Thursday, June 15, 2017

Israel's Gaza Power Cut Is A Humanitarian Travesty

At a time when the US has signaled less interest in human rights policy, there are a number of egregious actions being taken in the Middle East against people living there. Among these is Israel's decision to cut power to the Gaza Strip, allowing only 2-4 hours per day for nearly 2 million people during the month of Ramadan.

Facing rising political pressure from Hamas, the Palestinian Authority decided it would no longer pay the bill for Gaza's electricity which is provided by Israel. The PA then asked Israel to reduce Gaza's electricity supply. Energy Minister and Likud party member Yuval Steinetz strongly opposed the action on the grounds that the PA already owes Israel money, that Israel should not take orders from the PA, and the cutting electricity might give Hamas an excuse to start another conflict with Israel. Steinetz also emphasized the humanitarian consequences such a move could have on Gaza's residents. At the time, some supporters of Israel rightly praised the government for this hesitation. Now that the decision has been taken, however, the narrative has morphed into a diffusion of responsibility onto the Palestinian Authority and an attempt to downplay the government's moral culpability. 

This diffusion indicates two things. First, Israel's government knows it has liability for electricity provision in Gaza. Defense Minister Lieberman's comments to that end today doth protest too much the idea that Israel is simply the executioner and not the judge. Second, it indicates that Israel's government anticipates blowback from the decision and is pre-framing that blowback as the result of international bias against Israel rather than an otherwise legitimate concern. Yet the concern is in fact legitimate for a two reasons.

First, regime change in Gaza will not occur through siege tactics. Hamas is a violent organization that uses terrorism to maintain an authoritarian grip on power and constrains Palestinian society from reaching its full potential. But expecting a power cut to spark the popular overthrow of Hamas is like expecting a power cut in Mosul to spark the popular overthrow of ISIS. Nonetheless, Israel's leadership have pursued this failing policy since 2007 and seem to only have doubled down on it now. Power cuts and inadequate supply of food, medicine, and building materials into Gaza have bred popular anger against Hamas, but also against Israel and with little positive effect from Israel's point of view. Electricity cuts may pressure Hamas, but pressure without clear positive effects for Israel's government is useless when the security of Israel's people - particularly those along the Gaza border - is at stake.

More importantly, Israel has struggled against a rising tide of invective charging that it is no longer a liberal democracy. A spate of UN resolutions, the BDS movement, and even criticism of actress Gal Gadot are unreasonable and unwarranted. But Israel's government does itself no favors by cutting electricity to just hours per day to an area whose humanitarian situation has been dire for years. Electricity cuts affect hospital patients, school children, the elderly, and society's most vulnerable. And since it is currently Ramadan, many Gazans are observing a daylight fast during the longest days of the year.

Gaza's humanitarian situation is not only Israel's fault. But Israel has a responsibility as a liberal democracy to take seriously its complicity in the current humanitarian situation, which this decision to cut back power exacerbates severely. The Start-Up Nation has the creativity and expertise to find a better way to achieve its political aims than to take out its animosity toward Hamas on 2 million people with little power to change the status quo.

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