Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Who wants to defeat Hamas?

One British journalist, writing from Gaza during Israel’s current Pillar of Defense operation, dropped into her report, as a throwaway line, “Hamas, which is the elected government in Gaza….” The idea that somehow Hamas is a legitimate administration has found quite widespread acceptance. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Hamas, unwilling to share power with Fatah following the elections of 2006, seized control of Gaza in a fratricidal and bloody coup d’état.

These elections, held across the West Bank and Gaza, were for seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority (PA). By appointing as prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, President Mahmoud Abbas reflected in his national unity government the fact that Hamas had won 74 seats and the ruling Fatah 45.

But sharing power with the Fatah nationalists did not suit Hamas. In four days in mid-June 2007 their ‘Executive Force’ seized control of the entire Gaza Strip, sweeping away key security services and the national militia. President Abbas responded by dissolving the national unity government and forming an emergency government led by former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Ever since, despite various attempts at a reconciliation, the two wings of the Palestinian body politic have remained not only distinct, but positively hostile. The fact that President Abbas has participated in peace efforts aimed at settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by establishing a sovereign Palestine alongside Israel − the two-state solution − is total anathema to the Hamas leadership. They maintain implacable hostility to the very existence of the State of Israel, which they refuse to recognise. Armed struggle, with the elimination of Israel from the Middle East as its objective, is their credo.

In pursuit of this objective, Hamas seeks every opportunity to challenge the Fatah government and undermine the PA administration in the West Bank. Hamas refuses to recognise Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate President of the PA. Boosted by the “Arab Spring”, and especially by the enhanced standing it has given to the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Arab world, Hamas has been flexing its muscles. Not only did it step up its rocket attacks into Israel and support various terrorist activities in Sinai, it has been infiltrating supporters into the West Bank, recruiting university students through a program called "Kutla," which entails spreading jihadi ideology among them and, through its “Da'wa” social aid program mixed with indoctrination, attempting to enhance its standing among the general population. Recently Israeli security forces arrested around 30 Hamas activists in the Ramallah area, suspected of heading a command cell aimed at increasing the strength of Hamas in the area. The PA itself, equally opposed to Hamas’s attempts to increase its influence, arrested dozens of Hamas activists in the area in September. In short, Abbas is fighting a rearguard action to prevent Hamas from seizing control in the West Bank, just as it did in Gaza.

Meanwhile he stands on the world stage severely handicapped. When he speaks, he cannot speak for the Palestinian people as a whole because his writ does not run in what must be a vital part of any sovereign Palestinian state, should one ever come into being. Abbas desperately needs to retain authority in the West Bank and regain control of Gaza.

As far as the PA is concerned, any form of armed intervention in Gaza is out of the question (even though Hamas did not hesitate to employ this tactic against the PA back in 2007). The effect on Palestinian public opinion of any such action does not require much imagination. Nevertheless Abbas, no less than Israel, simply must defeat Hamas in what has become a struggle for survival. The fact of the matter – unpalatable no doubt in some quarters − is that Israel’s interests and the PA’s coincide in this crucial aspect of the tangled Israeli-Palestinian scenario.

Whatever his public pronouncements, Mahmoud Abbas must be viewing Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation with decidedly mixed feelings.

Published in the on-line Jerusalem Post magazine, 20 November 2012:

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