Hamas is steadily gaining strength among Palestinians in the West Bank and, according to multiple indicators being observed by security forces, is winning the battle for hearts and minds in the court of public opinion at Fatah’s expense.
The rising star of Hamas is being felt on the streets of the West Bank, though its attempt to put together organizational building blocks and reestablish its infrastructure is being successfully blocked by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the IDF.
The shift is occurring as instances of violent disturbances involving rock throwing, Molotov cocktail attacks and sporadic grenade attacks and shootings rose significantly in November and December across the West Bank. To complicate the picture further, some of the violent incidents had been organized by paramilitary terror outfits affiliated with Fatah.
The Palestinian Authority still makes arrests of Hamas members, and the IDF is still “mowing the lawn,” one security source explained. “It’s very hard for Hamas to get organized,” he added. “Their rise is not organizational.”
On the other hand, a series of clear signs have been identified that point to a rise in Hamas’s support among the Palestinian masses.
Hamas flags flew for the first time in the West Bank after a long absence in 2011, when Israel released 1,200 security prisoners as part of the Gilad Schalit exchange, with hundreds of convicted terrorists freed to the West Bank.
To the Palestinian man in the street, that development marked a Hamas victory over Israel. Trying to seize on its momentum, Hamas then mobilized student activists at the influential Bir Zeit University near Ramallah and pushed them to get involved in student elections.
Hamas’s attempt to form student cells is called “Kutla,” and this type of activity is on the rise, the source said.
Soon after the Schalit release, the campus of Bir Zeit saw a march with activists holding cardboard Kassam rockets. Throughout, Hamas attempted to set up summer camps and medical clinics, while Fatah was perceived as doing little for its people.
The summer camps, where children are indoctrinated in jihad ideology and receive military-style training, are viewed by security forces as long-term terrorist training centers that, if left unchecked, eventually produce willing terrorists.
“We don’t wait until there is a military infrastructure in Hebron and Nablus that is on the way to carrying out attacks. We stop this before it happens. It’s hard for the organizations to take off,” the source said. Nevertheless, Hamas’s popularity continues to soar.
The Fatah-Hamas so-called reconciliation process, which hasn’t gotten very far, is blowing tailwind in Hamas’s sails.
Additionally, the Arab spring, which has become a Muslim Brotherhood winter in various Middle East countries – especially Egypt – provided yet more encouragement. As Hamas is a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the regional shifts have instilled confidence in Hamas’s West Bank personnel. “They say to themselves, ‘Our organization is taking the lead in the Middle East,’” the source said.
In October 2012, the PA held municipal elections in the West Bank, which were boycotted by Hamas. Hamas withheld its candidates, and the voter turnout was very low. Those who did turn out to vote mostly cast their ballots for ex-Fatah officials.
Next, in November, came Operation Pillar of Defense. During the conflict, the Palestinian Authority felt too weak to carry out any arrests of Hamas members.
Security forces saw that the PA’s activity against Hamas was very limited – if not fully stopped – during the week of the operation.
At the end of the operation, the Palestinian street in the West Bank accepted the narrative of the Hamas regime in Gaza, which claimed that Israel had been deterred from launching a ground offensive. More points are scored for Hamas.
Fatah, on the other hand, does not have much to point to in the area of achievements.
It hasn’t succeeded in setting up a Palestinian state, and its operations against Hamas in the West Bank – although motivated by domestic Palestinian self-interest – are widely seen as collaboration with Israel.
Slowly but surely, Fatah’s legitimacy and governability are eroding.
“We get to a situation where even moderate Palestinians say, ‘Hamas may believe in armed resistance and terrorism, but they are more effective. Look at what they’ve succeeded in doing.’ We’re certainly seeing that on the streets,” the source stated.
Yet another watershed was marked in December, when Hamas received permission to hold rallies in West Bank cities for the first time. “Something is going on here and it can’t be ignored,” the source added.
Israel’s security forces are continuing their fight against terrorism and maintaining their intelligence supremacy. “In the end, sooner or later, we arrest them [Hamas organizational leaders].” But, the source warned, “we’re very aware of the phenomenon [of change].”
Meanwhile, the Shin Bet recently released data that points to an unmistakable rise in the number of violent incidents across the West Bank.
In December, there were 69 firebombing in the West Bank and 30 in Jerusalem. Three members of the Israeli security forces were injured – two were stabbed in the West Bank and one was hit by a car in a deliberate attempt to run him down in Jerusalem. Additionally, there were six improvised explosive attacks and three grenades thrown. Palestinian terrorists fired on Israeli targets twice.
In total, there were 111 violent attacks in December. In November, the number of attacks in the West Bank and east Jerusalem was even higher – 166 – and included two stabbings, three improvised explosives, a grenade and 156 firebombings. In comparison, there were 70 violent incidents in October.