(photo credit: AP [file])
The arrest on Wednesday night of several Hamas ministers and legislators in the West Bank by the IDF could signal the beginning of the end of Hamas's six-month rule. But this does not necessarily mean that the rival Fatah party will return to power in the near future.
The arrests are seen by some Palestinian analysts as a severe blow to Hamas, which is likely to lose its control over many important decision-making bodies and other institutions, first and foremost the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Now that half of the Hamas cabinet ministers and lawmakers (from the West Bank) are in prison and the other half (from the Gaza Strip) are in hiding, the work of the government and parliament has effectively been crippled.
For the first time since the signing of the Oslo Accords and the establishment of a Palestinian government, the Palestinians have been left without a government and parliament. At this stage, it's hard to see how anyone could fill the power vacuum.
The new situation, where the central government is almost non-existent, is likely to boost the standing of various militias and warlords in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Not that the Hamas government really had much power and influence over what was happening on the ground. But at least it was looked upon by many Palestinians as an address for their complaints and grievances.
For Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party, the fact that the Hamas leaders are either behind bars or in hiding is not necessarily good news. True, Hamas and Fatah have been engaged in a severe and ugly power struggle over the past few months - one that has claimed the lives of at least 25 Palestinians - but the Fatah leaders would have preferred to see the Hamas government brought down by Palestinians and not Israelis.
IRONICALLY, THE Israeli campaign against Hamas is most likely to bolster the movement's popularity and rally more Palestinians behind it. Under such circumstances, Abbas and his Fatah lieutenants won't be able to exploit the situation and try to return to power. If they nevertheless make an attempt to fill the vacuum by taking over the parliament and ministries, they will be condemned as "collaborators" who have conspired with Israel against a democratically elected government.
"The rules of the game have now changed," commented a Hamas official in Ramallah shortly after learning about the arrest of many of his colleagues. "Now that the elected leaders of the Palestinians are in prison, there will be more anarchy and lawlessness in the Palestinian territories. If the Israelis and Americans think that such a move will bring back to power Fatah warlords and corrupt officials like Muhammed Dahlan and Nabil Shaath, they are mistaken."
The crackdown on Hamas has also shattered Abbas's efforts to reach some kind of an understanding with Hamas over the formation of a "national unity government."
For weeks, Abbas has been trying to persuade the political leadership of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to sign a document drafted by some Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails which some Palestinians regard as implicitly recognizing Israel's right to exist.
On Tuesday, while efforts to release kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit were underway, representatives of Fatah and Hamas announced, in a surprise move, that they had finally reached an "agreement" over the controversial document.
The two parties created drama by declaring that the agreement would be signed by Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh by Wednesday morning. Within hours, however, it transpired that the two sides were still negotiating about certain articles of the document, especially with regard to the future of "resistance" attacks against Israel.
While Fatah wants the "resistance" to be limited to the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, Hamas says it is prepared to accept a new formula according to which the attacks would be "focused" on the territories captured by Israel in 1967. In other words, Hamas does not want to sign an agreement that would tie its hands and prevent it from carrying terrorist attacks inside Israel proper in the future.
The kidnapping of Shalit places Abbas in an extremely difficult situation, particularly since there seems to be a semi-consensus among the Palestinians that this was a legitimate operation against a military target.
Even some of Abbas's top Fatah leaders have privately welcomed Sunday's attack on an IDF post near the southern border with the Gaza Strip, saying it came in response to Israeli "atrocities."
The Palestinian media, which is controlled by Abbas, has refused to refer to Shalit's case as a kidnapping. Instead, Palestinian journalists and spokesman use the word asr [taken prisoner] to drive home the message that the soldier was captured in war.
Abbas's predicament has also been exacerbated by the growing pressure from the Palestinian street not to release the soldier unless Israel frees thousands of Palestinian prisoners. Ever since the abduction, families of Palestinian prisoners have been holding daily rallies and protests in several parts of the West Bank and Gaza to demand the release of their sons in exchange for Shalit. The families have since been joined by representatives of Abbas's Fatah party and other groups.