Ramallah, West Bank: Hamas’ latest battle against Israel sparked feverish Palestinian pride that spread beyond the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority-led West Bank. But it has also deepened a sense here that the authority’s non-violent, diplomacy-based approach to winning a Palestinian state is increasingly futile. It is a commonly held view in both territories that the Islamist fighters of Hamas — which refuses to recognise Israel — defeated their enemy, and that they did it with weapons, not words.
“They put Israel in its place. They forced Israel to withdraw,” Amanda Izzat, a 23-year-old university student who was shopping in Ramallah on Saturday, said of Hamas. Many Palestinians insist the eight-day hostilities will energise the long-frozen pledges of reconciliation between Hamas and its rival Fatah, which leads the authority. But the conflict also underscored how starkly opposed the two factions’ strategies are.
In a region where Arab Spring uprisings pushed political Islam to the forefront, some analysts say Fatah’s secular nationalism looks more anachronistic by the day, and Hamas’ sudden strength has raised momentum for a more aggressive, even radical, posture in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Fatah member, dismissed Islamism as a fad. But she said she is increasingly worried that Palestinians will see armed resistance, which Fatah renounced in 1988, as the only mechanism that appears to win concessions from Israel. “It would be easy to get the world’s attention by unleashing violence,” Ashrawi said. “But that’s not a tool we want to use. There’s so much tragic loss of life.”
Hamas’ rising profile has posed the most immediate challenge to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who played the role of bystander throughout the crisis. As Hamas’ leader-in-exile, Khalid Mesha’al, negotiated the cease-fire under the mediation of Cairo’s Islamist-led government, Abbas envoys travelled to Gaza, but he did not.
Abbas has not been to the Strip since 2006, when Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections. Hamas, which Israel and the United States deem a terrorist group, seized control of Gaza one year later. The Gaza conflict “left Abbas politically naked”, said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. It also eclipsed the build-up to what Abbas and his supporters tout as his own form of resistance to Israel: A bid set to be submitted on Thursday at the United Nations General Assembly to upgrade the Palestinians’ standing to non-member state.
The resolution, which the Palestinians could use to challenge Israeli actions at the International Criminal Court, is expected to be approved. Last week, Abbas rebuffed the latest call by the United States — this time in the form of a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who stopped in Ramallah before going to Cairo — to drop the bid. He has also ignored opposition from Israel, which says that only negotiations can lead to a Palestinian state. Israel has issued public and veiled threats of withholding funding from the authority, or even toppling Abbas, if the bid succeeds. Some Palestinian and Israeli commentators have said that Israel emboldened Hamas — perhaps intentionally — at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, which the United States funds and views as the true representative of the Palestinian people.
A senior Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter frankly, denied that assertion. But he said Israel has come to recognise that Hamas is the de facto power in Gaza, casting doubt on Abbas’ claim as leader of all Palestinians. “We don’t want to harm Abu Mazen,” the official said, using Abbas’ nickname. But “the idea that Abu Mazen will reinstate himself into Gaza. . . . We don’t see it.”
Hamas expressed support this past week for Abbas’ bid at the United Nations, but its members deride him as a lackey of Israel. “Resistance has succeeded in forcing the Israelis to hide” in bomb shelters, supermarket employee Hassam Al Badouwi, 28, said at a pro-Hamas rally in Ramallah before the cease-fire. “I advise Abu Mazen to take a vacation.”
The rally itself was evidence of Hamas’ newfound confidence in the West Bank. Since the Fatah-Hamas split in 2007, Hamas has been driven underground, many of its leaders have been jailed, and pious Muslims say they have been persecuted. Fatah says its members in Gaza are persecuted by Hamas. But even before the latest hostilities, Hamas leaders in the West Bank said the Arab Spring and the rise of Islamism were starting to change their fortunes.
In an interview this summer, a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud Al Ramahi, said the movement’s members were demonstrating more freely and had been invited to Arab embassies for the first time in years. In a bluster-filled victory speech on Friday, Hamas’ prime minister, Esmail Haniya, suggested that cooperating with Israel — as the Palestinian Authority does, and as ousted Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak did, on security and other matters — was a thing of the past. “Egypt has changed, the whole [Muslim] nation has changed. They are different now from the previous regimes, which provided a cover for the occupation,” Haniya said. “The resistance confirmed . . . the unity of the Muslim nation, and that supporting the resistance is the shortest route to the liberation of Palestine.” F
atah leaders say they are not worried by the ascent of Islamists, although Western diplomats say they detect a sense of concern from the party. Some Fatah officials say power will expose Islamists as poor leaders; others say that the Arab Spring, no matter its ideological currents, can only help a Palestinian cause that has powerful public support across Muslim-majority countries. “This is a healthy change, as long as moderate Islam is in control and they are realistic when dealing with political issues,” said Abdul Fattah Hamayel, a senior Fatah member who is governor of Bethlehem. Hamayel spent 19 years in Israeli prisons for belonging to and organising for the party, and he said he fears a return to the armed resistance touted by Hamas would put his children in jail. But he and other Fatah members say they recognise that their party is under public pressure to change, at least for the moment.
“My hope is that all this will be channelled into more unity,” said Nabeel Shaath, a senior Fatah member who returned Saturday from a visit to Gaza, where he said he stood in solidarity with Hamas. But, Shaath added, the growing appeal of Hamas and other Palestinian factions that champion armed resistance are serving as a wake-up call for Fatah. “We cannot just continue what we were used to doing before, hope for the quartet, the quintet, the sextet to do something,” Shaath said wryly of international mediation efforts. “We have to go into a much more aggressive posture.” That does not mean a military stance, he said.
But beyond peace talks — which the Palestinian Authority refuses to enter as long as Israel continues to build colonies — the options are limited. Ashrawi said she views the UN bid as a “last-ditch effort” for the authority. If the UN voters reject the bid, she said, “they will destroy the PA.” -