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March 20, 2018 3:17 pm

Palestinian Cold War Heats Up as Reconciliation Efforts Fail

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Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Photo: Alchetron. – The Palestinian Authority wasted little time in blaming Hamas for a roadside bomb that went off last week in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

It was far too close for comfort for a PA convoy carrying Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and the head of the PA’s General Intelligence service, Majed Faraj. They had arrived there as part of ongoing reconciliation efforts, which have stalled. The high-level convoy quickly returned to the territories.

Since then, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to cut off payments to Gaza, as the two Palestinian movements traded recriminations, moving further apart from any chance of reconciliation. The latest developments seemed to underline just how unrealistic it is to expect the PA to be able to consolidate itself in Gaza, nine years after being brutally ejected in an armed Hamas coup.

“This explosive device was designed to send a message, not to kill. They could easily have killed had they wanted to,” Dr. Col. (res.) Moshe Elad, one of the founders of the security coordination between Israel and the PA, told JNS. “This was a warning, saying the Gazan public is not willing to let the PA back. It’s a statement saying, ‘Be careful.’ ”

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“Could Hamas not know about an explosive device planted at the entrance to Gaza, on a main road, so close to the Erez Crossing? That’s very hard to believe,” said Elad, a lecturer at the Western Galilee College.

In his view, it was Faraj — the PA’s intelligence chief — who was the intended recipient of the warning.

Elad noted that Faraj “is a red cape for Hamas in Gaza. He fights Hamas to the end in the West Bank. He has closed nearly 300 Hamas offices and charities there, and arrested many Hamas members.”

Israel, together with five PA security battalions and the police force, has kept Hamas at bay in the territories, according to Elad, and prevented attempts by Salah Arouri, a senior Hamas figure, from remotely orchestrating terrorist cells from his base abroad.

‘Trying to push Israel and Hamas into a new clash’

At the same time, Elad warned, Abbas is using the latest crisis to try and spark “a very big clash between Israel and Hamas.”

The roadside bombing could mean that “Abbas will now say, ‘We won’t go back to Gaza, but if we don’t go back, Gaza will not get any money either,’” said Elad. “Abbas believes this will cause a lot of unrest in Gaza, which will harm Israel. He wants to create an emergency in the region. This was also Arafat’s famous theory. If things are too quiet, create a situation . . . that will not give Israel the chance to say that things are going well.”

Abbas’s goal is to engineer an Israeli-Hamas conflict — something neither Israel nor Hamas have any interest in entering into at this time, according to Elad. A new round of fighting “would make Hamas weaker, and Abbas would retain the image of the good Palestinian guy who does not clash with Israel. Hamas would be the trouble-maker. The international community would be on his side.”

Abbas may not be the only one trying to push Hamas into a new clash with Israel. In recent days, a series of border bombs went off in the vicinity of Israel Defense Forces’ units patrolling the border with Gaza. The blasts were likely set off by smaller jihadist rebellious factions in Gaza. They failed to cause injuries, but they formed the pretext for an Israeli air strike that destroyed a Hamas combat tunnel in central Gaza.

A day later, Israel announced that it had destroyed an additional tunnel, originally discovered in 2014, which Hamas’s military wing had recently attempted to renovate and link to a newer section.

“Currently, Israel is eroding Hamas,” said Elad. “This is another kind of war. It’s not a bad idea.”

Ultimately, the main asset keeping Abbas in power is the presence of Israeli military forces in the territories, he stated. “When they leave, Abbas will have to leave, too . . . What happened in Gaza [in 2007, when Hamas ejected the PA] would be half of what could happen in the West Bank. Abbas has to be glad that the IDF is in the territories.”

‘The game repeats the same pattern’

Col. (ret.) Shay Shaul, former deputy head of the National Security Council of Israel, told JNS that every PA-Hamas reconciliation attempt has followed a similar pattern — and all have ended up in failure.

Shaul, today the director of research at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, said that usually, Hamas comes to talks with the PA “when it reaches major distress, from an economic and international perspective. When it is really isolated, it shouts out for help. The PA stretches out a hand for reconciliation. But quickly, when they reach the substantial areas that are in dispute, it doesn’t continue.”

According to Shaul, Hamas’s goal is to safeguard the existing situation and “save itself.”

“It is willing to negotiate, but not follow through on the issues that derive from the talks,” continued Shaul. “The PA is unwilling to pay without getting something in return from Hamas. This game repeats the same pattern. The Egyptians act as intermediaries. And in the background is the threat of violence.”

Shaul said the idea that Hamas would actually disarm and dissolve itself as an autonomous authority before integrating itself into the PA is “little more than wishful thinking.”

From Israel’s perspective, he added, it is important for the PA to be strong and stable, and that it remains able to keep the areas it controls quiet. The prevention of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is also in Israel’s interest, as are finding ways to “isolate and weaken the terrorist entity of Hamas. How to realize this is part of the art of the political maneuver.”

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