During the earlier, more hopeful days of the Arab Spring it was common for people to wonder aloud if the revolutionary momentum would reach the Palestinians. One major difference between the Palestinians and Egyptians or Syrians was that the Palestinians have a degree of self-rule. Any uprising in the Palestinian territories might therefore target the Palestinian Authority or Hamas before Israel, and would likely result in less, not more Palestinian freedom because of it: Hamas would crackdown brutally in Gaza, and if the PA fell in the West Bank it would be replaced by a more authoritarian ruler (probably Hamas).
In part that was the folly of having elections in the territories that included Hamas back in 2006: if you gave the Palestinians a chance to punish the ruling party when Hamas was the only alternative, you would get Hamas in government. In the end, that’s exactly what happened. And it’s why many were warning against the United States giving its blessing to a Hamas-Fatah unity government that would soon call for elections. Mahmoud Abbas has been in office twice as long as his legal term; given the corruption of Fatah and the pent-up desire to register their discontent, the Palestinians could be expected to once again empower Hamas.
But now we’re seeing the possibility of Hamas gaining the upper hand without having to wait for an election. Both Haaretz and Khaled Abu Toameh are reporting the rumblings of a new intifada in the West Bank–only this time aimed at Abbas. As Jonathan mentioned earlier, the unrest is tied to Abbas’s criticism of the kidnapping of Israeli teenagers and the Israeli army’s West Bank operation to track them down. Here’s Toameh:
The attack on the Palestinian police station came amid growing Palestinian discontent with PA President Mahmoud Abbas over his opposition to the kidnapping of the three Israeli youths.
Palestinians representing various Palestinian factions, including Abbas’s own Fatah, have resorted to social media to denounce Abbas and his security forces as “traitors” for helping Israel in its efforts to locate the three youths.
One campaign on Facebook entitled, “I’m Palestinian and Abbas doesn’t represent me” has drawn hundreds of supporters.
Palestinian protests against Abbas and security coordination with Israel have recently become a daily occurrence in the West Bank, where Palestinian protesters are no longer afraid to express their views in public.
The Palestinian Authority has begun to feel the heat and that is why its security forces have been instructed to use an iron-fist policy not only against its critics, but also against Palestinian and Western journalists in the West Bank.
On June 20, Palestinian policemen broke up a protest in Hebron by families of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, and beat a number of journalists, including a CNN reporter who had his camera smashed.
But the Haaretz piece gets right to the point. Its subheadline, echoed in the article as well, is: “The Palestinian president will soon have to decide whether he’s in favor of Israel or his own people.”
And here we have yet another consequence of opening the West Bank to Hamas, and it’s one that directly threatens not only Abbas’s governing structure but the security of Israel as well. This is obvious if Hamas was indeed behind the kidnapping. But even if not, it’s a good demonstration of Hamas’s ability to use such crises to limit Israeli self-defense.
It’s no secret that Israel rightly prefers Abbas to Hamas. But if Israeli counteroffensives can threaten Abbas’s hold on power, then Hamas has figured out a formula: strike at Israel in the West Bank, and either Israel’s response triggers the weakening and possibly fall of Abbas (to Hamas’s benefit) or Israel ties its own hands, giving Hamas free shots at Israeli civilians.
Israel simply cannot choose the latter: whatever Israelis think of their preference for Abbas over Hamas, he’s not worth committing state suicide over. But the former outcome is still a win for Hamas. If Hamas can chip away at Abbas’s rule by simply attacking Israel, they will do so. And joining the unity government positions them to collect the support Abbas loses.
The American officials who supported this unity government also tried to justify it by claiming that the Palestinians involved in the government cannot be card-carrying members of Hamas (though the Americans wouldn’t know the difference anyway). One way around that for Hamas would have been to run Hamasniks who simply run under a non-Hamas banner. But these latest developments suggest the Palestinians may not even make it to the elections.
If Hamas can cause the downfall of Abbas in the West Bank before elections can be held, they can avoid the trouble of pretending to be on the outside for those elections and can simply rule directly. The Obama administration officials who thought this was a good idea were pretty clearly outsmarted–but they probably thought they had more time before that became clear. Hamas seems to have other ideas.