Terror upsurge’s main beneficiaries are Hamas and Israel’s Islamic Movement
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Analysis

Terror upsurge’s main beneficiaries are Hamas and Israel’s Islamic Movement

Even before the new outbreak of violence, Abbas's popularity was in deep decline; he may now be hoping that a sweating Netanyahu could help save him

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the radical wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, pictured outside Ramla prison near Tel Aviv in 2010. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)
Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the radical wing of the Islamic Movement in Israel, pictured outside Ramla prison near Tel Aviv in 2010. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

If elections were to be held in the territories today, it’s a safe bet that Hamas would win decisively. Even before the latest upsurge in violence, surveys have been showing a significant fall in the popularity of Fatah and its leader, PA President Mahmoud Abbas. If Hamas can now avoid another round of conflict with Israel in Gaza, its popularity will continue to rise.

Hamas did not initiate the current round of hostilities, but the violence certainly helps its interests. Terrorism and the rising casualty tolls among Israelis and Palestinians bolster support for extremism on both sides, but especially among the Palestinians. The Palestinian public is fed up with the PA’s strategy of negotiations with Israel, and wants action. A cursory look at social media underlines where the winds are blowing: Explicit calls to harm Abbas appear openly on the Facebook pages of Palestinian men and women, not necessarily Islamists. This did not happen in the past.

In contrast to the PA, which is maintaining security coordination with Israel and trying to keep Palestinian protesters away from points of friction with the IDF, Hamas is encouraging the masses in the West Bank (from its base in Gaza) to join a third intifada. (Hamas, by the way, unlike us analysts, has no doubt that the third intifada is underway.)

To date, from Gaza, Hamas has cleverly managed to position itself as joining the protests of West Bank Palestinians without endangering its own interests. Hamas also pushes the protests of young Palestinians at the Gaza border fence with Israel, knowing they would pay with their lives. Nine Gazans were killed there over the weekend, but what is that compared to the 2,000-plus fatalities in last summer’s conflict? At the same time, Hamas is pressing rival groups in Gaza not to fire rockets or carry out other attacks from the Strip, and is therefore managing to reduce the likelihood of a further round of heavy fighting with Israel.

Palestinian top Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh makes a speech to his supporters during a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Hamas militant group, at the main road in Jebaliya in the northern Gaza Strip, December 12, 2014 (AP/Adel Hana)
Palestinian top Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh makes a speech to his supporters during a rally to commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Hamas militant group, at the main road in Jabaliya in the northern Gaza Strip, December 12, 2014. (AP/Adel Hana)

Will Hamas manage to maintain this balancing act for long — to encourage “popular” protest in the West Bank without getting drawn into war? It’s hard to say. The deaths overnight of a Palestinian mother and her young child in an Israeli response to Saturday’s rocket fire can only complicate matters. The Salafist groups that fired rockets on Friday and Saturday are bound to try to fire more in the coming days. Islamic Jihad has been coordinating with Hamas but, possibly with Iranian encouragement, that may change: It may seek to “steal the show” from Hamas and start firing rockets at Israel. Such a development would both divert attention from the West Bank and present Hamas with a military dilemma.

At the same time, there is now renewed talk of internal Palestinian reconciliation and new understandings between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. A PA delegation is supposed to travel to Gaza this week to discuss this, while Abbas is expected to be more flexible than in the past on the terms for a unity agreement.

Meanwhile in the West Bank, the protests have actually declined somewhat, at least as of this writing. After a stormy Friday, Saturday saw smaller, milder demonstrations. In Ramallah, Nablus and other northern areas of the West Bank, the picture was far from that of an intifada, in part because of the PA’s activities. The main focus of protest on Saturday was Hebron, long a Hamas stronghold.

Palestinian protesters hurling stones at Israeli troops (not seen) during riots near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, October 10, 2015. (Flash90)
Palestinian protesters hurling stones at Israeli troops (not seen) during riots near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, October 10, 2015. (Flash90)

But the main popular protests are now taking place inside Israel, among Israeli Arabs. And the main beneficiary is that veteran partner of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Raed Salah and his northern branch of Israel’s Islamic Movement. For years, Salah has tried to utilize the Temple Mount to inflame the Arab Palestinian street. Now he’s finally managed to do so. “The defender of Al-Aqsa,” as Salah is known, continues to warn against the ostensible plans of the Jews to harm the mosque, vowing that he is prepared to do anything to “protect it.” His activists are everywhere in Arab towns and villages, successfully fomenting friction against Israel.

Even after this stormy weekend, it’s still not exactly clear what happens next. “Spontaneous” attacks by lone-wolf terrorists are bound to continue, and West Bank protests are likely to decline. Israel shows signs of wanting an international initiative to help end this round of violence, and maybe this will happen when the members of the international Quartet shuttle between Ramallah and Jerusalem on Wednesday and Thursday. For Abbas, too, the current situation is worrisome because it can so easily slide out of control.

Still, for now, Abbas may be enjoying watching Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sweat, and may think Netanyahu could now prove more flexible as regards concrete steps that might help bolster Abbas’s standing in the territories. The first such step that Abbas would demand: the freeing of veteran Israeli-Arab security prisoners whose release was canceled by Israel in spring of 2014 when the last attempt at negotiations collapsed.

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