President Barak Obama’s determination to forge a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel has again raised the issue of who will rule Gaza when Operation Protective Edge winds down. The US administration has expressed optimism over the prospect of Palestinian chairman Mahmoud Abbas governing the Gaza Strip. According to The Times of Israel, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro told Channel Two news that, “At the end of this conflict, we’ll seek to help the moderate elements among the Palestinians to become stronger in Gaza,” referring to Abbas’s PA. “They might be able to run Gaza more effectively than Hamas, a terror organization.”
Optimism aside, the current Fatah-Hamas reconciliation government is a natural barrier to a prospective Fatah government in Gaza.
True, Egypt has expressed an interest in Fatah’s manning the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai, in line with the 2005 Gaza crossings agreement that had been brokered by former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Middle East observers may recall that Rice’s plan to help Fatah control Gaza ended in Hamas’ 2006 landslide presidential and parliamentary victory.
More important, recent history has reminded us that Fatah’s return to rule the Gaza Strip would likely end before it began; notwithstanding the current national unity government, Hamas-Fatah enmity is no secret. It has been described as worse than PA-Israeli relations.
Observers may remember that in 2007, Hamas’s lightning takeover of Gaza resulted in Fatah officials and activists being hurled to their deaths from Gaza rooftops. This time around, Hamas is not the sole Islamic authority in town. Aside from Hamas, competing groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, ISIS and other Salafist jihadi leaders and organizations have labeled Abbas and the Fatah as traitors for participating in the Kerry peace process from mid-2013 to April 2014. In fact Palestinian Health Minister Jawad Awad canceled a trip to Gaza City’s Shifa hospital on July 15 after protesters pelted his car with shoes and eggs as he arrived from Egypt ,through the Rafah crossing.
There is recent historical context to the current Hamas-Fatah tensions. Following Israel’s 2009 Cast Lead counter-terror operation against Hamas in Gaza, Hamas accused Fatah of complicity. Fatah was equally accusatory.
Nasser Juma’a, a Palestinian Legislative Council member from Nablus, had described Hamas as “insects” in the final week of Israel’s 2009 offensive. Hamas legislator Salah Bardaweel countered that PA chairman Abbas “played a major role” in the Israeli killing of Hamas interior minister Said Siam “through his men in the Gaza Strip, who had also pointed out the homes of Hamas members to IDF forces.”
Similar to the 2007 Mecca national unity agreement that brought Hamas under the umbrella of the PA for budgetary purposes and by which up to 12,000 Hamas terrorists received monthly salaries from the PA, today, the Fatah-led PA even under the unity pact has failed to pay Hamas salaries in Gaza. Hamas fury over PA non-payment has ratcheted up tensions between the two adversarial (but unified) Palestinian factions. According to some analysts, Hamas’s decision to strike at Israel also stemmed in large part from the Fatahbacked financial boycott.
While Hamas has brought death and destruction to Gaza, Fatah’s record of violence and chaos as former overlords of Gaza, long supported by the United States and Israel, has not been lost on local residents. Former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan – Fatah’s illustrious former preventative security chief in Gaza, may be Gaza’s most hated man. Dahlan was known as the “CIA” for driving a CIA-issue SUV through the streets of Gaza before he escaped Hamas’s “justice” following Dahlan’s failed 2007 Gaza coup. He had earned a public reputation for the hundreds of millions of dollars in fees he collected personally at crossing points in and out of Gaza in the 1990s until 2007.
In the United States, Dahlan had been embraced by the Clinton and Bush administrations.
His name has also been raised more recently as a possible successor to PA chairman Abbas. There was even a reported meeting between Dahlan and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s envoy Isaac Molcho in Dubai in early 2014.
Despite the popularity of Fatah personalities including Abbas and Dahlan in the view of some US officials and even in some Israeli circles, the Fatah will most likely decline to rule Gaza. Fatah is well aware, as it was on the eve of the 2006 Palestinian elections, that the Palestinian public, both in Gaza and the West Bank, tend to see Fatah as a weak and corrupt regime that is propped up and fed hundreds of millions of dollars annually by the US, Europe and Israel. It remains to be seen how the current Hamas terror campaign and counter-terror operation by Israel will impact on Hamas’s popularity on the Palestinian street. However, Fatah’s reputation as a US agency will be enough of an impetus for Abbas and his failing Fatah party to remain in the Palestinian-controlled areas of Judea and Samaria/West Bank – where Fatah’s rule becomes equally less certain with each passing week.
The author is a Research Fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC, Herzliya.