Hassan Yousef is not the problem, and Israel knows it

Hamas may be an easy target, but arresting its leaders while leaving Palestinian Authority officials untouched won’t change much

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 Hassan Yousef is arrested in his home by IDF troops, October 20, 2015. (Screen capture from YouTube)
Sheikh Hassan Yousef is arrested in his home by IDF troops, October 20, 2015. (Screen capture from YouTube)

Every year or so a familiar ceremony take place. Sheikh Hassan Yousef, one of the top Hamas political leaders in the West Bank, is arrested by Israeli security forces and held for six months in administrative detention. Then he’s released and, after some time passes, rearrested.

The reason given this time for Monday’s arrest of Yousef is “incitement to violence.”

Yousef’s incitement in the past few days consisted of warnings that if the Palestinian Authority continues to suppress the “intifada,” it will lead to an internal Palestinian clash.

If you compare the words of this senior Hamas official to recent Fatah statements, the latter come across as rather more extreme. When senior Fatah officials describe the attacks time after time as “heroic actions,” it’s hard to say that they are less inciteful than Yousef.

It may well be the case that Yousef has indeed been encouraging violence and needed to be stopped. To get a clearer picture, we’ll have to see if Yousef is prosecuted or just again held under administrative detention and released in about six months.

However, in the light of his repeated arrests — and the releases that always follow — it seems that Israel finds it more convenient to shine a spotlight on the 60-year-old sheikh than on the Palestinian Authority leadership. In other words, this is a symbolic move designed to let off steam and make it seem like action is being taken to stop the latest wave of terrorism.

The problem, unfortunately, is that Yousef has no real effect on young people planning on committing suicide stabbings or similar attacks in East Jerusalem, Beersheba and Hebron. The sheikh has almost no impact on grassroots activists.

Moreover, in conversation before the start of the latest escalation, Yousef himself tried to hint that Hamas in the West Bank is interested in a ceasefire — in stark contrast to the position of the Hamas leadership in Gaza, which has done everything possible to encourage a major West Bank escalation.

The repeated attempts of the organization to start a popular intifada have not born fruit so far. Despite Abbas’s deteriorating support on the Palestinian street, so far at least, Hamas has been unable to demonstrate the ability to lead the public to a mass uprising. During last Friday’s “day of rage,” the organization was able to draw no more than several thousand Palestinians to the streets.

Hamas could inflame the West Bank through terror attacks. The shooting attack which killed the Henkin couple succeeded in significantly escalating the current situation, but so far there are no specific security warnings of suicide attacks in the style of the Second Intifada.

For now, at least, while there is intelligence on a desire to carry out West Bank shooting attacks or the use of roadside explosives, the Israeli assessment is that Hamas does not have sufficient military infrastructure in the West Bank to carry out mass suicide attacks, and it is unclear if there is even the motivation to carry out such attacks.

If there is a deadly suicide attack and fingerprints lead to Hamas, the Israeli response would be directed at the Gaza Strip. And even the Hamas leaders in the Strip do not want that.

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