No escape from the growing Palestinian internecine tensions
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No escape from the growing Palestinian internecine tensions

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Sheikh Bilal Abu Hassan, a mosque preacher from Jenin, was surprised last week to receive a letter from the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs informing him of the decision to fire him.

Abu Hassan lost his job because of a khutbah (sermon) he recently delivered during Friday prayers at one of Jenin’s mosques and in which he heaped praise on the Palestinian factions, including Hamas, in the Gaza Strip.

Referring to the Israel-Hamas war last May, Abu Hassan applauded the “Joint Operations Room,” which consists of various Palestinian factions that operate as a quasi-army against Israel. “Our Joint Operations Room has unified the Palestinians,” he said from the minbar, a pulpit in a mosque where the imam (leader of prayers) stands to deliver sermons. “This is the true meaning of Palestinian national unity.”

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The mosque preachers in the West Bank are appointed by the PA Ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs. Every week, the ministry issues a directive to the imams concerning the Friday sermons.

The directive includes instructions about the topics the imams should address during the sermons. Occasionally, the ministry also issues instructions regarding the topics that the imams are prohibited from addressing. Those who defy the instructions of the ministry are often punished by suspension or dismissal, as in the case of Abu Hassan.

Palestinians demonstrate in support to the escape of the six Palestinian prisoners from Gilboa Prison, in the city of Hebron on September 08, 2021. (credit: WISSAM HASHLAMON/FLASH90)

On Wednesday, as Palestinians were voicing support for the six Palestinian security prisoners who escaped from Gilboa Prison and protesting Israel’s punitive measures against the inmates in various prisons, the PA Ministry of Waqf and Religious Affairs announced that the topic of Friday’s sermon (September 10) will be: “High Morals in Islam.” The implicit message to the preachers: Ignore the fugitives who escaped from Israeli prison.

The last thing the PA wants is for preachers who are on its payroll to stand in a mosque and praise, in front of thousands of worshipers, members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). (Five of the men who escaped are members of the Iranian-backed terrorist group).

The jailbreak is seen by many Palestinians as an embarrassment not only for Israel, but for the PA too.

The escape came at a time when relations between Israel and the PA appeared to be improving, especially after the recent meeting in Ramallah between PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Now, the PA and its senior officials and spokesmen are being forced to publicly endorse the PIJ fugitives as “heroes” and issue strong condemnations against Israel because of the ensuing crackdown on hundreds of PIJ inmates, who are being transferred to other prisons.

The PA is being forced to toe the line and join the Palestinian public’s campaign of solidarity with the fugitives and the other prisoners because it does not want to be seen as sitting on the fence or, worse, being in collusion with Israel. The PA has long been facing severe criticism for its ongoing security coordination with Israel. Moreover, it regularly comes under attack for failing to secure the release of prisoners.

This week, at the Jenin refugee camp, home of Zakaria Zubeidi, the only Fatah member among the fugitives, even prominent Fatah activists were critical of Abbas because of his alleged rapprochement with the Israeli government and the Biden administration. The activists accused the PA leadership of “abandoning” its supporters in the Jenin area, especially the armed men who are wanted by Israel.

To ensure that the mosque preachers abide by the instructions, the PA security forces regularly deploy informants to the mosques to listen to the sermons and report to their handlers.

As far as the PA is concerned, criticism of senior Palestinian officials, especially during Friday prayers, is a crime that can even land the perpetrator in prison. The same applies to any preacher who dares to heap praise on Hamas or other groups opposed to the policies of the PA leadership.

The PA is not opposed to mass demonstrations in the West Bank in solidarity with the Palestinian prisoners. But the PA leaders also know that an escalation could deteriorate into another all-out war with Israel, something that is likely to further undermine the PA’s credibility and standing and boost the popularity of Hamas and PIJ, as was the case after the last Israel-Hamas confrontation in May.

There are two issues that are considered the most explosive and sensitive among the Palestinians: Security prisoners and Al-Aqsa Mosque. If the Palestinians decide to launch another intifada, it will be over one or both of these issues.

The dismissal of Abu Hassan and the continued crackdown on Hamas and PIJ members is yet another sign of mounting tensions between the PA and Hamas.

The latest tensions began immediately after the last war in the Gaza Strip, when thousands of Palestinians took to the streets in the West Bank to celebrate Hamas’s “victory” over Israel. Scores of Palestinians have since been arrested or summoned for interrogation for participating in the pro-Hamas demonstrations or voicing support for the Islamist movement on social media platforms.

The PA crackdown marks the end of a short-lived honeymoon with Hamas that began more than a year ago. The two parties have been at loggerheads since 2006, when Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary election. The crisis reached its peak in the summer of 2007, when Hamas seized control of the entire Gaza Strip after toppling the PA.

Since then, attempts by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Turkey to end the PA-Hamas rivalry have hit a snag.

The administration of former US president Donald Trump, however, ushered in a period of reconciliation between the rival Palestinian parties. A plan by the government of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank also accelerated the reconciliation process.

Trump’s plan for Mideast peace, “Peace to Prosperity,” and Netanyahu’s “annexation” scheme, which were rejected by both the PA and Hamas as a conspiracy to liquidate the Palestinian issue and Palestinians’ national rights, prompted the Palestinian leaders in Ramallah and the Gaza Strip to resume attempts to end their dispute.

In July 2020, Jibril Rajoub, secretary-general of the PA’s ruling Fatah faction, and Saleh Arouri, deputy chairman of the Hamas politburo, announced that they had reached an agreement “to speak in one voice and under one flag, the Palestinian flag, to build a strategic vision to face the challenges.”

“We are now talking about a joint struggle, a campaign on the ground,” Rajoub said, calling Hamas a full partner. “We call on all Palestinian factions to see cooperation between Hamas and Fatah as a historic opportunity for a joint fight to establish a Palestinian state and oppose the Israeli occupation.”

Two months later, Rajoub and Arouri held another meeting in Istanbul, to promote the reconciliation between the two parties. The meeting ended with an agreement to hold elections for the Palestinian presidency and parliament, as well as the PLO’s legislative body, or parliament-in-exile, the Palestinian National Council.

Fatah and Hamas leaders who later met in Cairo under the auspices of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service agreed on the electoral voting procedures, paving the way for Abbas to issue a decree setting dates for the elections.

As part of the reconciliation process, Hamas formed its own list of candidates for the parliamentary election, which was supposed to take place on May 22. The list included 132 candidates from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

In late April, however, Abbas announced the postponement of the election on the pretext that Israel had not approved his request to hold the vote in east Jerusalem. “Facing this difficult situation, we decided to postpone the date of holding legislative elections until the participation of Jerusalem is guaranteed,” Abbas declared.

In response, Hamas denounced the decision, dubbing it a “coup against the path of national partnership and consensus.”

Hamas and other Palestinians are convinced that Abbas decided to call off the vote because of his fear that Fatah, which was running on three separate slates, was headed toward another defeat, similar to the one in the 2006 parliamentary election.

“For them, it’s evident that Abbas used the controversy surrounding Jerusalem as an excuse to cancel the election,” said Palestinian political analyst Amer Ashhab. “Abbas’s decision was also seen by Hamas as the end of the reconciliation process with the Palestinian Authority.”

But other analysts said the defeat of Trump in the US presidential election was another reason why Abbas decided to delay the election.

“Abbas received positive messages from the administration of President Joe Biden,” said political analyst and columnist Mohammed Abu Diab. “Had Trump won, Abbas would have proceeded with his plan to achieve unity with Hamas.”

Eager to resume contacts with the US, Abbas and other Palestinian officials in Ramallah welcomed the departure of the Trump administration and signaled their desire to resume their ties with Washington. The PA leadership had severed ties with the US after Trump’s 2017 decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

The departure of Netanyahu from the political scene and the formation of the new government was also received with a sigh of relief in Ramallah.

The restoration of relations between the PA and the US administration and the improved ties between Ramallah and the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett saw Abbas move further away from Hamas. The talk about national reconciliation between the PA and Hamas has been replaced with statements by Abbas and other Palestinian officials concerning the need to resume the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

THESE ARE good  times for the PA and Abbas, provided that this week’s mass demonstrations in support of the Palestinian inmates do not lead to another major confrontation with Israel.

The Biden administration has revived the talk about a two-state solution as the only way to resolve the conflict and stated its opposition to any steps by either side that risk sparking violence or undermining the prospect for returning to the pursuit of two states. Additionally, the Biden administration has been saying it believes Palestinians and Israelis “deserve equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity.”

This rhetoric, in addition to the resumption of US financial aid to the Palestinians, obviously contributed to Abbas’s decision to again turn his back on Hamas.

The Israeli government’s decision to resume high-level contacts with the PA leadership is also seen by some Palestinians as another reason behind Abbas steering clear of Hamas.

Abbas knows that he stands to gain more by aligning himself with the US and Israel than making peace with Hamas, some of whose leaders have never missed an opportunity to denounce him as a “traitor” and “collaborator” with the enemies of the Palestinians.

For Abbas, an alliance with the US and Israel is tantamount to an insurance policy for the survival of the PA. He also knows that such an alliance does not come without a price, making him less popular among the Palestinians.

On the other hand, Abbas is well aware that making peace with Hamas would only spell trouble. He is not in a rush to return to the Gaza Strip and pay salaries to tens of thousands of Palestinians. He knows that even if he returns to the coastal enclave, he and his security forces will never be able to disarm the various terrorist groups or prevent them from launching rockets and incendiary balloons into Israel.

Abbas also knows that any deal he strikes with Hamas will jeopardize his relations not only with Israel, but with the US and the European Union too.

When Palestinian businessman Munib al-Masri lately asked Abbas about his conditions for incorporating Hamas into a Palestinian unity government, the PA leader told him that the group must first accept all international resolutions pertaining to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Abbas, in other words, demanded that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas was quick to reject the demand, accusing Abbas of acting on behalf of the US and Israel to “blackmail” the group into abandoning its ideology and principles.

“Hamas is not serious about ending the conflict with Fatah,” said a senior Palestinian official. “Hamas wants to continue ruling the Gaza Strip with the hope of turning it into an Islamic emirate. Hamas is serving the agendas of foreign powers, including Iran and Qatar, who want to see the Palestinians divided forever.”

In many ways, it is safe to assume that Abbas is comfortable with the status quo, which absolves him of responsibility for what happens in the Gaza Strip. The security coordination between the PA security forces and the IDF also serves as an insurance policy for the survival of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. Abbas knows that as long as Israel maintains a security presence in the West Bank, Hamas will never succeed in extending its control beyond the Gaza Strip.

The current strategy of the PA is to strengthen its relations with the US administration with the hope that such a move would ensure the continued flow of financial aid to the Palestinians. And despite its public criticism of Israel, the PA leadership seems to be relatively satisfied with the new and less hostile approach of the Israeli government.

The closer Abbas moves toward the US and Israel, the farther he moves away from Hamas. This leaves Hamas with one option: enhancing its ties with Iran, Qatar and Turkey as a way of tightening its grip on the Gaza Strip. The split between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, long regarded by many Palestinians as a fait accompli, is likely to continue even in the post-Abbas era because most of the officials surrounding him are not known as fans of reconciliation with Hamas.

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