The fight for the West Bank

Beyond attacking Israel, will Hamas's political wing ever prevail over Fatah?

Palestinians wearing Hamas, Fatah masks 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ismail Zaydah)
Palestinians wearing Hamas, Fatah masks 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ismail Zaydah)
Over and above the IDF’s "Pillar of Defense" operation against Hamas, the Palestinian body politic itself is engaged in a fratricidal struggle for the hearts and minds of the Palestinian “man-in-the-street.”
In one corner sits the Fatah party, which controls the Palestinian Authority (PA) and is the effective government of the Palestinian area of the West Bank. Whatever his ultimate ambitions may be, its leader President Mahmoud Abbas declares himself in favour of a negotiated peace settlement with Israel based on a two-state solution.
In the other corner, in a rather more volatile and belligerent mood, crouches Hamas, which seized power in the Gaza strip in 2007 and has been the de facto government there ever since. Hamas refuses to recognise the State of Israel – and condemns any peace settlement which proposes to do just that – and further believes in a jihad designed to remove Israel from the map of the Middle East.
Fatah’s official emblem portrays crossed rifles and a hand grenade superimposed on a map of the old Mandate Palestine, with no indication of Israel’s existence.  Not surprising, perhaps, since the word “Fatah” means “conquest by means of jihad.” 
Yet Fatah and Hamas are at loggerheads—possibly to the death—for ultimate control of the Palestinian cause.
Founded in the early 1960s by Yasser Arafat, Fatah initially concentrated on terrorist raids on civilian Israeli targets.  In 1968, Fatah took over control of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (the PLO), but it was the PLO that was party to the peace negotiations that led to the Oslo Accords in 1993 and 1995.
The original idea was that the Accords would last for a five-year interim period, during which a permanent agreement would be negotiated. In fact, they are still the effective base of governance in the West Bank. 
If the PA can claim legitimacy, the same cannot be said of its president, Mahmoud Abbas.  His status is challenged – indeed denied – by Hamas.
Abbas, who became president of the PA in 2005, was elected to serve until 9 January 2009.  But as the time drew close, Fatah and Hamas were unable to agree the details of new elections. So the due date came and went, and Abbas – by diktat – extended his presidential term for a further year. 
When this second deadline also expired without further elections, the PLO simply declared that Abbas would remain president until new elections, whenever that may be.  Hamas refused to recognize this indefinite extension, and continued to disregard Abbas as a legitimate president. For their own part, the de facto government in the Gaza strip declared that acting PA president is Aziz Duwaik, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council since January 2006.  Duwaik won his spurs, in Hamas’s eyes, by having served a three-year term in an Israeli jail for his involvement with the terrorist organisation.
And still no date has been fixed for new Palestinian elections. The details of such would need to be agreed between Fatah and Hamas, and the two bodies seem further apart than ever. 
Hamas, always seeking to extend its power base beyond Gaza to the West Bank, has been emboldened by a number of factors: The Arab Spring, and especially its outcome in Egypt with the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) –of which Hamas is a progeny—boosted its confidence. Since the election of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, Hamas’s direct and indirect support of jihadist actions in Sinai and out of the Gaza strip, have increased significantly.
More recently, responsibility for the continuous barrage of rockets fired into Israel from Gaza is being claimed by a new grouping of extremist Sunni Islamists, the Mujahideen Shura Council of Jerusalem (MSC). Hamas appears content - for the moment, at least - to turn a blind eye to their activities, and those of other Salafist jihadists operating from within Gaza, since they boost Hamas's credibility with their own constituency.
Meanwhile, in the other corner, Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad are facing massive internal strife from within the West Bank. The rising cost of living caused riots to occur throughout the West Bank and dozens of police officers and civilians were injured in clashes involving several thousand protesters. Roads were blocked and the West Bank's public transport system was all but paralyzed. Palestinian security forces, who kept a low profile during the first days of demonstrations, began using teargas and stun grenades to disperse demonstrators.
Battening on these propitious signs, Hamas has recently stepped up its activities in the West Bank aimed at challenging the Fatah government, both by direct action, and perhaps via elections, if or when they eventually occur. It has been steadily infiltrating the West Bank to recruit more supporters and enhance its standing among the general population. One program, called "Kutla," spreads jihadist ideology among university students while another, “Da'wa,” is a social-aid program that is riddled with jihadist indoctrination. Only last week Israeli security forces arrested around 30 Hamas activists in the Ramallah area, suspected of heading a command cell aimed at increasing the strength of Hamas in the West Bank.
In September, the PA itself—equally opposed to Hamas’s attempts to increase its influence in the West Bank—arrested dozens of Hamas activists in the area. Mahmoud Abbas realizes that until he prevails in his struggle with Hamas, he stands on the world stage with one arm tied behind his back. When he addresses the UN General Assembly later this month seeking Palestinian sovereignty, he will be speaking only on behalf of West Bank Palestinians; as such, his writ does not run in an integral part of any future Palestinian state.  The fight against Hamas is one conflict he simply cannot afford to lose.
The paramount question for Abbas is then, how does he regain control of Gaza?
The writer is the author of “One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine” (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (