On April 27th, 2017, the Palestinian Authority announced that it would no longer be paying Israel to supply electricity to the Gaza strip. President Mahmoud Abbas’ stated rationale for this drastic decision was to increase pressure on Hamas by withholding finances and shake the terrorist group’s ten-year reign. The Gaza strip already only had six hours of electricity per day, but with this new lack of funding will be reduced to a mere 2-4 hours. This aggressive strategy is a result of years of failed attempts between the Palestinian Authority’s governing faction, Fatah, and Hamas to reconcile. But occurring only one week before his first face-to-face meeting with US president Donald Trump, the timing of Abbas’ decision calls into question the true purpose behind his actions.
Being dubbed the “Trump effect” by academics, the new US president’s rhetoric on cracking down on global terrorism and de-emphasis on human rights has influenced decisions of middle Eastern leaders. For Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, cutting off funding for electricity in Gaza one week before his meeting with Trump was a strategic decision to gain the favor of the new United States president. Trump is eager to restart the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians, and with his extremely pro-Israel sympathies and anti-Muslim rhetoric, the United States will likely side with the Israelis at the negotiating table. Abbas, aware of Trump’s “Israel bias” as well as claims by Netanyahu that there is no united voice of the Palestinian people to negotiate with or true partner for peace, needed to prove that he is a legitimate partner and committed to aiding the war on terror.
Abbas has been formulating a strategy to best approach Donald Trump since November. Shortly after the election, Abbas reportedly assembled a committee of experts on US policy and government to advise and aid him on the audacious and unpredictable president. With Trump announcing his intent to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, Abbas likely knew that were the peace process to restart between the Palestinians and Israelis, he could not count on the Trump administration to act as an unbiased mediator. In order to be considered a legitimate and equal partner in negotiations, the Palestinian Authority needed more than just idealistic rhetoric to gain favor with Donald Trump. Abbas had to take action tailored specifically to the policy goals of the new president.
Cracking down on global terrorism is a foremost prerogative of the Trump administration. Their “highest priority” is to to gain “peace through strength” by “defeating radical Islamic terror” by working with “international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups.” As both the United States and the Israel condemn Hamas as a terrorist organization, Abbas cutting off funding for the Gaza strip follows directly from the Trump policy and works in accord with the outline set by the administration. Two weeks before his meeting with Trump, Abbas stated to the Arab Gulf States that he was “tired of funding the Hamas government in Gaza.” One week later, he put his words into action. The Palestinian Authority is attempting to exhibit to the Trump administration that they can be seen as a committed ally in the war on terror. By taking action against Hamas and further separating themselves from the radical organization, they are creating a foundation with the United States and Israel to combat a mutual enemy. This commonality may serve to gain them legitimacy and favor in the eyes of the Trump administration that will be helpful in future negotiations.
Not only did Abbas need to present the Palestinian Authority to Trump as committed to peace and eradicating terrorism, he needed to present a unified Palestinian front to the United States. Since the split between Fatah, the governing party of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas in Gaza in 2007, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has claimed that peace negotiations with the Palestinians are futile because there is no united voice of their people. Abbas needs to regain control and power over Gaza in order to frustrate attempts by Hamas to carry out actions that may unravel any progress. He hopes that pressuring Hamas by worsening the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will loosen the organization’s hold on the territory and acquiesce back to the PA. With both territories back under his jurisdiction, Abbas can invalidate Israeli claims that there is no unified representative of the Palestinian people. Trump has also stated that “there cannot be lasting peace unless Palestinian leaders speak in a unified voice…against violence and hate.” Israel believes that “Abbas is trying to force Hamas into a move that would – a least symbolically – demonstrate Palestinian unity” in preparation for meeting with the United States. After yet another failure to create a unity government between Fatah and Hamas by the middle of April, Abbas consequently had to look for other ways to regain control over the Gaza strip to present a united front.
The different stances on human rights between Barak Obama and Donald Trump were another factor shaping the decision of Abbas to cut off electricity funding to Gaza. Obama’s foreign policy program Countering Violence Extremism emphasized the importance of recognizing human rights violations as the drivers of terrorism. In a 2011 speech on “Remarks by the President on the Middle East and Africa,” Barak Obama stated that support for human rights was not a secondary interest but a “top priority” in the war on terror. This policy marked his years in office with an “awkward balance” between condemning human rights violations in states such as Saudi Arabia, but allying with these nations to fight against terrorist organizations. Cutting off funding for electricity in Gaza would have likely been condemned by the Obama administration as a human rights violation. Abbas then would not have utilized such a strategy as it would not have been looked on favorably by the previous president. The PA’s actions to pressure Hamas would have likely been exceedingly different under the Obama administration.
Trump, however, is not so much concerned with the human rights consequences of policies that progress the war on terror. Trump stated in an interview that “first we have to confront and eradicate terrorism” and that the “way you address human rights issues… is to improve conditions in the region…human rights would improve as security and stability do.” Trump has been criticized for this stance by Democrats who argue that he is de-emphasizing human rights in favor of focusing solely on fighting terrorism. This is evident in his failure to discuss Saudi Arabia’s notorious human rights violations during his visit to the country. He told leaders that he wasn’t there to “lecture them” but instead to only discuss the mutual goal of fighting global terrorist groups such as ISIS and Hamas. Where the Palestinian Authority’s actions would have been condemned by the Obama Administration due to escalating the human rights crises in Gaza, the Trump administration would instead view this as proof that Abbas is committed to fighting against Hamas and gain legitimacy as peace partners.
The success of Abbas’ tactical decision comes at the cusp of Trump’s remarks at a press conference after the two leaders’ meeting. Trump stated that “President Abbas has spoken out against…terrorist groups, and we must continue to build our partnership with the Palestinian security forces to counter and defeat terrorism.” Abbas’ proximate actions against Hamas worked in his favor, as the Trump administration recognized his work against terrorism. Looking at the implications of Trump’s foreign policy on decisions of the Palestinian Authority is necessary to predicting as well as understanding the motivation behind future actions of President Mahmoud Abbas. With Trump committed to restarting the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Abbas needs to show the new administration the Palestinians are ready and wanting for peace. By carrying out action in accord with Trump’s harsh on terrorism policy, the PA hopes to butter up the new president. In the press conference after their meeting, Abbas regaled to Trump and the world that “we are endeavoring to bring about security, free and peace…we believe that we can be…true partner, to you to bring about a historic peace treaty.” With his actions against Hamas, Abbas now has substance to back up his words. Abbas will likely continue to cater his actions to appease Trump in the immediate future in preparation for the renewal of the peace process.