Hamas looks to scuttle talks while PA can’t make up its mind

Islamist terror group bids to ignite violence to undermine Fatah, while Ramallah avoids disappointing public by covering up progress in negotiations

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.

Israeli police clash with Palestinians outside the al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
Israeli police clash with Palestinians outside the al-Aqsa mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem on Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

Another shooting in Hebron and more riots on the Temple Mount. And there is talk again of an escalation in violence in light of the stalled political process.

It’s unclear if there is any connection between these elements. There hasn’t been a wave of violence, just an isolated attack, in which Baruch Mizrahi was murdered Monday night, whose perpetrator is still unknown. It is possible that groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad are behind the riots and the shooting in order to maintain the political stalemate. On the Temple Mount, at least, Hamas’s connection with the disturbances is quite clear, as is that of the Islamic Movement’s Northern Branch.

The pictures from Wednesday morning show that the latest incident on the Temple Mount wasn’t spontaneous. Inside the al-Aqsa mosque, there were enough stones and fireworks gathered to make the site look, and especially sound, like a war zone. Hamas doesn’t want nine more months of talks between Israel and the PA, and is trying to shake up the situation in the West Bank in the hope that it might lead to the dissolution of the PA and the weakening of Fatah.

This is the source of the blatant attempts to sabotage the talks through incitement around al-Aqsa. Several Islamist groups operate on the Temple Mount, the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement and Hamas being the most dominant. They are the ones who called out slogans of support for ousted Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, and they are also the ones who likely stand behind the recent attacks in an attempt to ignite the Temple Mount.

On the other side, the PA continues to suffer from a split personality regarding the negotiations. On the one hand, it wants to continue the talks as much as Israel does. This is the clear interest of PA decision-makers, who understand that an implosion of the talks could lead to a serious escalation, endangering the PA — just what Hamas wants. On the other hand, the line the PA is taking in the Palestinian press against Israel sounds nationalist and militant.

The Palestinians are trying hard to disguise the talks with Israel and any progress made in them, perhaps to prevent disappointment among the public. The policy of senior negotiators is to create no expectations. This approach has led to the many reports in the Palestinian media that “there is no progress in the talks,” even when there clearly is.

Chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat went above and beyond this week. Speaking to the Israeli press during a negotiating session, he told them that no such talks were taking place, and that he was in an entirely different city from the one where the talks were reportedly underway. This isn’t the first time Erekat “failed to tell the truth” while talking to the media about negotiations, to put it mildly.

PA Waqf and Religious Affairs Minister Mahmoud al-Habash, considered close to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, met this week in Ramallah with a group of Israel journalists. The message was conciliatory. “The two nations need to live in this land, and we have only two options,” he said. “Number 1, the one we want, two states. Through negotiations, we will determine where the border will run between the states and where the Palestinian capital will be. Or Number 2, one state with equal rights for all. We will agree with whatever Israel chooses between the two.”

There is, however, a third option — a continuation of escalation and violence. Al-Habash turned at this point to the reporters and told them about his mother. “During the First Intifada, I went to my mother’s home to find her watching television and crying. They were broadcasting the funeral of an Israel soldier killed in the territories. I asked her why she was crying, as it was an Israeli soldier, after all. She told me they showed the soldier’s mother, weeping bitterly. ‘I thought about you and me,’ she told me. ‘About what would happen if you were there.’

“I am saying to you, don’t let the mothers cry and the children grow up without security,” Al-Habash went on. “We have a historic opportunity to reach peace. We say outright, this isn’t a religious struggle, it’s a fight over land. And for us human beings, human life is more important than land. And in order to protect human life, we can reach an agreement over the land.”

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