Interview'We seek a political solution, not just a security one'

Abbas denouncing Hamas, but criticism kept private due to IDF ‘aggression’ – top aide

Mahmoud Habbash tells ToI that Israel undermining US vision for ‘revitalized’ PA by withholding its tax revenues, warns no one will run postwar Gaza if IDF remains or enters at will

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

An undated image of Palestinian Authority presidential adviser Mahmoud Habbash. (Mahmoud Habbash/Facebook)
An undated image of Palestinian Authority presidential adviser Mahmoud Habbash. (Mahmoud Habbash/Facebook)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been condemning Hamas in “every call and meeting” he’s held with world leaders since the group’s October 7 shock attack on Israel but will not do so publicly while the war in Gaza is ongoing, a top adviser to the PA leader told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

“If Israel didn’t launch its aggression against Gaza, President Abbas would have publicly condemned Hamas repeatedly, but once the aggression began and has continued, asking him or any Palestinian leader to publicly condemn Hamas is nonsense,” Mahmoud Habbash said during an interview from his Ramallah office.

Five days after 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were brutally massacred in southern Israel and some 240 were taken hostage into Gaza on October 7, Abbas issued a statement generally condemning the targeting of civilians on “both sides” but making no mention of Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has highlighted Abbas’s refusal to condemn the terror group in explaining why he will not allow the PA to govern Gaza once Hamas has been toppled and the war is over.

Habbash — who also serves as the PA’s top Sharia judge — said that Ramallah “has been against the war since October 7.”

“In more than 70 phone calls and meetings with leaders from all over the world — from [US President Joe] Biden to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro — President Abbas always stressed that he’s against what Hamas did on October 7 and that Hamas is not representative of the Palestinian people,” Habbash insisted.

Palestinians inspect the damage in a residential building in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip following Israeli air strikes early on December 4, 2023.(Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

“We didn’t want or need this war. What was the point? Did Hamas imagine that it could win?” he asked rhetorically.

Israel responded to the October 7 assault with a massive bombing campaign throughout the Strip, followed by a ground incursion that began in northern Gaza before slowly expanding to the south, declaring its intention of removing the threat from the Strip and securing the return of the hostages. Over 15,600 Palestinians have been killed in the IDF campaign according to the Hamas-run health ministry, which doesn’t differentiate between civilians and combatants. An IDF spokesperson said Tuesday that some 5,000 terrorist fighters have been killed.

Day after

Netanyahu has pledged to pursue the war until Hamas is eradicated, and the Biden administration has provided support for the goal. But Washington insists that the PA eventually fill the vacuum in order to reunite the West Bank and Gaza under a single political entity and to pave a path toward an eventual two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The US concedes that the PA — which hasn’t held elections in 17 years and whose popularity continues to plummet amid longstanding allegations of corruption and an ever-expanding Israeli presence in the West Bank — will need to be “rejuvenated” before it can take responsibility for the Gaza Strip.

Habbash dismissed the corruption charges and asserted that Israel’s refusal to allow balloting in East Jerusalem was the reason no election has been held since 2006 — a claim doubted by some analysts who suggest Abbas’s reluctance to face the voters has stemmed from fears of potential gains by Hamas, which is a rivalto his Fatah party.

Still, Habbash argued that talk of “rejuvenating” the PA is futile so long as Israel continues advancing policies aimed at its decline.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) with adviser Mahmoud Habbash at the former’s office in 2018. (Wafa)

He pointed to the Israeli decision last month to withhold roughly $275 million in funds that belong to Ramallah from the tax revenues Jerusalem collects on its behalf. The sum amounts to what the PA allocates for services and salaries in the Gaza Strip, from which the cabinet is seeking to disconnect following the October 7 onslaught. The figure also makes up roughly 30% of the total monthly revenues owed to Ramallah.

The presidential adviser also noted Netanyahu’s years-long facilitation of monthly $30 million payments to cover the salaries of Hamas employees, which Habbash said were aimed at “strengthening” PA’s Gaza-ruling rivals at the expense of the more moderate, two-state-solution-backing government in Ramallah.

Netanyahu has pushed back on this narrative in recent weeks, saying his government over the past 15 years worked to weaken Hamas through several military operations and only allowed the monthly Qatari payments to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Despite these difficult circumstances, the PA’s security forces have still managed to maintain relative calm in the West Bank amid the Gaza fighting, US officials told The Times of Israel last week.

“This is evidence that we can do the same in Gaza,” Habbash said.

He did acknowledge that a transition period of at least six months would still be needed for the PA to “rehabilitate” before it can return to governing Gaza for the first time since it was ousted by Hamas in 2007.

Illustrative: Palestinian Authority security officers deploy near the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank, on July 15, 2022. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

During this time, Ramallah would agree to the presence of an international or Arab force that would help manage Gaza’s civilian and security affairs until the PA is ready to take over, Habbash said.

However, this approval is conditioned on the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the PA’s return there being part of a broader diplomatic initiative aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, Abbas’s aide clarified.

“We seek a political solution, not just a security one,” Habbash said. “We are ready to take full responsibility for Gaza, but only if it is side-by-side with the West Bank and not as contractors for Israel.”

He insisted that no Arab force — Palestinian or otherwise — will agree to operate in Gaza if the IDF remains in the enclave or enters at will, as it does in Area A of the West Bank where the PA is supposed to have full security control.

Netanyahu has rejected this stipulation outright, asserting that Israel will maintain overall security control.

As for the idea of Abbas’s PA governing Gaza alongside the West Bank, Netanyahu reiterated Wednesday that “as long as I am the prime minister of Israel, this will not happen.”

Troops of the Nahal Brigade are seen operating in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, December 6, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Those who educate their children in terrorism, finance terrorism and support the families of terrorists will not be allowed to rule Gaza after Hamas is eliminated,” he tweeted, referring to the PA’s welfare payments, which include stipends to Palestinian terror inmates and their families.

A senior Israeli official briefing reporters earlier this month argued Netanyahu is still leaving an opening for Jerusalem to accept a significantly reformed PA returning to Gaza if the war ends with a dethroned Hamas.

However, the premier’s rhetoric against Ramallah has only intensified since, as he appears determined not to lose the support of his far-right coalition partners.

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