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Will Hamas Challenge Fatah in the West Bank?

 
Filed under: Fatah, Hamas

Will Hamas Challenge Fatah in the West Bank?
Hamas leaders and their supporters, the leaders of Turkey and Qatar, portrayed on a Gaza billboard. Khaled Mashal is on the far right, Ismail Haniyeh is second from the left.

A Palestinian gunman opened fire from a passing car at a bus stop outside of the Samaria community of Ofra on December 9, 2018, critically wounding a pregnant woman and six others. Hamas issued a statement praising the attack as representing the “spirit of resistance;” the terror organization is the main suspect behind the shooting.

Hamas statement
Hamas statement praising the terrorist attack.

Hamas has a set a clear line of action in the West Bank – refraining from political efforts to take control in the territories, while turning them into a base for military activity, commanded from Gaza. At this stage, this activity is directed toward Israel, but in the future the guns will also be aimed at Fatah.

Background

The PLO in Ramallah plans to impose further economic punishment on Gaza. How will Hamas react?

On the sidelines of the recent PLO Central Council discussions in Ramallah, the Fatah’s Tanzim cadres warned Mahmoud Abbas that if additional measures are taken against Hamas, violent Hamas reaction would be directed against Fatah.  Fatah is the dominant faction in the PLO. Hamas refrained from such action in recent years after plotting against the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas, in particular.

What will happen if there is a change in policy?

Hamas’ overall policy toward the West Bank is best understood by examining the power struggle inside Hamas as well.

Gaza billboard
Hamas leaders and their supporters, the leaders of Turkey and Qatar, portrayed on a Gaza billboard. Khaled Mashal is on the far right, Ismail Haniyeh is second from the left.

Fundamentally, Hamas is first and foremost a Gaza organization. Its core focus is on Gaza, and nowhere else.

Beside its war against Israel, Hamas in Gaza invested considerable resources to distance non-Gazan elements from the seats of power. The case of Khaled Mashal is telling. After many years of leading the Hamas Political Bureau in Qatar, he was deposed and the formal leadership concentrated in the hands of the old Gaza veterans, the generation of the “founders” who are still alive. (Hamas was founded in 1987 as a branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.)

In the last round of the Shura Council elections in 2017, Gaza blocked the participation of West Bank supporters and to a large extent Qatari supporters, as well. Hamas agreed to accept the “Qatari” personnel with a condition that they not be part of the “elections” that were to be based on Gazan participation, and Gaza alone.

Most of the well-known characters considered to be West Bank Hamas leaders, such as the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Aziz Dweik or former minister in the Palestinian Authority, Nasser al- Shaer, fell into oblivion.

The Case of the “Green Prince”

Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of a West Bank leader of Hamas, Sheik Hassan Yousef, was discovered to have been an Israeli agent from 1997 to 2007. The case of the younger Yousef, known as the “Green Prince,” convinced Gaza that West Bank political echelons cannot be trusted at all costs.

But, still, some of the leaders of Hamas were shareholders in the West Bank political fabric and had political aspirations there. Standing out are Khaled Mashal and Salah al-Arouri, both natives of villages near Ramallah.

Khaled Mashal with the Emir of Qatar
Former Hamas official Khaled Mashal with the Emir of Qatar. (Arab press)

After Gaza’s Hamas leaders made it clear to the Qatar-based Political Bureau that they were not ready to accept the “Qataris’” dominance or grant them a foothold in Gaza, the only place they could establish themselves was in the West Bank.

As for now, Gaza is not blocking them from taking root in the West Bank, but it appears that this is only to be rid of them and shift their attention far from Gaza.  Gaza’s Hamas leadership will not permit a rival Hamas base in the West Bank to threaten Gaza’s supremacy.

So, while Hamas is avoiding the political game in the West Bank, it is deeply involved in launching terror attacks against Israel from the West Bank. But, even in doing so, Hamas is careful not to let the military echelons in the West Bank establish a separate local command. Hamas insists that all the cadres in the West Bank get their orders from Gaza or Saleh al-Arouri, now based in Lebanon. Arouri was the commander of the unit that kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank in 2014. At the time, he was based in Turkey.

Concentrating Hamas military operations to the West Bank will relieve the Gazan Hamas from military/terrorist activity at a time when Gaza cannot sustain further destruction by the IDF.

At the same time, directing attacks on Israel from the West Bank threatens to shake the PA/PLO’s rule in the West Bank, creating tensions with Israel. Until now, the Hamas threat has strengthened the security cooperation between Ramallah and Jerusalem.

Hamas has been thwarted in its terrorist efforts against Israel and it refrains from political activity in the West Bank. That puts Hamas in a dilemma: should it hold off from striking the PA/PLO directly, or will it change its policy?

Fatah officials have expressed concern to Mahmoud Abbas. In our evaluation, if Hamas feels a danger to Gaza from new sanctions and punitive measures from Ramallah, Hamas will hit back. If not – they will not change their longtime policy.