With renewed Fatah, Hamas partnership, will Israel now face a return to terror?

Thursday’s joint Ramallah-Beirut press conference may prove to be merely the latest failed bid for Palestinian unity. Or it could mark a dangerous turning point

Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, attends by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh al-Arouri (unseen) discussing Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, on July 2, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)
Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, attends by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh al-Arouri (unseen) discussing Israel's plan to annex parts of the West Bank, on July 2, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

At a bombshell joint press conference Thursday, Fatah Secretary-General Jibril Rajoub and Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri announced that their organizations would “unify their efforts” and collaborate “on the ground” to confront the threat of Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proceeds with his promised unilateral annexation, Rajoub said in Ramallah, “all options are open.” Speaking from Beirut on a screen set up next to him, al-Arouri vowed that “all forms of struggle” could be pursued after annexation.

The joint declaration by the two main Palestinian factions raised the specter of a return to the Palestinian terror waves of the Second Intifada, when attackers linked to both Fatah and Hamas carried out numerous deadly suicide bombings and other attacks targeting Israeli civilians and soldiers.

The dangers for Fatah in collaborating with Hamas are clear, with the two movements having cultivated growing animosity since 2007. After Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian elections, the two parties fought a bloody struggle for supremacy in Gaza. In 2007, that conflict ended with the expulsion of Fatah from the Strip and Hamas’s takeover of the enclave, creating a rupture in Palestinian society which persists to this day.

Many Fatah members might consider a detente with Hamas to be out of the question, a deal with the devil. But Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the leader of Fatah, may be grasping for the popular legitimacy he has long lacked by closing ranks with the terror group. Hamas, with its unstinting hostility to Israel and a reputation for being far less corrupt than Fatah, is popular and legitimate in the eyes of many Palestinians.

The partnership presented by Rajoub and al-Arouri was sanctioned at the highest level. Abbas greenlit the event ahead of time, saying in a statement Wednesday night that he welcomed Rajoub’s efforts to create national unity. PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh welcomed the event’s “positive atmosphere.” The joint conference was streamed live on both the official PA and Hamas TV channels.

Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, right, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, attends by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh al-Arouri, July 2, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Bringing Hamas leader al-Arouri on stage, literally and figuratively, gave Rajoub’s bitter criticisms of Israel’s annexation plans — and his vows to resist them, which he has issued several times in the recent past — a sharper edge: Al-Arouri has a $5 million US State Department bounty on his head for orchestrating multiple acts of terrorism. Responsible from exile for Hamas’s West Bank terrorist infrastructure, he is most notorious as the mastermind behind the 2014 murders of three Israeli teenagers, kidnapped and killed outside the Etzion Bloc settlement of Alon Shvut as they headed home from their yeshiva high schools.

A return to the “armed struggle” could prove popular for Fatah with the Palestinian public. In a recent opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Survey and Policy Research, 52 percent of Palestinians supported “armed struggle” in response to annexation; 45% said it was the best way forward.

Hamas likely hopes the declaration of unity — and the promised anti-occupation coordination to come — will lead to fewer restrictions on its West Bank operations, Neri Zilber, a Tel Aviv-based analyst and adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Times of Israel.

Hamas deputy political chief Saleh al-Arouri, after signing a reconciliation deal with senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, during a short ceremony at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, October 12, 2017. (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)

Hamas has been banned from operating in the West Bank for years, with both Israeli and Palestinian security forces regularly cracking down on its activities and arresting its members. But Abbas has already suspended security cooperation with Israel. If Fatah is indeed now willing to coordinate with Hamas, it may turn a blind eye to the terror group’s violence, or even actively encourage it.

Rajoub seemed to indicate that Fatah will try and mobilize West Bank Hamas cadres to participate in mass demonstrations, declaring that all factions and all Palestinians would be present at the next anti-annexation protest rally under one flag — the Palestinian national flag.

With thousands of demonstrators and a major diplomatic presence, the last Fatah-organized protest, held in Jericho on June 22, was a show of force. If Hamas supporters are brought in, the numbers could swell still further. In recent polling, around a quarter of West Bank Palestinians said they would vote for Hamas if elections were held, compared to 45% support for Fatah.

But if the coordination announced Thursday means giving Hamas cadres a freer hand to organize in the West Bank, terror activities against Israelis could resume in and from the area.

Thousands of Palestinians attend a rally against Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, in the West Bank city of Jericho, June 22, 2020. (Flash90)

“The question is how strongly the PA security forces will keep a lid on Hamas’s terror activities in the future. If they’ve entered into a tactical and strategic agreement with Hamas on the ground, how far will the PA allow this to go?” Zilber said.

During the joint conference on Thursday, the two speakers made clear efforts to move past the longstanding rift. Rajoub told the audience that he was “proud of being a Fatah member, but more proud of being Palestinian,” and praised Hamas members as “brothers.”

Al-Arouri, for his part, sounded almost like a PA official when he warned that annexation would “annul the possibility of a two-state solution” — something Hamas has always rejected in its commitment to the elimination of Israel — and invoked the legacy of Yasser Arafat multiple times.

The divisions, however, still run very deep. Innumerable previous attempts at reconciling the two factions have flopped. A 2017 unity pact failed to resolve the basic issues dividing the parties and ultimately collapsed.

While Rajoub insisted that the leadership of the two groups were “in total harmony today and tomorrow,” the details were vague. In fact, al-Arouri described key ideological disagreements, rather than resolved, as being “frozen” in favor of confronting annexation.

“The end goal that al-Rajoub expressed is stopping annexation and establishing a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. That’s obviously not Hamas’s overall direction,” noted Zilber.

Eyal Yifrah, 19, Gilad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped on June 12, 2014 and whose bodies were found on June 30, 2014. (IDF/AP)

The skepticism that greeted their pledges of a new strategic alliance was palpable in the room in Ramallah. When he was asked whether Hamas and Fatah would take concrete steps towards political unity, Rajoub was clearly irritated. “I hope your bad attitude straightens itself out. Calm down, man,” Rajoub replied. He later cut in to emphasize: “Trust us this time, believe us.”

But if Hamas is to be allowed significantly greater freedom of action in the West Bank, Abbas runs the risk of losing control over the terror group that ousted Fatah from Gaza, and would long since have tried to force him out of the West Bank too, were it not for Israel’s security presence.

A Fatah green light for Hamas terror would also strip the PA and Fatah of the last remnants of their legitimacy in Israeli eyes — legitimacy that has historically stemmed from a preached, although not always practiced, renunciation of terror. A resumption of Hamas terrorist activities, or renewed acts of violence by Fatah itself, in and from the West Bank, would also prompt far more sweeping Israeli intervention than has been the norm for years.

As of Thursday, the two groups have vowed to speak “with one voice,” as Rajoub put it. If the professed coordination is never heard from again, well, it won’t be the first time. If it goes forward, though, the Ramallah-Beirut press conference could come to constitute a major turning point, for the worse, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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