On Sunday, several foreign and Israeli news outlets reported that the radical Gaza-based group Hamas was preparing to take over the West Bank, determined to oust the current Western-backed Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.
According to reports, the Islamists were emboldened by their recent war with Israel and the alleged victory that followed.
Militants claimed that Israel failed to cripple their ability (and will) to launch attacks against civilian targets, with some going as far as to suggest that Hamas left the battleground if not victorious, then at least stronger diplomatically. The movement was also encouraged by the absence of a full-scale ground invasion that could easily have toppled the Hamas regime.
To add insult to injury, Israel’s government agreed (as part of the ceasefire deal) to eliminate the so-called “no man’s land”, a buffer zone beyond Israel’s security fence along the Gaza border. The removal of this cordon sanitaire not only left the Jewish state more vulnerable to attacks by Hamas and other terrorists, but will also invited "publicity stunts" by various non-governmental organizations under the direction of Hamas.
Israel Won, Hamas Was Defeated
Nevertheless, there are some who view the recent Israeli operation as successful, and who insist that it was Hamas that suffered defeat.
Prof. Hillel Frisch, an expert on Palestinian and Islamic politics from the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, says Operation Pillar of Cloud achieved maximum deterrence. "It has been the first time since 2001 that [Hamas] ceased all fire. They marked the end of the war on the national calendar and declared it a holiday, but the truth is that they were defeated.”
The expert added: “After realizing that their tactics of shooting rockets into Israel was no longer working, Hamas decided to pursue other, to their mind, more effective means of harassing Israel, one of which was staging mass demonstrations near the [security] fence.”
Indeed, two days after the sides agreed to a ceasefire on November 21st, a group of 300 Palestinians approached the fence in the southern Gaza Strip and held a violent disturbance along the border. The army had to use force to disperse the crowds, killing one Palestinian and injuring several others. Another Palestinian was killed in similar developments several days later.
Hamas Won, Israel Failed
Others, such as Dimitri Diliani, spokesman for Abbas’ Fatah movement, insisted Israel had utterly failed in the recent Gaza conflict.
“Compared to other Israeli wars [where the country achieved measurable results], the recent operation was not fruitful. It failed to achieve the goals declared by the government, mainly to cripple Hamas’ ability to launch rockets into the state of Israel,” said Diliani.
Referring to Hamas’ victory claims, Diliani agreed that although the Palestinian people were dealt a severe blow (the amount of military and civilians losses on the Palestinian side was much higher), they did create the sense of succeeding to defeat the powerful Israeli army on a moral (or even psychological) level.
“In a way, it is a victory for all Palestinian people suffering at the hands of the Israeli occupation [sic],” the Palestinian official continued. “At the same time, Hamas has been trying to take the credit for all the achievements to itself, which is fundamentally wrong, considering the many political factions within the Strip that participated in defending Gaza during the Israeli aggression.”
Friends in High(er) Places
Frisch tried to explain the motivation behind Hamas' bold bragging: "Hamas allows itself such liberties because it feels backed by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.”
Referring to the recent apparent nosedive in Hamas-Egypt relations, Frisch noted, “On the one hand, it might look as if Egypt chose to scrap its ties with the terrorist organization. On the other hand, Egypt is trying to reassure Hamas that the cool-down in relations is only temporary. After achieving their ultimate goal of establishing theocracy, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood will start bolstering Hamas again.”
According to Frisch, Hamas understood that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood first had to take care of business at home without overly alarming the international community. “Morsi thus compelled Hamas to accept a complete ceasefire, something that Hamas refused to do since it began launching rockets in 2001.”
However, Egypt is far from being the only country to support the militant group. It is no longer a secret that Hamas is also backed by Iran (main weapons’ provider) and the Gulf states (particularly Qatar).
Encouraged by Hamas gains, the Abbas regime decided to move ahead with its own battle against Israel, this time on a diplomatic level. At the end of November, Abbas approached the United Nations' General Assembly asking the international body to upgrade his government’s status from “entity” to “observer state.” The request was granted with 138 members (out of 193) voting in favor.
But was Abbas motivated by a genuine desire to change things? Experts seem to be divided.
"The UN bid gave the Palestinians the feeling that a Palestinian state would soon come into being," said Frisch. "The Palestinian Authority doesn't enjoy much credibility in the West Bank," added the expert suggesting that the move was aimed at boosting Abbas' popularity.
Gatestone Institute, an international policy think tank, echoed this view, stating that Abbas' UN drive was “… the last chance for Mahmoud Abbas to remain in charge. In recent weeks he has been phoning around the foreign ministries of Europe explaining that if they don't back him this time in the non-state statehood bid, then it is all over and all we have to deal with is Hamas…”
Diliani disagreed, stressing that the move was dictated by the desire to pursue peace, freedom and justice.
“It actually nullified the Israeli right-wing agenda to expand settlements under the pretext of land disputes,” he charged. “UN recognition provided Palestinians the tools to defend themselves from Israel's settlement activity or targeted killing.”
Although the upgrade didn't change things on the ground, the UN's overwhelming support did embolden Abbas, who was given a green light to pursue additional unilateral measures instead of sitting down for talks with Israel that could translate into painful concessions on both sides.
In Israel, however, most experts and top brass disregarded Abbas' move saying it was insignificant.
Diliani rebuked that position: “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not interested in admitting defeat, especially at election time. That's why he spreads this propaganda, trying to marginalize the importance of the Palestinian victory, when the truth of the matter is that Israel was dealt a severe diplomatic blow that exposed its international isolation as a result of the continuation of occupation.”
Hamas-Fatah Unity = Trouble For Israel
Although it is too early to tell whether the UN upgrade will result in significant changes, Abbas' flirting with Hamas might. Recent reports suggested that a reunion between Fatah and Hamas (two staunch rivals) was on the horizon.
The Palestinian street seems to be favoring the move. Thousands took to the streets in the Gaza Strip to celebrate Abbas’ victory at the UN, whereas crowds in the West Bank rallied in support of Hamas, celebrating the fact that its rockets had struck as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
What could this potential union mean for Israel? Simply put: trouble.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders are already preparing for the next round of fighting with Israel, promising that “in the next war, Israelis will be forced to flee not only their homes, but the whole country”. Fatah is also reading itself for a possible confrontation, with some leaders calling for a new intifada [uprising] against Israel, especially in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem.
Can Israel Divide and Conquer?
But Frisch was skeptical. “I doubt that Fatah will ever want to reunite with Hamas. Abbas and those around him are scared of Hamas’ potential take-over the West Bank. Although many Palestinians don’t support Hamas, Fatah leaders are afraid of the organization's strong desire to take control and the ruthlessness with which they are able to do so," stressed the expert.
Diliani rebutted those allegations and claimed Hamas was too scared of Fatah's growing popularity: “So far, Hamas has failed the people, they have proven to be incompetent to govern, let alone lead politically. Fatah and Hamas are not going to be united. Reconciliation is possible and highly desirable; unity is not. We might have serious disagreements on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that won't prevent us from sitting down for talks.”
But if this reunion (or even reconciliation) does take place, will Israel be willing to negotiate with Hamas? Have Hamas and Fatah manage to tie Israel's hands this time? Time will tell...