Middle East Eye / May 21, 2021
The continuous rise of Hamas’s political capital in recent days has been matched by an erosion in the PA’s support.
A Gaza-based commentator posted the following on a social media group that I follow: “After the cancellation of the [Palestinian] elections in which 36 lists were to participate… the people have now mandated the ‘list of resistance’ by a landslide vote, supporting them to lead both the people and the battle… [the resistance] is assuming [Palestinian] legitimacy by defending people’s dignity.”
Against all odds, and perhaps against whatever adverse physical consequences may come, a key question arises: does the current showdown advance Hamas’s fortunes with regards to Palestinian leadership – if not through elections, then through “resistance”? There are no simple answers here.
The material damage achieved by the rockets fired by Palestinian resistance factions towards Israeli cities is small, when compared with the number fired (more than 3,000 so far) – or when compared with the local and international furore surrounding them. Yet the political damage that these rockets are inflicting on Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and other regional players hostile to Hamas and other resistance factions is considerable.
Everyone has been watching the Palestinian Islamist movement’s determined re-emergence from Gaza as the self-declared bearer of the Palestinian national cause.
In a broader sense, we have been seeing the advocates of resistance, including other groups alongside Hamas, as more trustworthy protectors of Palestinian national rights. Many Palestinians these days subscribe to this notion, particularly amid the failures of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the PA in Ramallah.
The fact that Israel has blamed Hamas for provoking Palestinians inside Israeli cities – with unprecedented protests breaking out in support of their brothers and sisters across the Green Line – has actually worked in Hamas’s favour. The same applies when the PA itself refrains from blaming Hamas for militarizing the non-violent, successful popular protests in Jerusalem. PA officials are nervous to utter any criticism of Hamas these days, for fear of the public’s response.
Thus, beyond the media’s obsession with the Palestinian resistance’s rockets, the most significant change during this round of military engagement with Israel relates to the political ramifications, not the military gains or losses. In the past, Palestinian factions’ use of rockets has been primarily Gaza-focused, aimed at pressuring Israel to ease the blockade, loosen fishing restrictions or allow more humanitarian essentials into Gaza, or to retaliate after assassinations of political leaders.
This time, the rockets are being fired for a wider national cause: that of Jerusalem itself. In so doing, Hamas in particular is finally answering the standard criticism that, since it took power in Gaza in 2007, it has been impotently absorbed with local issues at the expense of large-scale national issues, including Jerusalem, Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugees.
A particular criticism has been that its military power is deployed more to consolidate its rule in Gaza than to serve the Palestinian cause at large. However, unlike loud criticism of Hamas’s rockets during previous actions, this time around, the critical voices are fewer and quieter, as support for Hamas has penetrated broader circles.
Launching rockets to defend Jerusalem has certainly yielded great dividends for the movement. Hamas watched closely as Jerusalem began to boil over last month, both due to Israel’s installation of barriers at Damascus Gate and over the fate of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah who are being threatened with an Israeli-court-sanctioned settler takeover of their homes. Hundreds of supporters gathered daily in support of these families, and Israeli police cracked down.
This was all unfolding during the holy month of Ramadan, when tens of thousands of Palestinians come to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque daily. The heavy-handed response of Israeli police resulted in hundreds of Palestinian injuries, while images of Israeli brutality and the steadfastness of Sheikh Jarrah families went viral on social media.
To make matters worse, groups of extreme religious Zionists poured into the Old City to celebrate the 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem. To challenge this anticipated march, thousands more Palestinians came to the city from inside Israel, and tensions soared.
‘Sword of Jerusalem’
Amid this explosive atmosphere, angry and oppressed Palestinians had no hopes of any help from the politically crippled PA. Instead, they appealed to Hamas, chanting the name of military leader Mohammed al-Deif and asking for the “strength of his sword”. These chants spread widely among Palestinians, raising the pressure on Hamas.
In Gaza, demonstrators also urged Palestinian factions to intervene militarily. Deif finally responded with an ultimatum, warning Israel to withdraw its security forces from al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah by 6pm on 10 May. Israel ignored the warning, and Hamas fired its first rockets exactly on schedule, calling the operation “Sword of Jerusalem”.
Hamas aimed its rockets at the Israeli outskirts of Jerusalem. As sirens went off across the city, scores of Zionists who had gathered to march hurried off, prompting a huge sigh of relief from Palestinians.
Critics accused Hamas of aborting peaceful and widespread popular demonstrations – diverting attention from Jerusalem, instead of helping it. But there are many signs that the rocket intervention was largely welcomed by the Palestinian public.
Last week, as Israel flattened residential buildings in Gaza and the death toll soared, a massive portrait of Hamas leaders – including Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the movement’s political bureau – was mounted by al-Aqsa Mosque, another symbolic claim for Hamas to national leadership. It is difficult to remember when any image has been mounted on the same spot for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Such symbolism reflects the changing realities on the ground. The continuous rise of Hamas’s political capital is matched by an erosion in the PA’s support. In recent polls surveying Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza on their preferences for a Palestinian president, Haniyeh beat Abbas by 50 percent to 43 percent. Tellingly, Jibril Rajoub, a close adviser of Abbas and secretary-general of Fatah’s central committee, lamented that “not a single Arab leader called the Palestinian president during the current Israeli aggression”.
The rocket showdown could mark a turning point in the Palestinian political landscape. Hamas’s emergence from Gaza to take on national issues further undermines the PA and challenges Israel. Hamas has often stressed the need to end the monopoly over the Palestinian leadership, calling for a partnership with Fatah and other resistance groups. Whatever the outcome of this confrontation, Hamas is gaining further political capital and legitimacy.
This won’t necessarily be enough for the group to counter the regional and international backing of Abbas. But it may push the PLO and PA to either reschedule elections as soon as possible, or allow for a new collective leadership involving Hamas and other resistance groups. Many Palestinians want to see an inclusive partnership.
Yet, a foreign – and particularly American – veto against including Hamas in the Palestinian leadership presents a difficult obstacle. To circumvent the group’s new political capital, the US, Israel and their Arab allies will likely try to save Abbas from irrelevancy, putting him at the centre of post-conflict aid, financial assistance and diplomacy.
While this could obscure the real picture for a while, it won’t change the fact that the PA’s legitimacy has been eroded in the long term, while the power of Hamas has continued to rise.
Khaled al -Hroub is professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Northwestern University in Qatar and author of two books on Hamas