Kidnapping of Israeli Teens Could Scuttle Hamas-Fatah Deal

Kidnapping of Israeli Teens Could Scuttle Hamas-Fatah Deal
Photo: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (State Department photo by Matty Stern).
Barely 10 days after the Palestinian Authority (PA) swore in a new unity government, three Israeli teenagers, including one with U.S. citizenship, were kidnapped in the West Bank. The abduction of the Israeli teens triggered a number of reactions in the area, including an Israeli dragnet searching for the captives, which was aimed at Hamas operatives and supporters in the West Bank. Somewhat less visible than the Israeli operation is the reawakening of enmity between Hamas and Fatah, a dispute the two sides suppressed with great effort in order to make possible the reconciliation agreement that produced the unity government. The unity deal called for Palestinian elections, which are years overdue, to be held within six months of the new government’s formation. But the process is now suspended and may come apart. Israeli officials say they have definitive proof that Hamas is responsible for the kidnapping, an accusation Hamas denies, but in extremely ambiguous terms. If the Israeli charges are correct, and if the attack was indeed carried out with the knowledge, acquiescence and even direction of Hamas’ leaders, the operation may just turn out to be a milestone mistake for the organization—a crowd-pleasing misstep, but a costly one nonetheless. The tensions unleashed by the kidnapping and its aftermath have shined a spotlight on the ideological, strategic and tactical differences between the two Palestinian rivals. Hamas bases its ideology on political Islam. An outgrowth of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, its stated aim is the eradication of the Jewish state. Fatah is a more secular entity, whose leadership publicly supports a two-state solution. Hamas took control of Gaza after a brief but bloody war with Fatah seven years ago. Since then, the Islamist group has completely dominated Gaza. During that time, Fatah kept control of the Palestinian Authority and of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank. The Fatah-dominated PA remained the official Palestinian representative before the international community, with all the funding and recognition that entailed. Several Arab countries sought to bring the sides together. Every time, the efforts failed. But the regional turmoil of the past few years buffeted Hamas, changing its calculus on reconciliation. Middle East turbulence has proved psychologically draining and financially disastrous for the Gaza-based Islamists. Initially, the 2011 overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood looked like a harbinger of victory for Hamas. But the Brotherhood is now being crushed in Egypt by the government of President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who sees Hamas as little more than an extension of the Egyptian branch. Egypt has destroyed the tunnels that were a financial lifeline for Hamas in Gaza and squeezed the group. Hamas had already lost its sponsor in Syria when it turned on President Bashar al-Assad, a move that also cost much of its support from Iran. In the meantime, the Palestinian cause is losing prominence in the Arab world with so many other dramas displacing it from center stage. Other Islamist groups may remain sympathetic, but they have many other crises on their agendas. Hamas’ last supporters are Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. Facing growing pressure and limited options, Hamas agreed to disband its Gaza government and give at least theoretical control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, paving the way to new elections. The bridge uniting Fatah and Hamas, however, was always a rickety one. The kidnapping may just break it apart. In Palestinian areas, the public reacted to news of the kidnapping with excitement and rejoicing. The subsequent Israeli deployment of thousands of troops and the clashes that left several Palestinians dead produced angry demonstrations and more support for Hamas. But if the Palestinian reconciliation deal comes apart, Hamas will return to its crisis. The organization is having trouble meeting its payroll, and followers in Gaza are not getting their civil service paychecks from the PA. Tensions between the two are once again heating up. Initially, PA President Mahmoud Abbas didn’t say much about the abductions. Then in a meeting of foreign ministers from Islamic countries in Saudi Arabia, Abbas declared, “The three [Israeli] teens are human beings like us, and they should be returned to their families.” He had more. “Those who kidnapped the three teenagers,” he said, “want to destroy us. We will hold them accountable.” It was a stunning statement, and even more surprising because it was made in Arabic, before a Muslim audience. Hamas was furious. Abbas acknowledged that Palestinian security forces were working with Israel to find the perpetrators. A Hamas spokesman in Gaza called Abbas’ actions “harmful to Palestinian reconciliation.” But Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki hinted that the entire reconciliation project could unravel. “If Hamas is behind [the kidnapping], . . . the president will take drastic decisions.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists that Israel has strong proof that Hamas is behind the operation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said “many indications point to Hamas’ involvement.” Israeli media quoted an Israeli security official pointing to a Hamas leader in Turkey, Saleh al-Arouri, as the mastermind of the operation. Al-Arouri, who was deported by Israel after serving prison time, has reportedly pushed for Hamas’ West Bank cells, to which he provides financing, to kidnap Israelis. Others highlighted a speech by Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Qatar three weeks before the kidnapping. Addressing Palestinian prisoners, he said, “You will soon receive a reply from al-Qassam Brigades, who know how to liberate you.” Abbas says he is not convinced yet that Hamas is responsible, and Hamas leaders are playing it coy. Mashaal congratulated the abductors but declined to say whether Hamas was responsible. In some respects, Hamas is relishing the moment. Palestinians view the kidnapping of the Israeli students, two of whom live in West Bank settlements, as a victory against Israel. It stirs Palestinian pride and raises Hamas’ profile. And yet, this operation could prove enormously costly for the group, and that’s not just from the damage that Israeli forces are inflicting on its West Bank operations. Hamas is currently in dire straits. If the kidnapping leads to the end of the reconciliation process and derails the plans for elections, Hamas will have to chart a new strategy to remain a significant, viable organization. In the end, the kidnapping of the Israeli teenagers could create more problems than Hamas can solve. Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly WPR column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday. Follow her on Twitter at @fridaghitis.

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