Analysis: For Hamas, current terror wave is opportunity not to be missed

With popularity of Palestinian Authority President Abbas at new low, Gaza-based Palestinian Islamists hope to gain politically.

Ismail Haniyeh talks to his supporters during a Hamas rally in Gaza City (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ismail Haniyeh talks to his supporters during a Hamas rally in Gaza City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
GAZA - The studio of Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV is decorated with slogans praising the "knife intifada" against Israel. Video clips and rousing songs glorify the daily attacks, while the presenters all wear black-and-white Keffiyeh scarves.
If this message wasn't clear enough, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader in Gaza, visited the studio recently and added his own slogan to the wall, scrawling "The Al-Quds Intifada" - the Jerusalem Uprising - in spray paint.
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For Hamas, the Islamist group that has controlled Gaza since 2007, this month's surge in violence across Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank is an opportunity not to be missed.
While most of the stabbings and other attacks that have killed 11 Israelis were carried out by Palestinians acting on their own accord, rather than with political backing, Hamas wants to tap into the popular anger to bolster its cause.
Its rival political movement, Fatah, based in the West Bank and headed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, has quietly accepted the violence and used traditional language to praise the 55 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces as "martyrs."
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But Hamas has been far more explicit in its call for a new intifada like those of the past. Its aim, analysts say, is a mass uprising across the West Bank that strengthens its foothold there and leaves it as the dominant Palestinian political force.
That, they say, in turn might force the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, the quasi-governmental body headed by Abbas, and put an end to the 1990s interim peace accords, which have not led to a negotiated accord on Palestinian statehood.
"Hamas's strategy is to spark an intifada in the West Bank and it has sought to do so by every possible means," said Hamza Abu Shanab, an expert on the group. "It has pumped money in and restructured its ranks there to prepare for an uprising."
A survey last month showed nearly two-thirds of Palestinians want Abbas, who has been in power for 10 years, to resign. It also pointed to rising support for armed resistance against Israel over negotiations, and that Hamas was gaining on Fatah, with voters evenly split over who to back.
After a month of violence, and few signs of it dying down, Hamas is hoping to tip the balance decisively in its favor.
Hani Habib, a writer and analyst in Gaza, sees Hamas trying to use the violence to undermine the Palestinian Authority and end the internal division that began in 2007 by "spreading their control all over the West Bank and Gaza."
For Abbas and Fatah, the challenge is to show solidarity with youth spontaneously spearheading the violence while not letting it spill over into something they cannot control or that prompts Israel to further tighten its grip on the West Bank.
"We want an objective popular resistance that is connected to political goals," said Fatah spokesman Osama al-Qawasme.
The aim, he said, was to end Israel's 48-year occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which Palestinians seek for an independent state together with Gaza, from where Israel withdrew settlers and soldiers in 2005.
If the violence worsens, said Hani al-Masri, a political analyst based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, "Hamas will be the biggest beneficiary."
For Abbas, the hope is that international engagement - there were visits to the region by the UN secretary general and the US secretary of state last week - will bolster his standing and show Palestinians he can deliver some measure of progress, even more than 18 months after the last talks on Palestinian statehood collapsed.
"(If) the current wave of (violence) begins to shrink, that would achieve for the president and Fatah what they wanted," said Masri, emphasizing that the outcome remained unclear.