Hamas goes on offense in West Bank

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Article Summary
Palestinian protests continue in Ramallah over Israeli incursions.

Some 300 Palestinians were wounded and one was killed in clashes with Israeli and Palestinian security forces in Ramallah over the weekend, following a week in which Palestinian attacks took the lives of two Israeli soldiers and an Israeli baby and Israeli forces killed four suspected Palestinian assailants. On Dec. 15, Israeli forces demolished the home of a Palestinian charged with killing an Israeli soldier in May. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said demolitions will continue in response to the recent violence.

“Not only did the attacks exact a heavy toll in human lives, the presence of an organized, trained and determined terror cell running around the Palestinian city of Ramallah under the noses of the Palestinian security forces, the Shin Bet and IDF with its various counterterrorism means should set off alarm bells in Jerusalem,” writes Ben Caspit. “The daring of its members who succeeded, at the height of Israel’s military readiness with its forces fully deployed, to take down three soldiers and flee unharmed shook up the top echelons of the IDF. Almost all agree that the latest developments do not augur well. Netanyahu could soon discover the downside of the defense minister’s job he took on himself almost a month ago.”

“Many Palestinians believe that the heavy-handed Israeli army incursion into the center of Ramallah on Dec. 10 is the most important reason behind this escalation,” writes Daoud Kuttab. “While the Oslo Accord forbids Israeli soldiers from unilaterally entering areas that are under full Palestinian security and administrative control — known as ‘Area A’ — Israeli security forces have repeatedly breached that agreement.”

“Eyewitnesses told Al-Monitor that a very large army convoy entered Ramallah Dec. 10 and headed for the offices of the Palestinian News Agency WAFA, which is located a few hundred yards from the home of President Mahmoud Abbas and across the street from the official Palestinian presidential headquarters, Al-Muqata,” adds Kuttab. “The Israelis barged into the state-run news agency and confiscated copies of the security camera footage. Israel says it was searching for a car that reportedly drove by that location and was most probably in the camera archives. The sought-after driver had participated in a drive-by shooting Dec. 9 that left seven Israelis injured.”

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“As far as Hamas is concerned, the escalating conflagration in the West Bank serves the group’s interests,” writes Shlomi Eldar. “The fingerprints of the deputy director of the Hamas' political bureau Saleh al-Arouri are all over it."

“Several factors enable Hamas to win support among large swaths of the West Bank population,” adds Eldar. “They include the lack of a political solution on the horizon and the decline in Abbas’ stature and in his inability to bring about change in the West Bank. And above all else, as Abbas’ office noted, there are the daily IDF operations throughout the territory and the arrests and assassinations of the perpetrators of attacks. … Past experience, particularly from the second intifada, shows that any preventative measures or assassination attempts in the West Bank only lead to the next attack. It is a trap, and there is apparently no way out.”

“Hamas is playing a clever game,” writes Caspit. “In the Gaza Strip, it has given Egypt and Qatar a free hand, accepting a monthly $15 million Qatari stipend under Israeli auspices, keeping its head above water and keeping local militants under control. Hamas is now devoting most of its efforts to the West Bank. If it cannot set Gaza on fire, due to various constraints, it is determined to stir up trouble in Ramallah. Such unrest could endanger Netanyahu himself.”

“Over the past two years, Netanyahu has systematically ignored warnings by his defense chiefs: The military chief of staff, heads of the Shin Bet and military intelligence and other senior officials all told him that the calm in the West Bank was deceptive,” adds Caspit. “In these twilight years of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, unrest is tangible with a succession battle being waged behind the scenes and growing frustration with Israel’s Gaza policy. Nurturing Hamas weakens Abbas, Netanyahu was advised, but he ignored the warnings. Now when he and his ministers look at Abbas accusingly, he cannot answer.”

Ahmad Melhem reports that the PA places at least some of the blame on Iran for its problems with Hamas. “There's no end in sight to the tensions between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) and Iran, especially in light of Iran’s improving ties with Hamas,” writes Melhem. “The PA pegs that improvement as the main reason for its failed attempts at reconciliation with Hamas and Hamas’ ongoing control of the Gaza Strip.”

“One must factor in other relationships in the region,” adds Melhem. “Saudi Arabia has closed the door to rapprochement with Hamas because of Hamas' relationship with Iran, while the PA is keen to maintain a good relationship with the Saudi kingdom.”

“The PA is also diligent not to anger the Saudis in many cases,” Melhem concludes. “For example, despite accusations that top Saudis were involved in the October assassination of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, the PA issued a brief statement saying that Saudi Arabia is a state of justice, values and principle; the statement didn't even mention Khashoggi’s case. The PA has also kept silent on the Saudi war in Yemen. This can't be separated from Riyadh’s financial support to the PA, most recently with a $60 million transfer Nov. 11 to the Palestinian government's budget.”

“In the evening hours of Dec. 13, Netanyahu issued a warning to Hamas: Israel will not maintain a cease-fire with Gaza if Hamas conducts terrorism in the West Bank,” writes Caspit. “The threat was hollow. Hamas is not the only one anxious for a cease-fire with Israel in Gaza. A truce is also in Netanyahu’s interest and he swallowed a bitter pill to get it. He does not have a real alternative. An operation against Hamas in Gaza is not in the cards as long as the IDF is deployed on the northern front with Lebanon, dealing with the explosive and strategic issue of the attack tunnels Hezbollah has been digging for years under Israel’s nose. Netanyahu needs a cease-fire with Gaza at least as much as Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya Sinwar does. Israel has rejected Sinwar’s new rules of the game, differentiating between Gaza and the West Bank and allowing Hamas to hold its murderous stick at both ends. The question is what Israel can do about it.”

“Despite a barrage of criticism, security collaboration [by the Palestinian Authority] with the IDF continues, with a focus on preventing Hamas from establishing new cells and expanding its infrastructure in the West Bank,” adds Eldar. “Given this week’s outbreak of terror, it is worth remembering that Abbas succeeded in stopping the previous wave that broke out in October 2015. He did so through full and effective coordination between the Palestinian security forces and Israel. Abbas even instructed senior Palestinian officials to focus not only on security but also on expanding their activities in educational institutions, devoting several teaching hours to the idea that violence and suicide attacks are not in Palestinians' interest and that diplomatic efforts will ensure the creation of a Palestinian state. While security coordination with Israel continues and has even gotten deeper over the last few weeks, Abbas' claims about a diplomatic horizon achieved through popular means and international diplomacy are no longer realistic.”

Meanwhile, Akiva Eldar reports, “Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing HaBayit HaYehudi, continues to advance a proposal for the annexation of parts of the West Bank. … The HaBayit HaYehudi leader has been fully aware of claims over the years by Palestinians, human rights groups, Israeli left-wingers and the international community about Israel’s apartheid-like policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians under Israeli occupation and military rule. Bennett wants to sideline such criticism while also promoting the settlement enterprise.”

“The annexation of Area C would grant a legal imprimatur to the de facto policy of prioritizing Jewish construction by virtue of the newly adopted Nationality Law, which encourages Jewish settlement, writes Eldar. “One cannot pull the rug out from under the claim that Israel practices apartheid in the West Bank without granting equal political rights to all people living under Israeli control, not to mention those within Israel's borders … as long as Israel continues to make unilateral decisions over the heads of the Palestinian people, without their consent, full civil equality cannot be achieved. Any attempt by the stronger side to force an agreement on the other will not ease the conflict or absolve Israel’s rulers of the shameful stigma of apartheid.”

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