(photo credit: AP)
Over 80,000 illegal weapons are believed to be in the hands of West Bank terrorists, according to the IDF's latest assessments of the ongoing power struggle between Hamas and Fatah.
The weapons are mostly held in private homes or hidden in caches throughout Judea and Samaria.
According to the latest assessment, and contrary to earlier predictions, defense officials told The Jerusalem Post this week that Hamas was just as strong as Fatah in the West Bank and could pose a genuine threat to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's security forces.
On Monday, the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper reported that Fatah security forces had recently thwarted an attempted coup in the PA by Hamas.
Hamas had tried establishing a military force in the West Bank similar to its Executive Force in the Gaza Strip, which then planned to attack PA institutions and take over the government, according to the report. "They have weapons and explosives and, more importantly, they are highly motivated," a senior defense official said.
According to the official, Hamas is currently in a "waiting period" and is trying to unite some of its splinter groups spread throughout the various West Bank cities, with terrorist hubs in the northern Samaria cities of Nablus and Jenin.
Earlier this year, the IDF foiled plans by Hamas to create a military force in the West Bank like the Executive Force that took over the Gaza Strip from Fatah in June.
According to a high-ranking IDF officer, Hamas tried uniting all of its factions across the West Bank but failed due to IDF preemptive action. Since then, Hamas has focused on infiltrating its men into the ranks of PA security branches - the Palestinian Police and the National Security Force.
While Fatah is currently better organized and is in control of the official PA security forces in the West Bank, the Israeli defense establishment is concerned that when Hamas launches its coup attempt, Fatah force will collapse just like they did in Gaza. There, Fatah had four times the men Hamas did, a defense official said.
For this reason, senior officials in the defense establishment have voiced opposition to a plan recently raised by the US security coordinator to the region Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton according to which Abbas needs an additional five battalions in the West Bank to counter the growing Hamas threat.
"It is not about manpower," the official said, "but about motivating the Fatah forces to want to fight and defend the PA."
The IDF Central Command believes that Abbas's time is running out and that in the coming months Hamas will try to topple his government in the West Bank and attempt to take over the PA security branches and institutions. Last week, PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad announced that his government had closed down 103 welfare and charitable institutions connected to Hamas in an effort to impair the Islamist group's financial capabilities.
The IDF has decided to take a number of steps to assist Abbas in motivating his men to fight if and when Hamas attempts its takeover.
According to defense officials, quality of life in the West Bank is an important factor in motivating PA security forces. As a result, the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria is working on a number of ways to ease travel restrictions for PA security personnel.
Ahead of the upcoming hajj, which begins in mid-December, the civil administration is also examining ways to ease restrictions on Palestinians in general who want to travel abroad.
"The security forces need to feel that they have a reason to fight," a defense official said. "They need to feel like they have a better life to look forward to. Otherwise, they will not pose a challenge to Hamas."