Commentary Magazine


The Kidnapping and Palestinian Politics

The kidnapping of three Israeli teens last week by Hamas terrorists has largely flown below the radar in the mainstream American media over the weekend. The alarming developments in Iraq are part of the reason for this since Americans are generally indifferent to foreign news and have trouble focusing on more than one foreign crisis at a time. But just as the Sunni Islamist offensive overturned the Obama administration’s claim that it had successfully ended the war in Iraq, so, too, does the kidnapping challenge its assumptions about the Palestinians.

The ho-hum reaction of the international community, and especially the United States, to the recent decision of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority to sign a unity pact with Hamas was rooted in a belief that both major Palestinian movements were essentially political entities that had transcended their violent pasts. Instead of understanding that the deal was a sign that both Fatah and Hamas were united in being irretrievably opposed to signing a peace accord with Israel rather than ready for peace, both the Obama administration and the European Union preferred to believe that the Jewish state was to blame for the collapse of Secretary of State John Kerry’s initiative. The conventional wisdom peddled by the foreign-policy establishment instructed us that Hamas’s financial problems and its isolation in the wake of the fall last year of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government meant that it was being forced to knuckle under to the dictates of PA leader Mahmoud Abbas, the man whom the administration had dubbed a courageous leader for peace.

If all that was true, what then could possibly explain the decision of Hamas to commit a spectacular act of terrorism that may well lead to further violence and endanger the vital foreign aid that keeps the new Fatah-Hamas Palestinian government afloat? The answer is simple. In hurting Israel in this fashion, Hamas is giving the West a basic lesson in Palestinian politics. Far from surrendering to Fatah, the kidnapping shows Hamas is hopeful of not only holding onto Gaza but of extending its influence in the West Bank.

Abbas belatedly condemned the kidnapping today, but his reluctance to use the full force of his Western-backed regime on his would-be Islamist partner stems from his understanding of the political culture of his people. He knows that rather than undermining support for Hamas, the atrocity will bolster its popularity, especially on the West Bank where the lives of ordinary Palestinians may well be disrupted by Israeli efforts to find the kidnappers and their victims. Just as the national cause of Palestinian Arabs has always been inextricably tied to efforts to battle Zionism rather than the cause of building up their own culture and identity, their political factions have always understood that attacks on Jews were the only credentials that counted when it came to gaining support on the Palestinian street. Since neither Fatah nor Hamas can compete for such backing by pointing to their records in governance as the Islamists’ rule of Gaza has proved to be every bit as disastrous as Fatah’s West Bank kleptocracy, they must, instead, always revert to violence. The fact that the Palestinian media has generally welcomed the kidnapping rather than denouncing it illustrates this point.

As Avi Isacharoff writes in the Times of Israel, since the unity agreement was signed in April, Hamas has been working hard to foment unrest in the West Bank. Part of that was its exploitation of a hunger strike being undertaken by terrorists in Israeli prisons, but the main object of this activity hasn’t been so much an effort to undermine their Zionist enemy but to destabilize Abbas’s West Bank government even as it was in the process of absorbing Hamas and trying to retake control of Gaza.

Hamas must surely believe that a repeat of its triumph in both kidnapping Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and then trading him for over a thousand captured terrorists will put them in a stronger position to not only hold onto the independent Palestinian state in all but name that they have ruled in Gaza but also give them a shot at toppling Abbas in the West Bank. Even worse, they know that if Abbas cooperates with Israel in finding the kidnapped teens, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has rightly demanded, it will undermine him just at the moment when he was basking in praise for rejecting the Jewish state’s peace offers and bringing Hamas back into the PA’s fold.

All this illustrates the utter folly that was the foundation of both Kerry’s peace initiative and the complacence with which the administration accepted the Hamas unity pact. So long as the Palestinian factions believe they stand to gain by practicing terrorism, an end to the conflict is nowhere in sight. Though Washington preferred to believe that Fatah and even Hamas had abandoned violence and were amenable to peace if Israel could be pressured into making even more concessions than those contained in previous rejected peace offers, the kidnapping offers President Obama a lesson in the basics of Palestinian politics that he has so far chosen to ignore.

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