Operation Breaking Dawn ended after three days of fighting between Israel and the Islamic Jihad as Jerusalem crediting it with a military and mental achievement. Even if the achievement does not change the complex reality in the Gaza Strip, it does influence the internal balance of power in the Palestinian arena itself.
Hamas chose not to join the Islamic Jihad and denied it the long-awaited achievement for it: “the unity of the arenas” and by not joining, it aided its military and psychological downfall. The PA became silent. Besides issuing statements of condemnation and a request to convene the Security Council, it had no effect on what was happening.
However, Israel’s choice to allow Hamas to remain on the fence weakens a very significant element of Israel’s strategy towards the Gaza Strip in recent years, the element of Hamas’s absolute responsibility for everything that happens there. Israel preferred to follow the principle it established because, in its estimation, Hamas staying out of the military campaign enabled a short, efficient, and targeted campaign on the one hand and reducing the extent of the damage and casualties given a broad campaign with the participation of Hamas on the other hand.
The defeat of the Islamic Jihad plays into the hands of Hamas. Hamas was challenged by the Islamic Jihad and could have been dragged into a military campaign that it did not want, and which was to harm its ability to promote vital interests in its view at this time. Now that the Islamic Jihad is weakened and beaten, it will be easier for Hamas to control the organization’s moves and thwart escalation moves while at the same time ensuring its leadership and control over the Gaza Strip. In fact, Israel and Egypt, in a coordinated and agreed-upon course, turned Hamas from a problem into a solution.
By entrusting the responsibility for strict observance of the cease-fire agreement and the restraint of the Islamic Jihad, Israel and Egypt strengthened the position of Hamas as sovereign and as a significant and influential player in the Palestinian arena. In doing so, Israel deepens the differentiation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, between Hamas and the PA, and given the zero-sum game between the two, the strengthening of Hamas necessarily means the weakening of the PA.
The weakening process of the PA is reflected in the limited capacity, to the point of nonexistence, of the Palestinian security mechanisms in the Jenin area and their limited capacity in the Nablus area. The weakening of the PA is also illustrated by its reduced relevance in the Hebron region, where the orientation towards the Bedouin tribes in southern Jordan and the strengthening of traditional and tribal mechanisms of conflict resolution is becoming stronger.
Its weakness is even manifested in Ramallah, a stronghold of the PA, where a document signed by Hanan Ashrawi and Nasser Al-Qudwa was recently circulated calling for the looting of systems in the Palestinian political space, with the PA being the main object of criticism.
The weakness of the PA is also reflected in the test of public support and legitimacy for its very existence, these are steadily eroding among the Palestinian public. The economic reality and the financial stability of the PA are also on the decline, and all of this is clouded by the strengthening of Hamas even in the shadow of the latest operation. The PA demonstrates its vitality in the continuation of the political struggle in Israel in the international arena and in the effort to preserve the ethos of the popular resistance. All of this is reflected, among other things, in the continuation of the incitement, the curricula, the statements of the Palestinian leaders and the insistence on continuing to pay high salaries to prisoners and the families of terrorists.
The continuing and increasing weakening of the PA places Israel in front of a strategic trap. Even in the absence of a political process, a strong and functioning PA is a distinct Israeli interest, one that can properly take care of the population of approximately 2.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and whose security mechanisms will be able to exercise a monopoly on violence and fight the terrorist organizations with determination and efficiency and disarm the armed militias.
For this purpose, Israel is required to support the PA both economically, in its security and politically. In doing so, Israel will work to weaken Hamas, especially in the West Bank, which is the most significant threat to the survival of the PA. However, the political determination of the political echelon in Israel exists in a relatively limited way and the willingness of the PA to assist Israel is even more reserved and hesitant, among other things, because of the fear of the public’s reaction and the opponents of the Authority, led by Hamas, who will rush to accuse it of collaborating with the occupier.
What comes in the future?
THE WEAKNESS of the PA may deteriorate into a more chaotic reality in the day after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and in the struggle for his succession. In the reality of an apparent status quo – actually a reality that changes for the worse every day in view of Israel’s strategic interests – Israel may find itself facing an even more complex difficulty in the absence of a functioning PA and in a chaotic, unstable and probably violent reality. Therefore, Israel’s likely choice is political rather than security disengagement from the Palestinians.
This is a move that can change the equation not only vis-à-vis the Palestinians but also vis-à-vis the US and the international community, placing Israel in more favorable and safer conditions when it comes to its essential strategic interests. However, when under the conditions of the political system in Israel there is no political leadership that can carry out such a move, Israel faces a strategic limbo. This requires courageous leadership on the Israeli side that knows how to make difficult policy decisions vis-à-vis the PA while maintaining Israel’s strategic security assets and curbing the binational state option.
Dr. Kobi Michael is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) based at Tel Aviv University.
Dr. Ori Wertman is a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) based at Tel Aviv University and a research fellow at the University of South Wales, UK.