When Hamas and Fatah fight, the ricochets are likely to end up hitting Israel

Relations between Palestinian factions are again threatening to explode, after the PA abandoned the Rafah crossing, leading to its closure

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.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (Flash90, Said Khatib/AFP)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh (Flash90, Said Khatib/AFP)

It’s hard to tell who started the latest dispute between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas. Was it an arrest campaign by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, or a major wave of arrests of Fatah operatives by Hamas in the Gaza Strip?

Either way, one thing is clear: The fallout from the current tussle between the rival groups will surely be felt by Israel, including in the form of an escalation in violence.

The latest headline coming from intra-Palestinian politics has been PA staff abandoning the Rafah crossing, a step that has caused the closure of the only passage for Gazans to travel overseas.

The crossing had been operating for many months with Egypt’s blessing, manned by PA staff, significantly easing the feeling of being besieged in Gaza. Though exit was by no means free, and not many people had been permitted to pass through, the crossing’s continued operation gave the population some feeling of change.

That ended when the PA announced in recent days that it was evacuating the officials who had been operating the crossing and supervising the entries and exits from Gaza. The Egyptians, who refuse to cooperate with the Hamas terror group as a government authority, reacted by closing their side of the crossing.

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas (R) stand guard outside the Rafah border crossing with Egypt just minutes before the Palestinian Authority withdraws its staff (L) from the Rafah border crossing with Egypt on January 7, 2019. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Hamas, true to form, accused Ramallah of “declaring war” on Gaza, but conveniently ignored what led the PA to take such a step.

Fatah had been preparing to hold a mass rally in Gaza commemorating the movement’s anniversary on January 1, but Hamas prevented that by various means, including an exceptionally widespread arrest campaign. Some 500 Fatah operative were arrested or taken in for questioning in the days leading up to that planned anniversary, according to Fatah; explanatory material was confiscated; and unknown assailants broke into the PA’s TV and radio offices in Gaza and caused extensive damage to the property and equipment.

Those steps apparently crossed a few red lines in the sensitive status quo between the organizations in the PA’s eyes, leading to the closure of the Rafah crossing.

That is when the war of words and threats began. Senior Fatah officials such as Azzam al-Ahmad have threatened that the removal of officials from the Rafah crossing was just the first step out of many that will topple Hamas, which openly seeks Israel’s destruction and wrested control of Gaza from the PA in a violent coup in 2007.

The PA’s approach to Gaza, according to those senior Fatah officials, is “all or nothing” — meaning, either Hamas surrenders all aspects of leadership in Gaza to the PA, or the PA cuts itself off completely from the Strip.

Palestinian protesters try to climb the border fence with Israel during clashes following a demonstration along the border east of Gaza City on January 4, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

That could just be a move intended to pressure Hamas or signal to the Egyptian that there’s an emergency, but it seems that the fragile situation in Gaza is destabilizing again.

According to a report in the London-based Arabic-language daily Asharq Al-Awsat, PA President Mahmoud Abbas conveyed a clear message to the Egyptians during his recent visit to Cairo that he intends to take stronger measures against Gaza, including in the fields of health and education. That is essentially a threat to cut PA funds to the Strip, which could drag the already impoverished population there into an unprecedented crisis.

Crises and instances of deterioration in Hamas-Fatah relations have frequently led to an increase in tensions with Israel: more border protests, rocket fire and other incidents, such as the explosive device attached to balloons that was launched into Israel on Sunday and prompted the IDF to strike in Gaza in retaliation.

All that is added to the current delay in the transfer of Qatari aid money to the Strip — $15 million to pay Hamas staff’s salaries — resulting in a general feeling in Gaza that another round of violence is brewing.

The famous rule in the Palestinian arena hasn’t changed: When Fatah and Hamas have a brawl, Israel gets hit.

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