Netanyahu now depends on Palestinian Fatah-Hamas disunity


Two months ago, the West Bank-based leadership of Fatah (فتح‎) and the Gaza-based leadership of Hamas (حماس‎) really seemed like they were on the verge of forming a coherent unity government, bringing together the two competing factions of Palestinian politics for the first time after nearly a decade of division.palestineISrel Flag Icon

At the time, Israeli an US officials took an overly alarmist view of the new unity government, given the characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization that continues to target civilians in Israel. Whereas Fatah essentially recognizes the  existence of the state of Israel, Hamas still considers Israel as an illegitimate state. 

Nevertheless, I argued then that a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation was a necessary step toward a long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace and that Israeli and US leaders should welcome any reunification that can bring Gaza’s leadership to the negotiation table. While Ramallah (if not so much of the rest of the West Bank) boomed economically, and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has generally increased Palestinian control over security throughout much of the West Bank, Gaza has been subject to an Israeli embargo for years, crippling the Gazan economy and strangling opportunity and employment for 1.4 million Palestinians. If Gazans are more radical than their West Bank counterparts, Israel’s embargo has given them ample reason. 

But geopolitical events across the Middle East have isolated Hamas  within the Muslim world, especially over the past year. Whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran once funded Hamas, Iranian support dried up for Hamas as they lined up on opposite sides of Syria’s civil war, with Iranian officials strongly supporting Shiite president Bashar al-Assad and with Hamas backing various Sunni-led rebel groups. Moreover, whereas former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi looked sympathetically upon Hamas (technically, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of Morsi’s own Muslim Brotherhood), the Egyptian military that overthrew Morsi last July and Morsi’s newly ‘elected’ successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are much less tolerant of Hamas. They have cracked down on the Egyptian border with the Gaza Strip, in essence working with Israel to perpetuate the Gaza embargo.

Fatah came to that unity government from a position of strength and, had it succeeded, Fatah might have had a restraining effect on the far weaker Hamas. Nevertheless, Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the unity government from the outset, using the occasion to accuse Abbas of being less than serious as a ‘partner for peace.’

Though there’s a strong argument that Netanyahu erred in dismissing the Fatah-Hamas unity government outright two months ago, Netanyahu’s strategy today fundamentally depends on the disunity between Hamas and Fatah. With Israel and Hamas now two weeks into a lethal conflict, and with an Israeli ground offensive extending into its fourth day, the unity government has all but collapsed in the face of the latest military engagement in Gaza.

We’ll never know if the unity government would have worked, but it was already struggling before the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers that precipitated the current bout of violence. Fatah, for example, reinstated around 70,000 of its own civil servants, putting 50,000 of Hamas’s civil servants out of work. Though Qatar’s government offered to pay the Hamas-based civil servants, through the United Nations if necessary, US and Israeli officials balked at the idea of supporting any plan that would contribute money to what they still consider a terrorist organization, leaving Abbas and the Fatah leadership trapped in the middle. 

Netanyahu will argue that Hamas never seriously entertained working with Fatah, but Israel and the United States worked from the outset to undermine the unity government, so there’s really no way to know for sure. What’s certain is that Netanyahu is relying on the continued political isolation of Hamas — vis-à-vis the wider Muslim world and vis-à-vis Fatah most of all. 

For now, the West Bank remains surprisingly calm. Abbas, who has been in Qatar meeting with UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon to discuss ceasefire efforts, has condemned Israeli air strikes as ‘genocide.’ Hamas leadership, however, has refused a ceasefire unless Israel meets several conditions, including the end of Gaza’s blockade, conditions that Israel is unlikely to meet anytime soon. 

But the longer the war goes, especially Israel’s ground offensive, the more likely it is that all Palestinians, even those in the West Bank, could rally around Hamas. As the world watches the conflict unfold on Twitter, on Facebook, on YouTube and on live television, the death toll has been unavoidable. As of today, over 500 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, mostly civilians. Notwithstanding Israeli assurances that the IDF provides ample warning before shelling civilian areas, and Israeli claims that it’s targeting only those sites that it believes harbor Hamas weaponry, human rights groups far beyond the Muslim world have decried the Israeli offensive as disproportionate. Gazan civilians, trapped in a 25-mile zone by an embargo jointly enforced by Israel and Egypt, have literally nowhere to run as Israel and Hamas escalate their efforts.

Every time Israeli weaponry kills children playing on a Gazan beach, every time that Israeli bombs tear through a civilian hospital in Gaza, it becomes easier to imagine that Israel will finally bring Fatah and Hamas together after eight years. If so, though, it won’t be a stable government dominated by the more secular Fatah leadership. It would constitute a third intifada, the third such united Palestinian revolt in as many decades against Israel’s nearly half-decade of military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Having been pushed to the brink of political collapse by Fatah and by Iranian and Egyptian officials, Hamas might find resurrection in martyring itself in a lopsided campaign against what’s increasingly viewed as Israeli aggression. That could explain why Hamas, against such long odds, continues to shoot rockets into Israel with such little success (due to Hamas’s technological inferiority or due to the efficacy of Israel’s highly acclaimed ‘Iron Dome’ military defense system, depending on where your sympathies and suspicions lie).

A united Palestinian front against Israel is still far from likely, given Abbas’s renewed efforts to work with Israeli, Egyptian and UN officials to effect a ceasefire. But there’s no guarantee that Abbas can secure peace from within the West Bank if Israeli forces further escalate their Gaza invasion. For now, appears that Netanyahu, prodded (some might say threatened) by his hardline allies in government, including foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and economy minister Naftali Bennett, is playing right into Hamas’s hands. It’s a strategy that could backfire on Netanyahu, though, who will suffer much more than either Lieberman or Bennett if Israel finds itself mired in a drawn-out conflict with Palestinians.

For all the furor over the noisome rockets that Hamas shoots into Israel, they represent a far less serious security challenge than suicide bombers from Ramallah or Hebron or Nablus. The current conflict has not yet reached the same horrible levels as the last intifada in the early 2000s. If it does, it will be because West Bank Palestinians believe Israeli counterattacks are so egregious that they find common cause with Hamas radicals. If and when that happens, Netanyahu will share at least some of the responsibility for placing Israeli citizens in greater danger. 

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