Hamas vs. Fatah vs. Israel

Hamas may have bested Fatah in the Schalit prisoner exchange round, but Israel must now decide how to play its cards.

Abbas greets prisoners 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini)
Abbas greets prisoners 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Abed Omar Qusini)
On the fateful October day on which IDF soldier Gilad Shalit was freed from Hamas captivity in exchange for the eventual release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, green became the dominant color in the Gaza Strip, in the West Bank, and even parts of East Jerusalem.
Green Hamas flags flew from rooftops in the Jabal Mukabir, Sur Baher, Silwan and Isawwiya neighborhoods of the capital, where hundreds celebrated the release of six East Jerusalem residents as part of the deal. In the West Bank, Palestinians who have kept their Hamas sympathies in the closet in recent years also trotted them out with pride, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas greeted prisoners, many of whom were wearing green Hamas headbands, most of them adorned with the Islamic statement of faith and sometimes with the words “Qassam Brigades” as well.
And in Gaza, tens of thousands gathered for a huge rally in western Gaza City to honor the released prisoners alongside senior Hamas leaders – including Ismail Haniyeh, Mahmoud a-Zahar, and even Hamas military commander Ahmad Jabari, who usually stays out of the limelight. But amid this Hamas-fest, there were also some unexpected flashes of yellow – the color of the Fatah flag.
Several dozen Fatah flags were carried by women who participated in the mass rally – an interesting development. Until recently, Hamas forbade Gazans from flying the Fatah flag anywhere and from carrying any other Fatah-related symbols, such as photos of Yasser Arafat.
All of which begs the question: What is the significance of the Shalit deal for intra-Palestinian relations? And what will the repercussions be in terms of the tense and troubled dynamic between the two main Palestinian players – Fatah and Hamas – vis-à-vis Israel? It seems that although the Israeli public is convinced that the deal has been an enormous gift, which will bolster the power of Islamic Hamas at the expense of their rivals in the secular Fatah movement, experts on Palestinian affairs draw a far more complex picture of relations between the two and their approach to dealing with Israel.The V-sign that was held up by victorious Palestinians being released from Israeli jails and the usual bragging Hamas rhetoric should be taken with a grain of salt, says Ido Zelkovitz, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the University of Haifa. He explains to The Jerusalem Report that Hamas only sanctioned this deal due to its weakness and desperation, being unable to lift Israel’s siege on Gaza or meet the demands of a frustrated population.
“There are at least two important aspects to their achievement,” Zelkovitz notes.
“Naturally Hamas will stress that this is an achievement of armed struggle, since Abu Mazen [Abbas] wasn’t able to close the prisoners release deal by peaceful means. Also, the prisoners issue is one of the most important for Palestinians, since almost every family has or had someone in Israeli prisons, and this deal included not only Hamas prisoners, but also activists of Fatah, Islamic Jihad and PFLP [the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine].”
This shows, he says, that Hamas cares for all and not just for its own. At the same time, it also demonstrates that Hamas has been trying to prove that it has achieved something significant since winning parliamentary elections in January 2006 and wresting control of Gaza in June 2007.
“It effectively proves that Hamas provides a wide umbrella to all the prisoners and their problems. But let’s not forget that it’s the relative weakness of Hamas, whose popularity is in decline and who now has a major problem in the Arab arena – since its closest allies in Syria are fighting for their lives – that forced them to reach this deal,” Zelkovitz posits. “In the short-term they are seen as victors. But what will happen next? The human memory is ungrateful, as we know. People tend to forget about this kind of event in the long-term.”
Mkhaimar Abusada, professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, says that for the next two months – until the second set of the prisoners are released – Hamas will indulge itself with celebrations.
However, if nothing changes on the ground, this “achievement” will go in vain.
“Did Hamas grow stronger? We haven’t measured Hamas’s popularity following the prisoner exchange, so we don’t know for a fact that Hamas is now much stronger than before,” Abusada tells The Report.
“We know that for the last four or five years, its popularity has declined. It has been widely blamed by the population for the siege that devastated our lives and the economy. Also, Hamas wasn’t able to organize significant numbers of its supporters to participate in mass rallies like before, and this is also an indication as to what is happening on the ground.”
Hamas can only ride the air of celebration for so long, Abusada warns. It could continue until mid-December, when the next and final batch of prisoners is released, but then what? Little else will have changed, he says.
“There is no freedom of movement and the siege is still here – so where is the big achievement? Only if the siege is fully lifted can one expect a change in public opinion vis-à-vis Hamas; otherwise it will be a short-lived popularity,” Abusada concludes.
He adds, however, that Palestinians are impressed with Hamas in at least one respect – that it was able to hold Schalit captive for as long as it did, confounding Israeli hopes and expectations that with proper information, a bold rescue mission could be executed.
“The people respect Hamas since they were able to hide Schalit for five years in such secrecy that even the Israelis didn’t know exactly where he was. Of course, everyone knows that Israel is a strong country and that it didn’t get any weaker due to this deal, but there is a certain sentiment of respect towards Hamas also,” he says.
In Bethlehem, where mo re Fatah flags and wall graffiti can be seen nowadays than in any other city in the West Bank, Dr. Nabil Kukali, the founder and director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, says that although the prisoner issue is indeed high on the agenda of the average Palestinian, the most important issue is peace and coexistence with Israel.
“In all of our latest polls, the majority of the Palestinians consistently say that they are interested in getting back to negotiations and to move forward for a peace deal, not a prisoner exchange deal,” Kukali tells The Report.
But given the complex Palestinian reality of internal conflict and division, is it possible that Hamas will be ready to give up its militant ideology for the sake of peace negotiations between Israel and the PA? Gershon Baskin, the founder of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, who has established an extraordinary relationship with Hamas leaders and, in fact, opened a direct track between Hamas and Israeli negotiators over the summer, believes that the core ideology of the Islamist movement has not changed.
“I don’t think Hamas is ready to sit at the negotiating table with Israel and discuss borders,” Baskin tells The Report.
“However, it is ready for a prolonged cease-fire with Israel. There are some moderate groups inside the movement who believe that this tactic will serve their cause much better. After all, Gaza paid a heavy price for Schalit’s kidnapping and ultimately for this deal. A few thousand people were killed and the siege is not yet over. So the victory has been very expensive and Hamas is conscious that it is accountable to the people,” says Baskin.
So Hamas might not be the winner in the long-term, but it’s obvious that it certainly is savoring its 15 minutes of fame, while Abbas is desperately trying to put on display again his own achievements at the United Nations. On October 18, during Abbas’s photo-op with the prisoners, whose release he had not managed to secure, the feeling of strain and tension in the room was palpable.
But as Abbas has put it himself, life wasn’t going to stop on September 23 – the day that he addressed the General Assembly – and nor would it come to a halt on October 18, the day of the Schalit exchange.
Nowadays, the rais – Arabic for president – is determined to move along with his UN gambit for statehood, which unlike the prisoner deal is a long-term process whose success cannot be instantly measured.
Zelkovitz, the Haifa political scientist, believes that Abbas still enjoys a great deal of support and influence on the Palestinian street. He warns people against hurrying to write Abbas’s political epitaph.
“He is still very powerful. In fact, he is the only Middle Eastern leader who didn’t witness any angry rallies calling for his toppling. His popularity has only grown. But at some point he will also have to present his people with some results in terms of political progress as well as the release of prisoners, since this issue is so high now on the agenda,” Zelkovitz says. He argues that if, during the next two years, Abbas does not succeed in accomplishing some kind of achievement, it will further complicate the situation on the ground.
“If Israel loses Abbas, it will find itself in a circle of violence once again and it won’t find anybody accountable,” he warns.
The problem is also that Abbas has not progressed on the Palestinian reconciliation track. “There are major difficulties and deep rifts, and I don’t believe that the parties nowadays can simply negotiate and put an end to this rift.
I think we’ve entered the era of conflict management, not conflict resolution,” explains Abusada.
Baskin is similarly convinced that the time is not ripe for reconciliation, since Abbas is not ready to move in this direction.
The Palestinian political scene remains a tinderbox. It is boiling with conflicts, ambitions and resentments, while both Fatah and Hamas try to gain extra credit by releasing prisoners or by undertaking bold political moves at the UN . Reconciliation is not a part of Palestinian reality for now, although Khaled Mashaal, the head of the Hamas Politburo had recently suggested holding another meeting with “Brother Abu Mazen in Cairo.”
How should Israel act inside this minefield of conflicting interests and security threats? Most experts interviewed by The Report agree that Israel should avoid getting in the middle of the internal Palestinian struggle, which will leave it vulnerable to being accused of meddling and trying to control the Palestinians’ future, the very antithesis of self-determination. Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad and the head of the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, says that the more Israel tries to decide for the Palestinians who should govern them, the more it will backfire.
“I believe that Israel should talk to the Palestinian leaders, especially if they become united. But if they won’t come as one, then Israel will have to talk to those who represent part of the Palestinians,” he tells The Report. “It’s important to remember that Israel now no longer conditions negotiations with Abu Mazen [Abbas] on the annulment of the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. So I believe that we should use this moment to reassess our options and possibilities, to see whether things have changed on the ground or not.
“We’ve heard a few statements by Hamas leaders lately, and one of the voices belongs to Mahmoud a-Zahar, who said that he would be happier if the release of the prisoners would be a part of an agreement, not a deal. What does it mean exactly? Israel should at least explore these possibilities, and not reject them all at once,” says Halevy.
Baskin believes that a lot of changes are taking place in both the West Bank and Gaza, and it would be wise to explore and to use these opportunities. “Hamas is now looking for favors from Egypt.
Its leadership is attempting to relocate from Damascus to Cairo. It could mean that Hamas is getting closer to Egypt and further away from Iran. However, I don’t hold high hopes for the Quartet efforts to bring the Palestinians and the Israelis back to negotiations at this point.”
Some observers argue that given the internal Palestinian stalemate, along with other concerns such as the Arab Spring, US President Barack Obama’s preoccupation with domestic re-election politics and the international community’s focus on global economic problems, few players have the time and wherewithal to make an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In that case, Israel is the only actor who is capable of moving things on the ground.
This is a window of opportunity that Israel should seize before it closes, argues Shaul Mishal, author of “Palestinian Hamas” and professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. He believes that if Israel does not prove itself to be innovative and bold at this significant moment, it will lose its leverage over other regional actors and will not be able to shape the course of events in the Palestinian-Israeli arena.
“Hamas is a part of the Palestinian narrative, and the Schalit deal emphasized this fact. Israel can no longer negotiate exclusively with one party or the other. It should have contacts with both parties, and go at times with Hamas, and at times with Fatah,” he asserts to The Report.
The entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he adds, has become more of a regional affair than it has been in many years, with multiple actors and multi-level connections.
“Hamas is getting closer to Egypt. At the same time Jordan is watching the scene and is allowing Hamas to get closer as well,” Mishal says.
“Every country wants to have a say on the Palestinian issue. If Israel does not adopt some kind of initiative, it will find itself pushed to unwanted directions by other players and will not be able to shape the geopolitical space between the sea and the river,” Mishal concludes.