In the early ’90s, Gaza was not a very hospitable place for Hamas leaders. Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat had come triumphantly home in a black Mercedes, along with a ruling class of Fatah officials — Hamas’s rivals — from Tunis; Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had deported a group of 415 Hamas leaders, including current head Ismail Haniyeh, to Lebanon for roughly a year; and Arafat had signed a document signaling the beginning of the end of the resistance, which the Islamist organization embraced not merely as a means to an end but as a way of life.
Moreover, much as is the case in the West Bank today, the Palestinian Authority was infinitely more powerful than the Islamist group.
It was then that Hamas leader Ibrahim Maqadmeh, a dentist by training and an Islamist scholar and politician by trade, advocated for a simple strategy: stinging Israel so often and so painfully that it would eventually take out its rage on the semi-sovereign authority in the Gaza Strip – the PA – the organization Israel held responsible – and thereby pave the path to a Hamas takeover.
Today, Hamas is the nearly unrivaled power in Gaza, while it finds itself as a second stringer in the West Bank, behind Fatah. But with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promising “repercussions” over the kidnapping of three teens, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority could once again be weakened to the point where Hamas is able to mount a takeover.
Shlomi Eldar, in his 2012 book “Getting to Know Hamas,” outlined this strategy and quoted Maqadmeh as saying, in a Hamas gathering in Jabalya: “If we fight the PA, we’ll lose. They’ll annihilate us. If we lay into the Israelis, Israel will attack the PA, and that is how we’ll collapse the [Oslo] agreement.”
Eldar described the strategy as simple and transparent. But four years after Maqadmeh’s March 2003 assassination on Shuhada Street in Gaza, Hamas, seven years ago this week, rose to power in the Strip, violently seizing the reins from a weakened PA leadership.
In some ways, this was the beginning of the Islamist ascendancy that has colored much of the Arab Spring.
But while swaths of Iraq and other Middle Eastern states have fallen into Islamist hands, the West Bank, to Hamas’s dismay, has remained tranquil. There has been no spontaneous uprising, no transfer of power to the people. It is not unthinkable, therefore, that an increase in terror stemming from the West Bank is the organization’s way of both gaining popularity in the West Bank – the release of prisoners being a universally supported issue on the Palestinian streets – and pitting Israel against the PA.
In this context, Netanyahu’s comment on Sunday morning, in advance of a cabinet meeting held in the army’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, was cause for some concern.
“This morning I can say what I was unable to say yesterday, before the extensive wave of arrests of Hamas members in Judea and Samaria,” he said. “Those who perpetrated the abduction of our youths were members of Hamas – the same Hamas that Abu Mazen [Abbas] made a unity government with; this has severe repercussions.”
One hopes that those repercussions are tailor-made for Hamas and do not contribute to the weakening of its rival, the Palestinian Authority, because what happened in Gaza, albeit over the course of several years, could eventually be re-played in Ramallah.