Are prisoner releases pushing West Bank Palestinians into Hamas’s arms?

A Palestinian and an Israeli expert address the impact of the war on the status of the terror group outside Gaza, the future of the PA, and the risks for Israel

Gianluca Pacchiani

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

File: A Palestinian security prisoner gestures among supporters and relatives after being released from Israeli jail in exchange for Israeli hostages released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, in Ramallah in the West Bank on November 26, 2023. (Photo by Fadel SENNA / AFP)
File: A Palestinian security prisoner gestures among supporters and relatives after being released from Israeli jail in exchange for Israeli hostages released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip, in Ramallah in the West Bank on November 26, 2023. (Photo by Fadel SENNA / AFP)

The homecoming of 240 Palestinian security prisoners from Israeli jails during last week’s truce was accompanied by scenes of jubilation throughout the West Bank as hundreds turned out to celebrate the return of the detainees — women and teenagers apprehended for acts of violence against Israelis or incitement or support for terrorism. None of them had been found guilty of murder, but some were in jail for attempted murder.

Such scenes were nearly absent in East Jerusalem, due to strict limitations imposed by the police to prevent images of Palestinians involved in terrorism celebrating their “victory,” including threats of fines of up to NIS 70,000, or $18,000, according to Palestinian sources.

In Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank cities, however, where Israeli police cannot directly intervene, hundreds took to the streets to fete the return of the prisoners. As freed inmates flashed “victory” signs and were paraded around on supporters’ shoulders, the real winner appeared to be Hamas.

“Out of the about 200 released prisoners, almost none of them was really a Hamas member, and yet the whole event was considered a Hamas achievement,” said Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

Night after night, dozens of green Hamas banners were waved in front of cameras, and freed prisoners wore them as headbands – even in the streets of Ramallah, the bastion of the Fatah-controlled PA. The Fatah and Hamas parties are rivals of long standing.

“The Palestinian Authority almost vanished from the streets of the West Bank. They are very much embarrassed. This is not their achievement. My guess is that they are probably not even happy about the releases,” Milshtein added.

A woman hugs a newly released Palestinian security prisoner in Ramallah in the West Bank on November 26, 2023, as crowds welcome detainees released from Israeli jails in exchange for Israeli hostages released by Hamas from the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

The temporary truce, which fell apart on December 1, also saw the release of 105 civilians from Hamas captivity in Gaza: 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals and 1 Filipino.

Israel estimates that about 137 hostages are still being held in Gaza and insists the terror group release all remaining civilian women and children hostages before additional agreements are considered. Hamas has ruled out any additional hostage releases until the end of the war.

Khalil Shikaki, a professor of political science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, estimated that the Palestinian prisoner releases greatly benefited Hamas’s reputation, and may have tripled the number of its supporters in the West Bank.

“We have not yet finished data collection in the West Bank for our next poll, but based on what we see so far, it looks like Hamas’s popularity is certainly a lot more than it was just three months ago, or just even two months ago, just before the war started,” he said.

According to a poll conducted by Shikaki’s institute in early September, support for Hamas stood at a mere 12% in the West Bank, and was declining.

Dr. Khalil Shikaki, professor of political science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah. June 28, 2015 (FLASH90)

Asked about the possibility of a violent Hamas coup in the West Bank akin to the one the terror group carried out in Gaza in 2007, when it booted out Fatah after winning the Palestinian elections, he said, “Obviously, the West Bank is boiling.

“There is tremendous discontent in the West Bank, particularly by young Palestinians and particularly in the northern part of the West Bank,” a Hamas stronghold.

But, he added, even if Hamas supporters have tripled in the West Bank since October 7, they would still be a minority of the population.

“I don’t think Hamas has the capacity to carry out a coup in the West Bank,” Shikaki said. “Hamas does have support at the popular level, but it is not the kind of support that can translate into an effective military force that has the capacity to stand up to the security services or even the police.”

Milshtein agreed with the analysis, based on the significant erosion in Hamas manpower in the territories of the PA over the past two months.  “Since October 7, there has been a huge wave of arrests by Israeli forces in the West Bank. Of the 2,000 that were apprehended, over 1,000 were Hamas members. As a result, Hamas’s political, social, and of course military activities in the area have been greatly reduced.”

Israeli troops detain a wanted Palestinian man in the West Bank town of Beit Furik, early November 28, 2023. (Emanuel Fabian/Times of Israel)

Threats of chaos in the West Bank

That does not mean, however, that the security situation beyond the Green Line cannot deteriorate in the foreseeable future.

“The greatest risk will be if negotiations are carried out for the release of prominent Hamas leaders in exchange for Israeli hostages. If people like Abbas al-Sayyed or Ibrahim Hamed are released, the position of Hamas in the West Bank will be much stronger than today,” Milshtein said.

Convicted terrorist al-Sayyed is currently serving 35 life sentences for masterminding two major terror attacks during the Second Intifada — the 2001 Sharon shopping mall attack and the 2002 Park Hotel bombing in Netanya — that together killed 65 Israelis. Ibrahim Hamed, the former head of the Hamas military wing in the West Bank, is serving 45 life sentences for orchestrating various suicide attacks that killed 96 Israeli civilians.

“After the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011 [in which 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were freed in exchange for the release of one Israeli soldier], almost all of those released were re-arrested over the past decade. But it’s not so easy,” Milshtein said. “Even if they are released and then re-arrested after a few weeks or months, they can still use their time to carry out harmful military and propaganda activities.”

A weaker Palestinian Authority

Another possible consequence of the strengthening of Hamas in the West Bank is the parallel weakening and fracturing of the Fatah party, which rules the Palestinian Authority.

“I think the major threat to the Palestinian Authority is not a Hamas coup, but rather some sort of mutiny within its security services,” Shikaki posited. “So far, the security services have proven to be highly cohesive and effective. They have been successful in maintaining their ranks without any major disruptions.

“But already now, they are not able to deploy in every area,” he continued, referencing the growing loss of control by the PA security apparatus in the northern West Bank. “For example, the PA is not able to pay salaries to its employees.

“The weaker it becomes, the greater the expression of public anger against it, the more likely that there will be some unrest within the security sector that could eventually lead to mutiny,” Shikaki added.

He noted though, that this it was still a theoretical possibility. “We do not see any evidence of that happening right now.”

Palestinian police prevent demonstrators from gathering in the West Bank city of Ramallah ahead of a planned protest against the Palestinian Authority on July 5, 2021 (Photo by ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

The need to reform the PA

Like Hamas, the PA and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, are far from popular among Palestinians. In a poll released by Shikaki’s team in the week before the October 7 onslaught, 85% of West Bankers demanded the resignation of the PA president

Aware of the PA’s corruption, inefficiency and unpopularity, US President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have called for a “revitalized” PA to rule over both the West Bank and Gaza after Hamas is toppled, in the framework of the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of a long-elusive two-state solution.

The Biden administration’s vision of eventual PA governance of Gaza, and its efforts to rally Arab allies to help manage the Strip’s security in the interim, are  being fiercely resisted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has said that the PA in its current form “is not fit” to run the enclave and that Israel will maintain overall security responsibility for Gaza and will not hand it over to “international forces.”

“There’s absolutely no doubt that there will be significant rejection of the Palestinian Authority in its current format and leadership, both in Gaza and in the West Bank. The current Palestinian leadership lost all credibility before the war, and if anything was left, it has been lost during the war,” Shikaki said.

“The PA is so weak and so poor, it barely controls the West Bank. You cannot expect it to control an additional 2.2 million people in Gaza who really hate it,” Milshtein said.

The only way to strengthen the PA in the West Bank and bring it back to power in Gaza once Hamas is toppled is by reinforcing its popular legitimacy through elections, Shikaki maintained.

Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, 2020 (courtesy)

But until elections are held, several measures can be taken to help the PA regain its legitimacy. Shikaki called for a new technocratic government comprising all Palestinian factions, including the political wing of Hamas.

“It has to be seen as an independent unity government that represents the various groups, political factions and civil society, rather than one that reports to Abbas and the current Palestinian leadership,” he said. “I think it is most likely that it will be acceptable to the international community, and to Israel.”

While some in the Palestinian establishment, including in Fatah, consider Hamas an inextricable component of Palestinian society, most Israelis find the idea of the terror group sitting in the PA government unpalatable. “I assess that Israel’s condition in any future scenario will be that there will be no Hamas in Palestinian elections,” Milshtein said.

“The American administration, and even Israel, must push the Palestinians to implement far-reaching reforms, because without significant changes, and without an end to the incitement against Israel in the Palestinian education system, we cannot expect any positive developments between Israel and the Palestinians,” he continued.

The first step to revitalize the PA must be the fight against corruption, nepotism and the lack of democracy, he said, factors that have caused “alienation” between the leadership and its people. “Almost every senior figure in the PA is very corrupt, and elections have not been held in the Palestinian territories since 2006. As a result, the relations between society and the leadership have turned very sour.”

Shikaki echoed that analysis, saying, “A future Palestinian government would have to be one that is seen as determined to combat corruption, and to restore some good governance and liberties for Palestinians.”

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