Peter Hoskin

Fuelling conflict

Fuelling conflict
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Jerusalem, Israel

Forget Scotland – the fuel crisis we've really got to keep our eyes on is in the Gaza Strip. Israel stopped supplying fuel to the Hamas-controlled region a few days ago, in retaliation to an attack by Palestinian militants. The resultant shortages are causing many Gazan services – including bakeries and farms – to cease operating. And there's a worry that Israel isn't meeting its obligations to the territory that it withdrew from in 2005.

It's a crisis that brings the traditional Gazan balancing act into stark relief. Both sides – Hamas and Israel – are weighing different priorities against each other, and hoping that the scales will tip in their favour.

First, Hamas. They're far from blameless in all this. After all, they've been behind several recent attacks on fuel depots outside of Gaza – hardly the kind of action that the authority in charge of Gaza should take if it wants its people to have a regular fuel supply. But, then again, that's precisely the point. As the highly-respected Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki told us today, Hamas is quite keen to promote crisis in Gaza. Crisis breeds the kind of anti-Israeli, militant and sectarian attitudes that Hamas thrives on. In this case, hardship might translate to votes.

But Hamas doesn't want things to get too bad – and this is where the delicate balancing act comes in. If the conditions remain adverse for too long, then the Gazan people may just equate the situation with bad governance (something Hamas has often accused Fatah of), and Hamas' grip on power could weaken.

The Israelis also have their reasons for promoting the crisis; they're pretty-much the same as Hamas' reasons for ending it – namely, that continued hardship in Gaza may reflect badly on Hamas. From the Israeli perspective, this also ties into the idea of “showcasing” the West Bank - making the (generally) pro-peace administration in the West Bank seem better than Hamas by comparison. 

On the other hand, if the Israeli sanctions are too severe, then international support may rally behind Gaza, just as Gazan support may rally behind Hamas. Again, a balancing act.

So who's got the scales in their favour, at the moment? Some of Shikaki's polling data may hint at an answer. As he sees it, there's “growing support for Hamas” in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. And violent action against Israelis is also becoming more popular (a shocking statistic: some 84 percent of Palestinians supported that recent, indiscriminate shooting on Israeli students).

Accordingly, one Western diplomat today analysed the situation thus: “the tinder is dry”. Larger-scale conflict isn't a given, but – ominously – the right conditions are all in place. A slight spark could set it all off.