international analysis and commentary

The Hamas attack’s impact in the Palestinian political arena

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The day after the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7th, the silence in the West Bank from the Palestinian Authority (PA) was deafening. Both the PA’s President and Prime Minister – belonging to the traditional Fatah political movement – seemed as shocked as the Israelis by the unprecedented assault and the death toll, but preferred not to react. Meanwhile, the Palestinian population, though neither fully backing terrorism nor Hamas, was pervaded by a thrill of excitement over the idea that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Israel’s extensive security system had been struck and proven vulnerable.

A street in Gaza City on November 27, 2023

 

However, immediately following the attack, it was clear that the PA-ruled West Bank would not join the war for a number of reasons. These included the swift deployment in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) by the Shin Bet (Israel’s internal security services), the PA-Israel security cooperation and the hostility of the Fatah circles towards Hamas and the Iranian-led Islamic Jihad armed resistance strategy, which had temporarily but visibly switched the power struggle in the Palestinian arena in their favor. In fact, in the following weeks, despite advocating for a ceasefire, President Mahmoud Abbas would publicly blame Hamas, though rejecting its terrorist labelling, for putting the people of Gaza at risk. In return, Hamas would blame the PA for pre-emptively arresting those Palestinians willing to join the fight in security coordination with Israel and doing little to fend off Jerusalem in diplomatic for a such as the UN. Altogether, bilateral relations between the two parties had never hit rock bottom as during the current war.

Indeed, it seems that, notwithstanding the tactical win on October 7th, the long-term strategic goals of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance movement – putting the Palestinian cause back at the center of the international agenda, disrupting the ongoing “Normalization deal” between Saudi Arabia and Israel, even possibly blowing up the entire architecture of the Abraham Accords, generating pan-Arab support both from the so-called “Arab street” and the region’s governments, receiving military support from other forces of the “Resistance’s axis”, freeing all Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails, and finally redrawing Middle East relations by sidelining Israel – have yet not been achieved. Among them, only the first objective has been attained. While the Abraham Accords’ future seems stalled, but not inevitably compromised, broad support has surely come from the Arab street, but not as much from the Arab capitals and the Arab League representing them. Lebanese Hezbollah, the strongest of the Resistance’s Axis groups and the only one bordering Israel, has twice reiterated its non-involvement in the Gaza war. In two televised and broadly acclaimed speeches in November, Hassan Nasrallah, leading an army of 30,000 militants equipped with 200,000 long-distance missiles, repeatedly called Hezbollah out of the war. However, he eloquently praised the Palestinian fighting as “a righteous struggle in the name of Allah” and paid an official tribute to the “resolute people of Gaza”. Indeed, he has acted accordingly thus far, allowing only for small skirmishes and limited shelling on the border, already costing Hezbollah more than 40 militants.

Meanwhile, the Yemenite Houthis have also been involved, firing long-range missiles targeting Israel or ships navigating the Red Sea, but all easily intercepted by the US Navy in the area, resulting as only a diversion tool being in no position to cause serious harm to Israel. As for the widely-acclaimed Qatari-brokered hostages-to-prisoners deal, it is gaining Hamas a temporary truce in exchange of groups of prisoners in a winning three-to-one proportion for Palestinians, though the Netanyahu government seems unwilling to compromise on the terms of the 2011 “Shalit deal”, which freed some 1,027 Palestinian political prisoners – including Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar – in exchange of a single soldier taken hostage in the Gaza Strip. In fact, the initial objective of obtaining the release of the bulk of the 5,131 political prisoners (out of 16,279 total Palestinian detainees) held in Israeli jails in exchange for the survivors among the 237 hostages of the al-Aqsa Flood attack came down to the current negotiations of setting free only a total of 50 hostages in exchange for 150 female prisoners – among which no heavyweight political prisoner is included – plus 19 hostages released in separate agreements, with the option of temporarily extending the truce further if other hostages are located and let out. In sum, after some six weeks of raging war and the ongoing ground incursion in the northern part of the Strip, it seems that Hamas military leaders are no longer in synch with their political leadership, as the first are in dire need of a ceasefire, while the diplomatic front is stalled by mutual vetoes.

Since the outbreak of the war, the West Bank was tamed and violence mostly defused by the joint efforts of the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) and the Shin Bet’s deployment, despite widespread popular protests against the war in Gaza and the high number of casualties in clashes between the IDF, the settlers and the Palestinians. These have already claimed some 237 Palestinian lives, seen around 2,800 injured, two raids on the Jenin refugee camp and close to 3,000 people detained on administrative detention orders. Not surprisingly, a similar fate has befallen also on Arab Israelis or Palestinians of Israel, who are currently suffering under the heavy emergency rules imposed by the Netanyahu government curtailing freedom of speech.

 

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In fact, some 251 Arab-Israelis have been arrested so far for speech-related offenses, according to Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel. This wave of widespread discrimination and retaliation on Arab-Israelis comes despite their prompt condemnation of the Hamas attack and their distancing from the October 7thmassacre, with Arab-Israelis’ initial responses of shock and grief in line with those of the Jewish public. Recent surveys also confirm that they identify more with the State of Israel and its problems than with the Palestinian cause (70%, according to the Israel Democracy Institute’s “War in Gaza Survey 4”, November 5 – 6, 2023).

Even Arab-Israeli members of Knesset (MK) were not spared from this witch-hunt. Aida Touna-Suleiman, a Hadash MK, was suspended for two months by the Knesset Ethics Committee for a post on “X” in which she dared to criticize IDF actions in Gaza. Her case shows that parliamentarian immunity could be revoked to Arab-Israelis at times of crisis and sends a scary message of potential infringements of the rule of law to the broader Arab-Israeli community (2.1 million people) through the treatment of its political leadership. Laws targeting presumed “terrorist acts”, in absence of a legal definition of terrorism, could be extended to apply to any person, including foreigners, criticizing the state’s conduct or military activities, stretching to the extent that even relying on Hamas-generated information or quoting its sources could lead to one year of imprisonment.

Despite the bombastic arguments made by various Israeli ministers on “flattening the Gaza Strip” and “eradicating Hamas”, it seems that the single red line on which both Israel and the international community agreed on so far regarding the future of Gaza is to curb, as much as possible, the Hamas military wing and ban its political leadership from governing the Strip ever again. If the first goal looks very ambitious, the second seems almost unattainable. In the aftermath of the war in Gaza, there will indeed be a double conundrum: Israel will not accept to live any longer along a packed strip of land run by a terrorist organization engaging in frequent rounds of hostilities, but the international community will not accept Israel reinstating itself in the Strip with full charge of its military and political control, turning back the clock to 1967. The Biden Administration publicly stated that the US will not allow this to happen again and that it envisages a future role for the Palestinian National Authority in the Strip. However, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has ruled out the possibility of taking over control “on Israeli bayonets”, thus doing the dirty work on behalf of Israel without a clear path towards independent statehood.

In fact, Ramallah had major problems of its own even before the war, with the popularity of its leaders and that of its institutions collapsing. Some 67% of Palestinians were advocating for Abbas’s resignation and 52% for the PA dismantlement (Arab Barometer survey, October 6, 2023) due to its endemic corruption and the overly dominant role of security agencies operating in coordination with Israel – in addition to its poor democratic credentials. The last election round scheduled for May 2021 never materialized and since then Palestinians have lost hope in the ability of the PA to reform and represent the many different components of a still vibrant Palestinian civil society. As for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), it is also headed by Abbas since 2004 and it should ideally represent Palestinians worldwide (OPTs, diaspora and even inside Israel), but it often sees its resolutions blocked or reversed by the President, as was the case of the closing statement released by the 31st session of the Palestinian Central Council in Ramallah (February 2022) calling for the complete end of security coordination with Israel: a document fully ignored by the PA in its policies thereafter.

Moreover, Hamas is not part of the PLO but over the years, efforts to ensnare it were carried out periodically and particularly since its 2007 violent takeover of the Strip. Its irrefutable political value, as the Islamic Resistance Movement, is deeply embedded in the social fabric of Gaza through its three branches (military, political leadership and service-providing government), turning part of the Gaza Strip population – some70% of Gazans are 1948 refugees verging on poverty –dependent on it for survival and in turn exploiting this dependency as a means for political mobilization. Despite the general acknowledgment that the political rift is only weakening the Palestinian cause and the numerous appeals of Palestinian citizens for national reconciliation, some 15 rounds of negotiations led to nothing.

The October 7th attack acted a game-changer in the Palestinian arena, placing once again the PA and the PLO as the only responsible actors to address and overcome the potential political vacuum in the Gaza Strip. The PA, despite all its limits, enjoys the official support of the international community, including all the Arab neighboring states, and still disposes of some 35,000 employees in the Strip mostly employed in the welfare, health, and education sectors, who could act as the foundation for restoring its rule on the Strip. The PLO, instead, ranks high in terms of legitimacy, contrary to the PA, which is perceived as a Fatah-only dominion, though it comprises many other parties, such as the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), the DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and the communists, even displaying different trends within al-Fatah itself. Moreover, its Central Council recently elected in its executive committee Hussein Al-Sheikh, a senior PA official in charge of civil coordination with Israel, thus showing a moderate stance vis-à-vis Jerusalem.

In any case, the call for a PA-led Gaza Strip cannot work without a concomitant appeal to all Palestinian parties to engage in a new political path, revising their democratic institutions before possibly entering new negotiations with Israel.

The role of Hamas in this future democratization process is uncertain. As a terrorist organization and a religious movement, thus far it has rejected the PLO’s program. However, in a post-war period, its political leadership might be tempted to enter the political fray once again. It is difficult to assume that it will be crossed out as political actor in the Palestinian arena altogether, even if Israel might be imposing a political purge similar to that forced by the US on the Ba’ath party after the 2003 Iraqi invasion, resulting in a major strategic mistake. If Hamas personalities, such as Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, were to survive the war, they might still claim a place in the backstage of Palestinian politics thanks to their “resistance” credentials. Even if the Brotherhood is now illegal in Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and it is split into two different organizations in Jordan, it still enjoys a large following and so it will be for Hamas after the war.

 

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At present, the only candidate who could represent a good summary of both sides is Marwan Barghouti, the imprisoned (since 2002) Tanzim faction’s Fatah leader who is seen by many Palestinians as the only likely successor to Abbas and Yasser Arafat. According to the latest Arab Barometer, if presidential elections were held for the Palestinian Authority and Barghouti would run, he would receive 32% of the votes compared to the 24% of Ismail Haniyeh, the chief of the Politburo of Hamas, and Abbas, stuck at 12%. Barghouti used to support armed resistance to the occupation yet condemned attacks against civilians inside 1948 Israel during the Second Intifada. Oddly enough, his release was never included in any prisoner negotiation, even if at times it was widely discussed in Israel, with the Shin Bet acknowledging at various reprisals that Israel would never agree to relinquish him.

Throughout his 21 years of imprisonment, he managed to stay active in politics despite being held in isolation, negotiating a truce during the Second Intifada (2003), drafting the 2006 Prisoners’ Document, contributing to various inter-Palestinians reconciliation rounds and even running for the 2021 elections through his wife Fadwa on a ticket with Arafat’s nephew Nasser al-Qidwa on an al-Fatah splinter list. Nonetheless, Barghoutis’ release will require much external pressure by the US, the EU and the Arab states unitedly.

Apart from Barghouti, other prominent candidates in the Fatah ranks include Jibril Rajoub, the Secretary General of Fatah Central Committee, Hussein al-Sheikh, Secretary General of the PLO Executive Committee, Rawhi Fattouh, former speaker of the Palestinian National Council, Mohammed Shtayyeh, current Prime Minister, and Muhammad Dahlan, former member of the Fatah Central Committee exiled since 2012 and living as private businessman in the United Arab Emirates, who is scoring high in Israel’s preferences having been the first Palestinian leader of the new generation to accept the two-state solution and to call to stamp out violence. However, none of them enjoy even slightly the popularity still held by Marwan Barghouti.

When it comes to the aftermath of the war, the red line imposed by Israel on Hamas’ elimination from the political game should be considered together with the urgent need not to leave a vacuum behind the IDF withdrawal and the US and EU’s reasonable claims that a Palestinian authority should be immediately reinstated, whether under the temporary protection of a UN or a multinational military coalition. A moderate view is subscribed to by many, even within the current Netanyahu government, with the national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi unofficially declaring that Gaza control will eventually be handed to the PA, even though consensus has not yet been reached on this point, with a chunk of Likud, Religious Party and Jewish Power ministers still primarily opposing strengthening the PA. However, once they realize that dispatching over two million Palestinians to Egypt or Jordan is not a feasible option, they will eventually come to terms with considering the PA the lesser of two evils.

 

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At the end of this terribly devastating war, the stretch still habitable of the Gaza Strip will have to concentrate some 2.3 million Palestinians deserving fundamental rights and protection and to be ruled by a government of their own. Given a ban on Hamas, it would have to run under different banners, but would still constitute a political force to be reckoned with. If a new Israel would come out of this war, it is possible that a new and more far-sighted leadership would consider freeing Barghouti and calling for PLO and PA general elections as the best assurance to fill up the power vacuum left by Hamas. It would also have to take a confidence-building measure towards the Palestinians after this bloodshed and secure a more stable peace instead of a third Intifada.

Yet, Palestinian elections will not serve this outcome if Israel does not agree to relinquishing the territory taken “hostage” in 1967 and leave any Palestinian winner its legitimate part of the land to rule. All in all, if October 7th is often depicted as a “national trauma” leading to fundamental change in Israel, the real question would be – in the words of Ha’aretz editorialist Jack Khoury – “what kind of change Israel hopes for”.