Last week, a few important misconceptions were shattered when an extensive Hamas terror ring operating covertly in the West Bank was discovered: First, that the territories are a bastion of law and order, second, that Fatah retains effective control over the area, and finally that the potential for a Hamas takeover of the West Bank is just not possible.
The sting operation, which was conducted jointly by the Shin Bet, IDF and Israeli Police, resulted in the exposure of 13 active terror cells and the arrest of dozens of Hamas members.
The extent of the terror cells’ network was startling: a complex, international operation conducting extensive financing, money laundering, intelligence and weapons smuggling operations. The terror cell was plotting several attacks on Israel and was responsible for the Jerusalem bombing which left 47 injured and one dead in March of this year. Future attacks were to include suicide bombings in Jerusalem neighborhoods, kidnappings, and shooting attacks throughout the West Bank and Israel.
The Palestinian Authority, with a certain questionable audacity, condemned the raids against Israel for attacks that were being plotted right under their noses. Should we have assumed that Palestinian security raids on these cells were forthcoming? The PA associated the raids to “failed intelligence efforts” in relation to the recent attacks in the south. One doesn’t have to read to deeply to find the fallacy in that assertion.
If the PA security forces were truly unaware of the massive terror plot in Hebron - long considered Hamas’ stronghold in the West Bank – that certainly doesn’t bode well for their security apparatus or intelligence capabilities. How much relief should we feel that the PA cannot control the subversive elements in its midst? Is such responsibility no to be expected from an entity which is lobbying aggressively for statehood?
If anyone had doubts before about the seriousness of the threats emanating from the West Bank, or the potential implications of democratic elections following any future implemented Fatah-Hamas unity deal, it has become quite clear: the West Bank is not a rosy sanctuary of peace and stability. Moreover, we’ve witnessed another troubling indicator that the Palestinian Authority is either incompetent or unwilling to deal with these threats directly. As long as the PA refuses to assert authority over its own population, their credibility to lead an effective bid for statehood and adhere to requirements of international law must be scrutinized.
The recent raids show that Hamas is attempting to regenerate its military strength in the West Bank. For the past several years, the organization’s leaders have been targeted, arrested and killed by Israeli and PA security forces, considerably weakening their strength and influence in the area. Such oppression hasn’t been lost on the Hamas leadership, many of whom refuse to support the PA’s UN bid for statehood. While the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal is effectively dead, an internal struggle for power and influence rages on between the Palestinian factions.
Hamas’ political influence in the West Bank and Gaza hasn’t diminished either, as the group remains extremely popular in the eyes of the Palestinian population. Only two weeks ago, The Israel Project took a poll of Hamas support in the West Bank and Gaza and found that 80% of Palestinians strongly supported the organization. It’s no surprise that the PA isn’t rushing to hold general elections, which were initially to be held on May 4th, 2011, but were postponed due to the unresolved Fatah-Hamas rift.
Logistically, a full-fledged Hamas military takeover of the West Bank isn’t feasible at this time. Travel restrictions on movement between Gaza and the West Bank, combined with heavy suppression of the organization by IDF and PA forces, ensure that Hamas’ forces aren’t capable of challenging the established authority there...for now. However, The prospect still remains viable, whether through democratic or military means, in the not-so-distant future - after statehood has been granted or a peace agreement between Israel and the PA is achieved. The implications of such a takeover are expansive, and deserve consideration from both the Israeli government and world leaders alike.
Several Hamas leaders, including the movement’s spokesperson Mahmoud al-Zahar, have stated that if Israel left the West Bank, than Hamas would indeed attempt to establish authority there. Back in 2007, al-Zahar stated, “Israel says the party in Ramallah (Fatah) serves Israel, and if Israel quits the West Bank, Hamas will take it over. And we say this is true.” In 2010, President Mahmoud Abbas revealed to Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Siyassa
that he possessed “verified information” that Hamas was planning for an eventual takeover of the West Bank.
Another important detail must be addressed about the situation in the West Bank: virtually every major terrorist attack that has occurred – indeed, anywhere in Israel - in 2011 was committed by Hamas, rocket and mortar fire not withstanding. Even skirmishes between Hamas and Fatah have turned deadly, such as in 2009 when a gunfight erupted between Fatah security forces and Hamas’ militants, leaving several members of each group killed during an arrest attempt conducted by the PA.
Skeptics of this analysis will be hard pressed to find a security expert or military authority that will disagree with the fact that the PA security apparatus is ill-equipped to deal with Hamas, especially if Israel were to withdrawal from the West Bank – an arrangement guaranteed to be included in any future peace deal with the Palestinians, save perhaps for some minor adjustments. While issuing the condemnations and rhetorical denunciations, secretly some PA leaders realize the severe consequences of prematurely ejecting the IDF from the West Bank, despite appearances to the contrary.
This Friday, Mahmoud Abbas is slated to present the UN
with the Palestinians official request for statehood, including details about the PA’s successes in public financial management, law and order and local governance. Unfortunately, those successes are dependent on the continued stability of the West Bank, which is far from assured after the establishment of a Palestinian state and general elections. Hamas’ strength is growing, and after real, inclusive Palestinian autonomy is realized, the institutions the PA has worked so hard to build may very well fall to a group that is committed in its fight against true democracy and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike.The writer is an independent journalist and political commentator on Middle East affairs. He holds degrees from Cornell University and Tel Aviv University, is an IDF combat reservist and is co-founder of www.israelicentrism.com