Fears of Hamas takeover of the West Bank exaggerated | Opinions
In recent months, there has been an escalation of violence in the occupied West Bank. Armed clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army in Jenin and Jerusalem and elsewhere have left several Palestinian combatants and civilians dead and several soldiers of the Israeli occupation forces injured. There were also stabbing, car-ramming and shootings at various locations targeting Israeli soldiers and settlers.
These incidents coincided with the escape of six Palestinian political prisoners from the Israeli prison in Gilboa.
In view of these developments, the Israeli security services have expressed growing concern over growing resistance in the West Bank. Specifically, Israeli officials have raised the specter of a Hamas takeover of the occupied Palestinian territories currently under nominal control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). But how realistic is this prospect?
Since Hamas’ victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Israel has seen the movement as a serious threat. Then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made it clear that his government was not going to cooperate with a Hamas-led cabinet, as it had with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.
The ensuing tensions between Fatah and Hamas, fueled by outside forces, escalated into armed clashes, in which Hamas fighters were able to take control of the Gaza Strip. Israel imposed a debilitating siege on the gang and, in the following years, launched repeated deadly wars against its people, killing thousands and destroying homes and civilian infrastructure.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority, again under Fatah control, has launched a massive security operation to uproot Hamas from the West Bank. Together with Israel, it arrested hundreds of Hamas operatives, closed its offices and associations, and cracked down on its supporters. The same happened with Islamic Jihad, an ally of Hamas.
Since then, the movement has been able to set up small cells to conduct limited operations against Israeli forces. But the violence of recent months has raised concerns within the Israeli security community about the extent of Hamas’ penetration into the West Bank and its ability to rally other groups to carry out resistance activities.
Some perceived the new “security infrastructure” that Hamas has built as different from the limited cells it had in the past and more difficult to trace. Such a development can be seen as a major failure of the Israeli occupation forces and intelligence services, which in recent years have tightened their grip on the West Bank.
Hamas also appears to be increasingly coordinating its activities on the ground with other Palestinian factions. In mid-September, as violence escalated and fears emerged of an Israeli assault on Jenin, Hamas, along with the armed wing of Fatah and Islamic Jihad, announced an “operations room” common to repel any Israeli attack.
A major consequence of these developments is the growing sense of insecurity in Israel and among Israeli settlers in the West Bank. There are fears that the West Bank and Jerusalem could plunge into violence, as they did during the so-called 2015-16 knife intifada, when hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis were killed, or during of the series of bombings in the 1990s and the second Intifada in the 2000s.
These attacks took place despite regular Israeli army arrests, security calls and repeated round-the-clock incursions into towns, villages and refugee camps across the West Bank, as well as coordination continued Israeli security with the Palestinian Authority.
It is important to note that the recent armed attacks took place against a backdrop of growing anger against the Palestinian Authority. In April, President Mahmoud Abbas canceled the Palestinian legislative elections for fear that Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority, would lose to Hamas. This drew strong condemnation from various Palestinian political factions and the Palestinian people.
Palestinians have also been angered by the PA’s weak response to Israeli aggression against worshipers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the forced evictions of Palestinian residents from Jerusalem. Likewise, the Palestinian government did little to counter the deadly Israeli assault on Gaza in May.
The death of Nizar Banat at the hands of Palestinian Authority security forces in late June was another event that fueled Palestinian rejection of Abbas. The assassination drew large crowds of Palestinians to the streets, where they faced brutal repression by Palestinian security forces. This only increased outrage and calls for Abbas to resign.
A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Investigation Research and released in September found that 80 percent of those polled want the president to step down. At the same time, 45 percent think Hamas should lead the Palestinians, while only 19 percent say Fatah deserves this role.
Popular opposition to Abbas and the armed military struggle against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank have raised fears in some circles that Hamas may take advantage of these events and mobilize other factions for its own ends. Some Israeli and foreign analysts have spoken out on the possibility that such a mobilization could lead Hamas to take control of the West Bank as it did in Gaza.
It is true that Hamas would like to be the dominant force in Palestinian politics and end the dictatorial regime of Abbas, but statements about the possibility of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank seem greatly exaggerated for several reasons.
First, Hamas still lacks an integrated and sustainable infrastructure in the West Bank and therefore lacks the strength to extend its influence over it. Its popularity may have increased, but the PA and Israeli occupation forces continue to make serious efforts to dismantle cells and networks loyal to the group. This prevents him from establishing a deeper imprint.
Second, the Palestinian Authority may be rejected by many Palestinians, but it still holds full military power over the West Bank. She may suffer from internal tensions, but she is still able to mobilize all her followers, united in their fear of losing their privileges if their bosses fall from power. PA officials are ready to do anything to stay in power and would not hesitate to ask for Israeli military aid.
Third, Israel constantly seeks to dislodge Hamas from the West Bank at all costs, given the grave threat that any increase in Hamas’s capabilities there would pose to the more than 400,000 Israeli settlers residing illegally on occupied Palestinian lands. It is highly unlikely that they will allow Hamas to increase its power in the West Bank to the point where it can organize a takeover.
This campaign of fear by Israeli officials over Hamas’s capabilities could be aimed at undermining any mediation effort between Hamas and Fatah, after recent tensions following the cancellation of the elections. It is in Israel’s vested interest to keep Palestinian factions divided so that they can never present a united front in the face of its occupation and crimes.
The Israeli leadership is also playing on this “resurgence” of Hamas, perhaps to gain greater international support for its brutal security campaigns against the Palestinians. Growing international attention to raids on Islam’s third holiest site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the forced evictions of Jerusalemites from their homes worries him. He therefore seeks to deflect attention from these crimes and once again dominate the Palestinian narrative.
What Israel and its allies, however, cannot prevent is the dramatic loss of legitimacy that the Palestinian Authority has suffered, which makes its long-term authority over the West Bank completely untenable.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.