Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s visit on Sunday to Ramallah is yet another sign of improved relations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority.
The visit, however, has also derailed any hope of resolving the dispute between the PA and its archrival, Hamas, in the foreseeable future. In fact, the meeting between Gantz and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has exacerbated tensions between the two Palestinian factions.
Hamas was one of the first Palestinian groups to strongly condemn the visit by the “Zionist minister of war” to Ramallah. A number of Hamas officials accused Abbas of “stabbing the Palestinians in the back” and “betraying the blood of the Palestinian martyrs.”
A Palestinian official dismissed the charges as “idiotic” and accused Hamas of working to serve the agenda of “foreign powers” in the region, an apparent reference to Iran and Qatar. The serious accusations mean the split between the PA-ruled West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is likely to continue, at least as long as Abbas is in power.
The rivalry between Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas reached its peak in 2007 when the Islamist movement violently seized control of the Gaza Strip after removing the PA from power.
Abbas has never forgiven Hamas for the humiliation. Worse, he is convinced that Hamas was behind a plot to assassinate him in the Gaza Strip.
Over the past 14 years, several attempts by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to achieve reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas have failed.
Last year, Fatah and Hamas seemed close to burying the hatchet when they announced they had reached an agreement, under the auspices of Egypt, to hold long-overdue elections for the PA presidency and parliament, as well as the PLO’s legislative body, the Palestinian National Council.
But Abbas’s decision in April to call off the elections again put Fatah and Hamas on a collision course. Since Abbas’s announcement, tensions between the two groups have been intensifying.
After the 11-day Israel-Hamas war in May, strains between the two sides further escalated, especially in light of the mass pro-Hamas demonstrations that swept many parts of the West Bank.
Several Palestinians who participated in the demonstrations were arrested or beaten by Palestinian security officers in the West Bank. Additionally, Fatah and Hamas have been unable to reach agreement on who would be responsible for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the war.
THE HONEYMOON between Fatah and Hamas was credited to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former US president Donald Trump. Last year, Fatah and Hamas even reached agreement to work together to topple Trump’s plan for Middle East peace, also known as the “Deal of the Century,” and Netanyahu’s “schemes” against the Palestinians.
Netanyahu and Trump managed, where some Arab leaders had failed, to unite the Palestinian rival parties.
Things have since changed, however, and neither Netanyahu nor Trump is in power. The absence of the two men from the political scene and the change of government in Jerusalem and Washington paved the way for the restoration of relations between the PA and Israel and the US.
Abbas has reached the conclusion that he has more to gain from dealing with the new governments in Israel and the US than from making peace with Hamas. The Biden administration has resumed financial aid to the Palestinians and is talking about the need to strengthen the PA, and this is precisely what Abbas wants to hear.
Similarly, the new Israeli government has already changed its attitude toward Abbas and the PA. At the behest of the Biden administration, the government has announced a series of gestures to strengthen the Palestinian economy and improve the living conditions of the Palestinians.
The Israeli measures could help Abbas and the PA leadership in the short term. But in the long term, the gestures are not going to change the hearts and minds of most Palestinians toward Israel. Nor will these gestures assist Abbas in regaining credibility among his own constituents.
Gantz traveled to Ramallah with one mission: to strengthen the PA and its leaders. The visit, however, could also be seen as a bear hug for the 85-year-old Abbas. It is no wonder that the PA leadership refused to publish any photos of the meeting. Abbas is well aware that a photo op with the “Zionist minister of war” would cause great damage by making him appear as a “subcontractor” for the Israeli security establishment.
Abbas has long been facing sharp criticism because of his support for security coordination between the PA and Israeli security forces in the West Bank. About six years ago, Abbas drew strong condemnation from many Palestinians when he was quoted as telling a group of Israelis he considered security coordination to be “sacred.”
Abbas’s political enemies, including Hamas, are now exploiting the Gantz-Abbas meeting to incite against the PA leadership. Their main argument is that Abbas has chosen to align himself with the Israelis and Americans instead of working to reunite the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and end his conflict with Hamas.
And indeed, this seems to be the case.
LAST WEEK, a document leaked to Palestinian media revealed that Abbas had made it clear he will not allow Hamas to join any Palestinian unity government unless the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip accepts all international resolutions pertaining to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
This means Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist and accept the two-state solution as a precondition for joining any Palestinian government – a demand that has been vehemently and repeatedly rejected by Hamas officials. The leaked document set off a war of words between Fatah and Hamas, with each accusing the other of foiling efforts to achieve national unity.
For now, Abbas and the PA leadership appear satisfied with the policies and measures of the Biden administration and the Israeli government. A senior PA official on Tuesday praised the recent agreements with Israel, especially family reunifications and financial matters, as a significant achievement.
Earlier, Palestinian officials said they were satisfied with the new approach of the Biden administration, namely to strengthen the PA.
The three men running the PA – Abbas, Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh and General Intelligence chief Majed Faraj – are all known for their hostility toward Hamas. They have decided the Palestinians are better off dealing with the Biden administration and the government of Naftali Bennett than joining forces with Hamas.•