In rocket war ‘for Al-Aqsa,’ Hamas has already won the Palestinian leadership

No matter how the fighting in Gaza goes, Fatah is sidelined and the Gaza-based terror group has made deep inroads into the Arab Israeli street

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Palestinians place Hamas flags atop the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City on May 10, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Palestinians place Hamas flags atop the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City on May 10, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Hamas’s latest rocket war is taking place in two different theaters: an explicit war with Israel and an unspoken battle with the rival Fatah faction for leadership of the Palestinian national movement.

It may lose the former, or at least find itself badly bruised by the time the fighting ends. It has already won the latter.

Hamas didn’t start the bouts of violence that led to this week’s fighting: the Palestinian protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and against police restrictions at Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, or the attacks on Jews in Jerusalem throughout Ramadan dubbed by Israelis the “TikTok intifada.”

But it has egged on the chaos at every turn, issuing pronouncements in support of more clashes and sending organizers to inflame the protests into violent confrontations.

The violence reached a psychological fever pitch in the clashes Monday between Israeli police and stone-throwing Palestinian rioters inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It was in that encounter that Hamas began reaping the fruit of its efforts.

A grab from an AFPTV video shows a tree on fire near the Dome of the Rock on May 10, 2021. (Claire Gounon/AFPTV/AFP)

Holy ground

In the wake of images of Israeli police firing tear gas into the mosque, Hamas issued an ultimatum: If Israel didn’t take certain steps by 6 p.m. that evening — the most important being the withdrawal of Israeli police from the Temple Mount — it would face Hamas’s retribution.

It was a public, humiliating demand, designed to be ignored. And ignore it Israel did, prompting Hamas to launch the first mass salvo of the new rocket war.

That context is vital. Hamas wanted a fight, and it wanted it over Al-Aqsa. It waited for the images of Israeli police apparently assaulting the holy site to make its move.

That’s because Al-Aqsa is no mere backdrop to this story. It is the heart of it.

Muslim worshippers pray during the Eid al-Fitr feast, which marks the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, May 13, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

The Palestinians are a people defined by the experience of displacement. Their historians speak of their national identity coalescing in the face of the pressure of Jewish immigration and Israel’s founding. In the sacred complex that sits atop the Temple Mount, which the Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary, Palestinians find a source of religious validation for their story, an anchor of identity and dignity that no external political weakness or vulnerability can diminish.

That makes Al-Aqsa more than a place of prayer or ritual. It represents in the Palestinian telling a tangible promise of redemption.

Hamas has long understood that its path to dominion over the Palestinian political world must pass through that place. Nothing else unites or mobilizes Palestinians as it does.

The rockets raining down since Monday “in Al-Aqsa’s defense” may have targeted Israelis, but, at least in the first day or two, battering Israel was at least partly a means to another end. The unspoken target was Fatah.

Rockets are launched towards Israel from Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 12, 2021 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Missing in action

Late last month, Mahmoud Abbas announced the cancelation of the upcoming Palestinian elections, citing Israel’s lack of declaration that it would allow voting to be held in East Jerusalem. It was going to be the first election in 15 years, and Hamas had been preparing for it for months, even holding internal leadership races over the past few weeks.

Hamas rightly viewed the elections as a chance to strengthen its influence in Palestinian institutions and regain lost ground in the West Bank. (That, of course, is why Abbas canceled them.)

Frustrated, it now sought another avenue to achieve those goals.

Palestinian public opinion was set aflame by the images from the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while decrepit old Fatah was scarcely seen or heard. Here was Hamas’s chance to attain the influence denied it by Abbas.

Palestinian medics evacuate a wounded person during clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinian protestors in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount compound on May 10, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

For two long days, Hamas fired rockets into Israel and absorbed painful retaliatory strikes in return. For two long days, Hamas officials could claim they were sacrificing in Al-Aqsa’s defense, while Fatah had scarcely responded to the crisis.

It wasn’t until Wednesday, in a speech to the PA leadership in Ramallah, that Abbas appeared to grasp the scale of Fatah’s rout.

“Jerusalem is the heart and soul of Palestine,” he declared. “There is no peace, security or stability except with the full liberation from the occupation and [Jerusalem’s] return to the Palestinian people and the Arab and Islamic people.”

Addressing Israel, the Palestinian leader most identified with decades-long security cooperation with the Jewish state suddenly struck a distinctly Hamas-esque tone. “We will be a thorn in your side,” he vowed. “We will never leave our homeland, we will never leave our country. Put an end today to your conquest of our country, today and not tomorrow…. We will stand firm more and more, until we achieve victory and liberation, and until we achieve the end of the occupation in all our occupied lands, especially Jerusalem.”

A Palestinian family watches a speech by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas regarding the Palestinian elections, at their home in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, April 29, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Strong words, but ones that came after two long days of Hamas dominating the news cycle, of Gazans enduring hundreds of Israeli airstrikes, of one faction seeming to stand tall against Israel while the other cowered in its Ramallah headquarters.

A better story

Fatah’s weakness is self-made. The movement is rife with corruption, internal squabbling and incompetence. But its main handicap in the Palestinian public discourse isn’t its institutional problems, it is its story.

Fatah is compromised in Palestinian public opinion by its long history of cooperation with Israel, of prioritizing stability and order — and its own privileged position in the West Bank — over any visible progress toward better days for the Palestinians. Where Fatah seems to offer only compromise and retreat, Hamas has never backtracked (at least in its rhetoric) from its full-throated vow to deliver a comprehensive victory for the Palestinians, untarnished by compromise with wicked Israel.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announces that the PA legislative elections will be indefinitely delayed, on Thursday, April 29, 2021. (WAFA/Tha’ir Ghanayem)

In Hamas’s telling of this conflict, the Israelis are usurpers, foreigners faking their attachment to the land and doomed by that inauthenticity to be expelled from it. Hamas speaks of Israel as a latter-day version of the colonialist French in Algeria, who was ultimately expelled back to France by the exertions and terrible sacrifices of Algeria’s National Liberation Front.

The Jews may have come in huge numbers, Hamas says, and may have seemingly unassailable military and economic and technological superiority, but in the end, no matter how high the cost in Palestinian blood and treasure — at least a quarter-million Algerians died in their independence war against the French — the usurpers will inevitably retreat in ignominy.

Alongside that anti-colonialism, Hamas is also a movement of religious pietism. It shares the Islamist distrust of Western ideologies, arguing that only a politics rooted in religion can repair and rebuild all that nationalism and Marxism have wrecked in the Arab worlds. If a benevolent God oversees a just history, Hamas argues, then to accommodate Israel is to deny God’s power and history’s moral arc.

People hold Hamas flags as Palestinians gather at the Dome of the Rock after praying on the last Friday of Ramadan, May 7, 2021. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

It’s a powerful combination of ideas and commitments, all the more so when stacked against the empty fecklessness of the Abbas regime. And it grants the Palestinians agency and mastery over their fate, promising them that they can win their deliverance by their own exertions and sacrifices.

The victory over Fatah is thus larger than this moment. It cuts across the deepest layers of Palestinian identity.

The war for Arab Israel

The shockwaves from Hamas’s new conquest of the Palestinian political arena were felt acutely in Israel, more acutely than most Israelis realize. As it secured its victory over Fatah, Hamas also opened another front in its war for the Palestinian narrative: For the first time in memory, it actively sought to export its message of persistent violence to the Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The sudden spike in Arab-Jewish clashes in Israeli cities that followed the violence at Al-Aqsa caught everyone by surprise — not just Jewish leaders and Israeli law enforcement officials, but also the Arab Israeli community itself.

Israelis carry out Torah scrolls from a torched synagogue in the central Israeli city of Lod, following a night of heavy rioting by Arab residents in the city, on May 12, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While rockets rained down from Gaza on Lod, Ramle and Beersheba, gangs of young Arab men, often brandishing Palestinian flags and Hamas emblems, began systematically assaulting Jewish passersby, vehicles and even homes. Synagogues and shops were torched, cars were set on fire, rock-throwing “ambushes” targeted Jewish drivers on highways in the south. A bus transporting IDF soldiers in the north found itself pelted with large stones, forcing the soldiers to disembark and fire warning shots over the assailants’ heads. Roving bands of vandals cut power lines to apartment buildings in majority-Jewish neighborhoods, leaving families in the dark.

Some rioters then posted their exploits on social media with messages about Al-Aqsa and Hamas.

It must be said: Not all the gatherings were violent, perhaps not even most. A precise count of the various types of protests isn’t yet possible, but many were peaceful demonstrations calling for an end to the fighting in Jerusalem and Gaza.

And another vital point of context: There were Jewish counter-protests and Jewish racist gangs who responded to Monday’s violence by taking to the streets beginning on Tuesday and attacking innocents just as brutally as their Arab counterparts.

But we are focused here on the Arab violence because we’re discussing Hamas’s influence. Where organized Arab gangs roamed the streets, one found explicit and full-throated support for Hamas.

File: Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Rafah Medical Complex in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip on November 23, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Hamas hasn’t hidden these efforts.

In a speech Tuesday, Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh declared that Palestinians in Israel were working in concert with those in the West Bank and Gaza to defend Al-Aqsa. “Gaza and Jerusalem and the 1948 areas [i.e., Arab Israelis] are moving together,” he said.

A cartoon pushed by Hamas on social media showed a three-pronged Palestinian defense of Al-Aqsa. The three stripes of the Palestinian flag were wrapped around three signs reading “Gaza” (on the left), “West Bank” (on the right), and “Lands occupied in ’48” at bottom.

As Michael Milshtein, the former director of Palestinian affairs in the IDF Intelligence Directorate, noted of the cartoon, “Hamas is encouraging the conflagration in Israel’s Arab community, marking a shift of sorts in the movement’s strategy. For years Hamas clung to the approach of [founder] Sheikh [Ahmad] Yassin, who instructed to be considerate of the unique situation of the Arabs in Israel, and to be careful not to entangle them in [Hamas’s] friction with the state.”

No longer.

“This time,” Milshtein wrote, “Hamas sees in Israel’s Arabs a central axis of its broader campaign against Israel and is pushing it toward clashes with the authorities.”

Hamas’s new assertion of control over the Palestinian cause isn’t the sole reason for the violence now spreading through Arab-Jewish towns, but it’s a major one. Many of the rioters are eager to be counted in what Haniyeh described on Tuesday as the “new balance of power” between a Hamas-led Palestinian nationalism and a confused, iniquitous Israel.

‘Hostages of Hamas’

The social media discourse among Arab Israelis, some of it conducted in Hebrew, is full of calls to reject this new pressure from Hamas.

Police officers clash with Arab Israeli rioters in Ramle in central Israel, on May 10, 2021.(Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“To my brothers, the Arabs of this land, we all know where we come from and who we are. It’s a vast distance from there to turning ourselves into hostages of Hamas,” pleaded one man. “I refuse to do that. Our grievances are just. Our rights are inalienable. But we’re also citizens of this state. What Hamas is doing is a war crime; what’s happening in Lod, Acre and other places is a crime against the country. Enough!”

“We’re Arab Israeli citizens and we must not become the playthings of Hamas or be dragged to the chaos that the extremists in our midst are trying to lead us to,” said Yoseph Haddad, an Arab Israeli coexistence activist and IDF veteran.

The sense that the Hamas narrative is making inroads this week into the Arab Israeli consciousness is palpable in the community. As in Jerusalem and the West Bank, here, too, Al-Aqsa is key. It is hard to rally around coexistence and integration, say many, when the clashes at Al-Aqsa overwhelm the senses.

As one Arab Israeli commentator put it, “The Palestinian nation is the most divided nation on Earth: Rival political movements, religious and secular streams that can’t stand one another, different territories and countries, rural and urban, Bedouin and peasants, diverse dialects and accents, and a clannish and tribal social structure. And then Israel comes along and strikes at the one thing that unifies them all: The Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is entering a new era. Fatah, still nominally in charge of a decrepit PA in Ramallah, has lost any influence it once had over the Palestinian agenda. Hamas, despite Gaza’s woes and regardless of the blows it sustains in the coming days or weeks, is now securely in the driver’s seat. And for the first time in a generation, Israel’s Arab citizens are on the front lines.

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