Hamas’ inability to capitalize on the war in Gaza

Palestinian leader of Hamas Yahya Sinwar (Ashraf Amra - Anadolu Agency)

 Adnan Abu Amer 

Sada Journal  /  July 20, 2021

[Carnegie Endowment for International Peace]

Internal Palestinian political disputes have resumed following the eleven-day Gaza war.

Hamas believed its support among Palestinians would increase after its defense of Sheikh Jarrah and Al-Aqsa Mosque in the fierce war  with Israel called the “Battle of the Sword of Jerusalem,” an expectation that was fulfilled according to surveys conducted by independent Palestinian research centers.

The surveys showed that the movement’s popularity increased because it engaged in a military confrontation with Israel not because of  the siege on Gaza, the delay of the Qatari financial grant, or because one of its leaders had been assassinated but rather in defense of Jerusalem. 

Hamas’ popularity was evident in its ability to galvanize and mobilize Palestinians within not only Gaza but the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel, and neighboring countries, for example at the Lebanese and Jordanian borders with Israel. This widespread response was unprecedented for Hamas, as the movement traditionally has found little support for its military confrontations with Israel outside of Gaza, a fact that has long frustrated the movement.

Palestinians’ admiration for Hamas throughout the war was due in large part to the movement’s ability to combat the Israeli war machine without surrendering. Palestinians raised Hamas’ green flags throughout the West Bank and placed pictures of the movement’s leaders in Al-Aqsa Mosque. Even Fatah members were spotted chanting Hamas slogans during protests in the West Bank. 

the retreat of Fatah

The Palestinian Authority, in contrast, appeared to be a mere spectator at the conflict between Hamas and Israel, playing no role apart from making the usual calls to stop the violence. Neither Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, his prime minister, nor any ministers initiated a visit to Gaza, which received a number of Arab and international delegations. Ramallah, the headquarters for the leadership of the Fatah movement and the Palestinian Authority (PA), received no such visits, a fact that angered the PA and aroused the fear that Hamas would be seen as a viable alternative by the international community when it came to reconstruction. 

What was most unusual for Palestinians was that while Israeli planes bombed Gaza, Abbas delivered a speech in which he invited Hamas to join in the creation of a single national government. Hamas quickly rejected the invitation for two reasons: the timing was bad considering the ongoing war with Israel; and Hamas had little interest in forming a government. What would have been of interest to Hamas instead was holding general elections (which Abbas postponed unilaterally in April) and reforming the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

Despite Hamas’ refusal, the Palestinian Authority sought to promote its goal of forming a unity government through consultations with regional and international mediators including Egypt, the European Union, and the United States. Hamas in parallel consulted with its allies among Palestinian factions about forming a national leadership, as the PLO does not include Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and other affiliated factions of the resistance.

Despite the war seemingly working out in Hamas’ favor, the PA gained the upper hand when it was granted the authority to administer a $30 million grant from Qatar and rebuild Gaza after the war, an effort that was spearheaded by the Biden administration and approved by Israel, Egypt, and other international actors. Hamas has vehemently rejected the PA’s role because it views the effort as a means to nullify its military triumphs and prevent them from being translated into political victories.

It has become clear that there is a concerted U.S. effort to revive the PA after a period of estrangement during the Trump administration, with the goal of returning it to the negotiation table with Israel. Israel’s new government realized that the humanitarian agreements reached under Netanyahu—including a $30 million Qatari grant targeting underprivileged families—strengthened Hamas and contributed to its recent impressive military performance. Seeing that, Israel has decided to promote Egypt’s influence in Gaza at Qatar’s expense. 

According to high-level sources within Hamas, “the movement fears a return to regional or international pressure, whether that be in the form of restricted cash flow into Gaza, the distancing of its allies, or the restriction of influence from allies such as Qatar and Turkey in favor of parties that are not completely aligned with the movement. All of these factors would diminish humanitarian conditions for Gaza residents and lead to more pressure from them on the movement.”1  

failure of the Cairo talks

Since Abbas announced the postponement of general elections in late April due to fear of a Hamas victory, Hamas and Fatah have been estranged despite Egyptian efforts at reconciliation. Immediately following the war in Gaza, Cairo invited delegations from the Palestinian factions to meet. Egyptian sources indicated that the positions of Fatah and Hamas “appeared far apart, as Hamas, through its political chief Ismael Haniyeh, asked the head of Egyptian General Intelligence Abbas Kamel to ensure that the discussion would be a collective one among all factions rather than a bilateral one between the two movements, as Fatah prefers.”2  According to an inside source, Hamas “insisted that the discussion begin with the most important subjects: the PLO and setting dates for the general elections.” 

The Fatah delegation, led by Central Committee Secretary Jibril Rajoub, arrived in Cairo with only one item on their agenda: the formation of a new government, eschewing any discussion of elections or the PLO. Because of the difference in agendas, the talks were doomed from the start.3  Fatah and Hamas’ positions further diverged when the PA (with regional, Israeli, and international support) showed its desire to exclude Hamas from everything related to the administration of Gaza, thereby igniting new disagreements in an already tenuous relationship.

The Palestinian political scene, which appeared unified throughout the war in Gaza, has returned to a state of internal division and might deteriorate further due to bullying by the PA and external actors. Hamas faces difficult political choices as it finds that its military achievement has not delivered the expected increase in internal and external political legitimacy. 

Adnan Abu Amer is a professor of political science at Al-Ummah University and a writer and researcher at the Arab Studies Center

NOTES

 1 The author spoke to these sources within Hamas.

2 The author spoke to well-formed Egyptian sources in regards to these meetings.

3 The author interviewed a knowledgeable Egyptian journalist familiar with the Palestinian discussion in Cairo on June 21.