power in Gaza, Israel also tried to exert economic pressure, but they were never severe enough to cause a crisis on the scale of what Gaza has experienced this year. At no point, for instance, did Israel ever threaten Gaza’s power supply.

Consequently, Hamas felt free to invest all its money in the rockets and tunnels that sparked those three wars. And those wars caused greater devastation than anything Gaza has experienced due to Abbas’s funding cuts. Had Israel been allowed ten years ago to do what Abbas did this year, Gaza might ultimately have been better off, because it would have been spared repeated wars.

In short, by trying to “protect” Gaza’s civilians, the international community actually ended up causing them greater harm. Concern for innocent civilians is, of course, laudable. But sometimes, as with Hamas in Gaza, it’s also counterproductive. And that’s a lesson the “international community” badly needs to learn.

 Originally published in Commentary on October 2, 2017

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The U.S. Must Show Iranians That They Can’t Have It All

The fact that Iran’s anti-regime protests appear to have died down is not a reason to relax the pressure on Tehran. On the contrary, it’s a reason to increase it through serious sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support for terror and regional aggression. The protests will only become a truly mass movement if enough Iranians come to realize what the protesters already have: Contrary to the promise held out by the nuclear deal, Iran can’t have it all. Terror and military aggression are incompatible with a thriving economy.

To understand why more pressure is needed, it’s worth revisiting a New York Times article from November that has been widely but somewhat unfairly derided. In it, reporter Thomas Erdbrink wrote that “The two most popular stars in Iran today—a country with thriving film, theater, and music industries—are not actors or singers but two establishment figures: Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s regional military effort, which is widely seen as a smashing success; and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the symbol of a reasonable and measured Iran.”

The derision stems from the fact that the protesters assailed both Suleimani’s military adventurism and the government of which Zarif is a pillar, proving that neither is quite as popular as Erdbrink thought. Like many Westerners reporting from abroad, he committed the cardinal error of thinking that the fairly narrow circles he frequents represent the country as a whole. Yet within those circles, his analysis of the status of these two men appears to be accurate. That was made clear by the fact that Tehran’s educated middle classes, who formed the core of Iran’s 2009 protests, largely sat this round out.

And in truth, Suleimani and Zarif deserved star status. Together, they seemed to have severed the inverse relationship between military adventurism and economic wellbeing. Thanks to the nuclear deal Barack Obama signed with Iran in 2015, it seemed as if Iran really could have it all. It could maintain an active nuclear program (enriching uranium, conducting research and development, and replacing old, slow centrifuges with new ones that will make the enrichment process 20 times faster); expand its ballistic missile program; become a regional superpower with control, or at least major influence, over four nearby countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen); and still receive sanctions relief worth billions of dollars and have European companies lining up to do business with it, resulting in booming 12 percent growth and plummeting inflation.

That’s precisely why this status was accorded equally to both the “moderate” Zarif and the “hardline” Suleimani, defying the “moderates versus hardliners” prism through which many Westerners misread Iran. Iranians understand quite well that “moderates” and “hardliners” are both part of the ayatollahs’ regime and, in this case, they worked together seamlessly to produce the best of all possible worlds.

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