In bid for Palestinian street, Hamas gambles all

The Gaza-based group ended the unity pact with Abbas — and risked Israel’s wrath — when it kidnapped the three youths

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.

Masked Palestinian militants in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip, June 12, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)
Masked Palestinian militants in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza Strip, June 12, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

The timing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s condemnation Monday morning of the kidnapping of three Israeli youths is no coincidence; nor is the timing of his telephone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Over the preceding 48 hours, it seems, something has shifted in the upper echelons of the PA and Abbas’s Fatah party. Essentially, Abbas has come to realize that the recently inked unity pact with Hamas ended at the moment of the abduction.

In off-the-record conversations, confidants of Abbas’s say that Hamas will pay a steep price for the kidnapping — beyond the massive Israeli operation to recover the abductees, Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel — in the form of punitive steps with which the PA plans to target Hamas in Gaza.

Since its announcement in April, analysts have been seeing the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement as a gamble, due to both Israel’s outright rejection of it and the US’s ambiguous stance (Washington has maintained that it will continue to work with the PA, although it still considers Hamas as a terror organization). And yet Abbas decided to proceed and check, for the umpteenth time since the Palestinian rift of 2007, whether reconciliation with Hamas was possible.

For him, it was practically personal – a matter of critical import.

It was on his watch that the Hamas government of Gaza splintered from that of Fatah, in the West Bank, and he hoped that before his presidential term ran out he would succeed in restoring Palestinian unity.

Yet, from the moment the agreement was finalized, some two weeks before the kidnapping on Thursday, Abbas’s security forces realized that Hamas was trying to undermine the relative peace in the West Bank and foment unrest against both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The prisoners’ hunger strike, in that regard, became a tool with which Hamas instigated protests, capitalizing on the public’s sentiment to boost its own standing as the protector of the inmates, while weakening Fatah.

Hence the relatively intensive action by PA security forces in the days leading up to the kidnapping against Hamas activists. Palestinian police arrested several Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists, while breaking up Hamas-organized protests “in solidarity with the hunger strikers.”

And then came the kidnapping.

History has shown that the immediate aftermath of such actions sees a surge in support for Hamas. Even in Hebron, where residents are being forced to contend with an IDF-imposed curfew that has denied them access to Israel and Jordan, the kidnapping is perceived as an act of valor. The question is whether the Palestinians in the city will continue to see the kidnappers as heroes if the curfew drags on for a month or more, taking a big bite out of their livelihood. Hebron is often described as the commercial capital of the West Bank, and an extended curfew could spell economic disaster for its residents.

Meanwhile, reactions to the kidnapping among Hamas’s leaders have been tentative and garbled. Alongside their statements praising the “operation,” officials have asserted that they have no information about the attack. Perhaps they’re telling the truth; most complex actions executed by Hamas are managed by the organization’s military wing, which doesn’t furnish its political echelon with any details. And yet, Hamas leaders are painfully aware that, whatever befalls the three Israeli youths, they could eventually pay for it with their own lives.

One must note that, so far, there’s nothing to indicate that the kidnappers are seeking to trade the teens for Palestinian prisoners. The kidnappers haven’t made approaches to anyone — in Israel, the PA or elsewhere – with the intention of negotiating for their release. Even Egypt, long considered the go-to negotiator between Israel and Hamas in such situations, hasn’t received any word. The passage of time only exacerbates fears for the fate of the kidnapped youths, and sharpens the prediction that Israel is hurtling toward a massive conflict with Gaza.

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