GAZA CITY — Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is pursuing a high-risk campaign in the Gaza Strip to squeeze his own people so hard that they might force the Islamist militant movement Hamas to surrender control of the isolated coastal enclave.
The 82-year-old leader’s Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank but has only limited sway in Gaza, has slashed salaries for its employees in the seaside territory, withheld permissions for medical patients to leave and, in its most dramatic step, cut payments for the electricity provided to Gaza by Israel.
Israel fears Hamas might lash out with rocket fire, and the World Bank worries the strip could collapse. The United Nations on Tuesday declared that a decade of Hamas rule, Palestinian infighting and crippling blockades by Israel and Egypt have made life for people in Gaza “more and more wretched” each day.
But Abbas has said he is prepared to go even further, threatening to impose sanctions against Hamas and freeze funds for its leaders “if they continue to rule Gaza and use the money of the Palestinian people to strengthen their hold on power,” according to an interview he gave to Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
Hamas has never been so isolated. Egypt has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, the progenitor of Hamas. Turkey, which once lavished attention on Gaza, has reestablished relations with Israel. And worst of all for Hamas, oil-rich Qatar is suffering from an embargo, accused by its neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Egypt, of supporting terrorism. Qatar has supported Gaza for years.
The tough tactics by Abbas are unprecedented in the decade-long split between the rulers of Gaza and the West Bank. The widening of the divide comes as President Trump is pushing Israel and the Palestinians to return to peace negotiations. Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, returned to Jerusalem on Monday evening.
Abbas favors talks with Israel if they lead to an independent Palestinian state. Hamas has never recognized Israel and rejects talks. Because of the split, Israeli leaders have doubted whether Abbas represents all Palestinians.
Ghazi Hamad, who serves Hamas as a de facto foreign minister, told The Washington Post that Abbas cannot force Hamas to back down.
“After 10 years he uses the stick and not the carrot? He cuts electricity. He cuts salaries. For what? This is what the people are asking,” Hamad said.
He said Hamas has survived targeted killings by Israel, three wars and 10 years of blockade. “We have not surrendered yet, and we will not surrender,” Hamad said. “Abbas wants Hamas to cry and beg for help?”
He waved his hand, dismissing the idea.
But in the streets of Gaza, people feel secure enough — or frustrated enough — to curse both Hamas and Abbas, saying neither side cares about their suffering.
Rolling blackouts have reduced electricity to a trickle, deepening the misery of Gaza’s 2 million residents and forcing factories to shut down in a failing economy.
The lack of power has idled Gaza’s dysfunctional sewage-treatment systems, denying residents of one of the few sources of relief from the heat — a day at the beach. The Health Ministry ordered black flags to be flown along the coast, warning against bathing in water that is dangerously polluted with untreated human waste.
A few blocks inland, business is brisk at the dealerships selling batteries to run fans and charge mobile phones.
“During the last war, we had more electricity than today,” said Abu Mohammed, an engineer, who was buying a battery-powered fan for his mother.
Asked whom he blamed, the sweating shopper said, “All of them!”
In the past, Gazans named Israel as the source of their woes.
Taher el-Nounou, an adviser to the new political leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, said: “Abbas is tossing small grenades into Gaza. He wants to create a hostile environment in Gaza against Hamas. But you can say that he has failed. Abbas misread the situation. Maybe you can say that Hamas has not won, but Abbas has definitely lost.”
In the Gaza Strip, Haniyeh has the support of 55 percent of those surveyed recently vs. 39 percent who support Abbas, the largest gap ever between the two leaderships, according to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah.
Israel is watching Gaza closely, worried that pressure on Hamas could push the group’s militia to start firing rockets into Israel again, an escalation that would be answered by retaliatory strikes.
Israel has fought three wars in nine years with Hamas, considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and Israel, which alongside Egypt enforces a partial travel and trade blockade of the impoverished strip because of Hamas’s presence.
Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said that Abbas was goading Hamas toward war. “In my opinion, the strategy is to hurt Hamas and also to drag Hamas into a conflict with Israel,” he said at a security conference in June.
The crisis has stoked a growing sense of instability — and raised the prospect of previously unthinkable alliances.
Instead of pushing an isolated Hamas toward collapse or capitulation, the pressure is sending the militants in Gaza into the arms of Abbas’s greatest rival, a Palestinian leader named Mohammed Dahlan.
Egypt’s intelligence officials have been coaxing Hamas to seek new “understandings” with Dahlan.
When Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 after winning parliamentary elections the year before, Dahlan was running the security apparatus in Gaza for Abbas’s Fatah movement, and his forces fought in the streets against Hamas gunmen. For years, Dahlan has been persona non grata in Gaza, hated by Hamas leaders.
Dahlan is also one of a handful of names on a shortlist of possible successors to Abbas. A protege of Yasser Arafat’s, Dahlan was forced into exile in 2011, kicked out of Fatah the same year and accused of corruption and defamation, allegations he denies.
From a villa in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, Dahlan plots his comeback. He is well-positioned — with powerful friends in Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
To ease the electricity crisis, Egypt in the past two weeks began sending tanker trucks filled with diesel to run Gaza’s sole electricity generating plant. In Gaza, Dahlan gets the credit.
“Now we are in a potential new era. Dahlan could be back in the Gaza Strip, either physically present or operating by remote control from Egypt. He could be an influential figure, very suitable for Hamas and Israel at the same time,” said Kobi Michael, a former head of the Palestinian desk at Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
“The biggest potential loser is not Hamas,” Michael said. “It is Abbas.”
Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group, said that it remains unclear where Gaza is going but that a lot is in play.
“Dahlan supporters and many in Fatah would be happy to see him return and would be happy to see an alleviation of the electricity and other crisis in Gaza as a result. To see a kind of joint Hamas and Dahlan authority? That is something many people, not just Dahlan supporters, might welcome.”
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.