Is Hamas Attack the Beginning of West Bank Takeover?
by David Hacham
The rocket attack against northern Israel in which Hamas fired 34 projectiles from southern Lebanon on April 6 reflects a clear attempt on the group’s part to advance a broader and highly dangerous strategic goal.
Hamas is seeking to create an offensive ring around Israel that constitutes a multi-front threat. As such, it is working to build terrorist infrastructure in Lebanon, in addition to its existing fronts against Israel — the Gaza Strip, which has been under the organization’s control since 2007, and the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by President Mahmoud Abbas, is growing weaker, and where Hamas is working to build a foothold.
Hamas’ grand strategy and its actions in Lebanon are ultimately aimed at boosting its quest of toppling the Fatah-run PA in the West Bank. The PA is gradually losing control there, especially in the Jenin region, and, to a partial extent, in Nablus.
Hamas exploited tensions on the Temple Mount, a highly sensitive Islamic site, to launch its attack from southern Lebanon, likely in full coordination with Hezbollah and Iran. A Hamas rocket attack of this scope could not have occurred without coordination and a green light from Hezbollah, which is the strongest organization in the Lebanese system. At the time of the April 6 attack, Hamas Politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh was visiting Lebanon, accompanied by his deputy, Salah Arouri — and that is no coincidence.
The rocket attack carried out by Hamas from Lebanon against Israel was pre-planned, with Hamas’ intention being essentially a limited escalation.
The rockets were aimed at areas near the Lebanese border but were not intended to hit infrastructure targets of strategic significance. Given that, Hamas’ rocket attack was not a declaration of war, or an attempt to deteriorate the situation in a way that would create a general escalation and bring about a renewed military confrontation with Israel on a large scale.
The Israeli response — selected airstrikes in Gaza and southern Lebanon — was measured and limited. It was designed to prevent an uncontrolled deterioration and overall war. Israel’s limited response indicates that it is not interested in war at present and that it does not want a confrontation involving several arenas simultaneously.
The internal crisis in Israel surrounding attempts by the government to promote legal reform has eroded Israel’s deterrence, and its enemies assess that it is vulnerable. All of this is tied to Hamas’ strategic goal of toppling the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank with the end of the Mahmoud Abbas era. The April escalation boosted Hamas’ standing at Fatah’s expense.
Hamas is taking advantage of the governing vacuum in the PA, which is made worse by internal Fatah power struggles. In recent years, several potential candidates, all from Fatah, have entered into a destabilizing competition for the leadership position.
In practice, Hamas has already taken concrete steps to exploit this instability and to position itself to challenge the PA for the Palestinian leadership as soon as the opportunity arises. This has included a reshuffling of Hamas operatives in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, with an emphasis on command levels, as well as cultivating operatives from the younger generations. These operatives include organizationally affiliated Hamas members, and other more loosely affiliated individuals with close ties to Hamas, such as academics, trade unionists, and public sector figures in the West Bank, and they are active in the Islamist stream within Palestinian local councils and civil society institutions.
Hamas is focusing on two major courses of action. The first is the democratic path to power, through a voting process, and the second — a fallback position — is the military takeover of the PA using violent means if necessary. All the while, Hamas labels Fatah as a traitor to the Palestinian people due to its security coordination with Israel.
One of the most prominent operatives among Hamas ranks in the West Bank is engineer Wazan Jaber, a representative of the younger generation in the terror group. A few weeks ago, an attempt was made to assassinate him, likely by Fatah members. Jaber was not injured.
It is worth noting that Fatah is well aware of Hamas’ intention to replace it. Fatah is actively engaged in an effort to limit Hamas’ power in the West Bank. This includes the continued existence of security coordination with Israel — albeit in a more discreet and limited manner since the PA’s January announcement of its cessation of coordination, in protest against an IDF security operation in the Jenin refugee camp.
The PA is also working to dry up sources of financial aid to Hamas, and Abbas has taken a series of measures to prevent Hamas from gaining a foothold in the Palestinian government system, such as keeping the Palestinian parliament dissolved, thereby preventing Hamas-linked parliament speaker Aziz Dweik from being considered as a legal heir to Abbas.
Instead, this power has been transferred to the Palestinian National Council and its Fatah chairman, Rawhi Fattouh (Abbas’ appointment of Hussein Al-Sheikh, the Minister for Civil Affairs, as secretary of the PLO’s Executive Committee in May 2022, should not, despite initial impressions, be seen as promoting a desired heir, since Abbas can eject Al-Sheikh from that position at any time).
A Hamas military attack on Fatah positions is possible as soon as Hamas recognizes an opportunity to launch it.
As far as Israel is concerned, there is no replacement for the PA; who would rule Area A of the West Bank in the PA’s place? Should Israel once again enter the Palestinian cities and assume direct responsibility over millions of Palestinians, in addition to being responsible for water and electricity? This is a delusional concept.
As such, Israel must work to ensure the preservation of the PA in the post-Abbas era, despite the PA’s many failings.
It is likely that Israel would intervene in one way or another militarily to prevent a Hamas coup in the West Bank since this would breach an Israeli red line.
Col. David Hacham (IDF, Ret.) is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. He served for 30 years in various intelligence and political-strategic positions in the IDF, including eight years in the Gaza Strip as advisor for Arab affairs to successive commanders of the Southern Command and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
The MirYam Institute is the leading international forum for Israel focused discussion, dialogue, and debate, focused on campus presentations, engagement with international legislators, and gold-standard trips to the State of Israel. Follow their work at www.MirYamInstitute.org.