THE BLOG
07/22/2014 09:27 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

In Ongoing Conflict, Netanyahu's Strategy Depends on Palestinian Disunity

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Though it wasn't the biggest headline on Monday, the killing of a Palestinian protestor in West Bank, far from the Gaza Strip, might turn out to be the most depressing turning point in conflict spinning out of control.

Two months ago, the West Bank-based leadership of Fatah (فتح‎) and the Gaza-based leadership of Hamas (حماس‎) really seemed like they were on the verge of forming a coherent unity government, bringing together the two competing factions of Palestinian politics for the first time after nearly a decade of division.

At the time, Israeli and US officials took an alarmist view of the new unity government, in light of their characterization of Hamas as a terrorist organization that continues to target civilians in Israel. Whereas Fatah essentially recognizes the existence of the state of Israel, Hamas still considers Israel as an illegitimate state.

Despite the US and Israeli misgivings, Fatah-Hamas reconciliation could have been a necessary, if difficult, step toward long-term Israeli-Palestinian peace. In retrospect, Israeli and US leaders should have welcomed any reunification that could have brought Gaza's leadership to the negotiation table. While Ramallah (if not so much of the rest of the West Bank) boomed economically, and while Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has steadily increased Palestinian control over security throughout much of the West Bank, Gaza has been subject to an Israeli embargo since 2007, crippling the Gazan economy and strangling opportunity and employment for 1.4 million Palestinians. If Gazans are more radical than their West Bank counterparts, Israel's embargo has given them ample reason.

But geopolitical events across the Middle East have isolated Hamas within the Muslim world, especially over the past year. Whereas the Islamic Republic of Iran once funded Hamas, Iranian support for Hamas collapsed as they lined up on opposite sides of Syria's civil war, with Iranian officials supporting Shiite president Bashar al-Assad and with Hamas backing Sunni-led rebels. Moreover, where former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi looked sympathetically upon Hamas (technically, Hamas is the Palestinian branch of Morsi's own Muslim Brotherhood), the Egyptian military that overthrew Morsi last July and Morsi's newly 'elected' successor Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are much less tolerant of Hamas. They have cracked down on the Egyptian border with Gaza, in essence working with Israel to perpetuate the embargo.

Accordingly, Fatah came to the unity government in April from a position of strength. Had it succeeded, Fatah might have had a restraining effect on the much weakened Hamas. Nevertheless, Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu opposed the unity government from the outset, using the occasion to accuse Abbas of being less than serious as a 'partner for peace.'

Though there's a strong argument that Netanyahu erred in dismissing the Fatah-Hamas unity government outright two months ago, Netanyahu's strategy today fundamentally depends on the disunity between Hamas and Fatah. With Israel and Hamas now two weeks into a lethal conflict, the unity government has all but collapsed in the face of the latest military engagement in Gaza.

We'll never know if the unity government would have worked, but it was already struggling before the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers that precipitated the current bout of violence. Fatah, for example, reinstated around 70,000 of its own civil servants, putting 50,000 of Hamas's civil servants out of work. Though Qatar's government offered to pay the Hamas-based civil servants, through the United Nations if necessary, US and Israeli officials balked at the idea of supporting any plan that would contribute money to what they still consider a terrorist organization, leaving Abbas and the Fatah leadership trapped in the middle.

Netanyahu will argue that Hamas never seriously entertained working with Fatah, but Israel and the United States worked from the outset to undermine the unity government. What's certain is that Netanyahu is relying on the continued political isolation of Hamas - vis-à-vis the wider Muslim world and vis-à-vis Fatah most of all.

Until Monday, the West Bank remained surprisingly calm. Abbas, who has been in Qatar with UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon discussing ceasefire efforts, has condemned Israeli air strikes as 'genocide.' Hamas leadership, however, has refused a ceasefire unless Israel meets several conditions, including the end of Gaza's blockade, conditions that Israel will not likely meet anytime soon.

But the longer the war goes, especially Israel's ground offensive, the more likely that all Palestinians, even those in the West Bank, could rally around Hamas. As the world watches the conflict unfold on social media and on live television, the death toll has been unavoidable. As of Monday, over 500 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed, mostly civilians. Notwithstanding Israeli assurances that the IDF provides ample warning before shelling civilian areas, and Israeli claims that it's targeting only those sites that it believes harbor Hamas weaponry, human rights groups far beyond the Muslim world have decried the Israeli offensive as disproportionate. Gazan civilians, trapped in a 25-mile stretch of land by an embargo jointly enforced by Israel and Egypt, have literally nowhere to run as Israel and Hamas escalate their efforts.

Every time Israeli weaponry kills children playing on a Gazan beach, every time that Israeli bombs tear through a civilian hospital in Gaza, it becomes easier to imagine that Israel will finally bring Fatah and Hamas together after eight years. If so, though, it won't be a stable government dominated by the more secular Fatah leadership. It would constitute a third intifada, the third such united Palestinian revolt in as many decades against Israel's nearly half-decade of military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Having been pushed to the brink of political collapse by Fatah and by Iranian and Egyptian officials, Hamas might find resurrection in martyring itself in a lopsided campaign against what's increasingly viewed as Israeli aggression. That could explain why Hamas, against such long odds, continues to shoot rockets into Israel in equal measures of recklessness and futility.

A united Palestinian front against Israel is still unlikely, given Abbas's renewed efforts to work with Israeli, Egyptian and UN officials to effect a ceasefire. But there's no guarantee that Abbas can secure peace from within the West Bank if Israeli forces further escalate their Gaza invasion. For now, it appears that Netanyahu, prodded (some might say threatened) by his hardline allies in government, including foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and economy minister Naftali Bennett, is playing right into Hamas's hands. It's a strategy that could backfire on Netanyahu, who will suffer much more than either Lieberman or Bennett if Israel finds itself mired in a drawn-out conflict with Palestinians.

For all the furor over the noisome rockets that Hamas shoots into Israel, they represent a far less serious security challenge than suicide bombers from Ramallah or Hebron or Nablus. We should all be relieved that the current conflict has not yet reached the same horrible levels as the last intifada of the early 2000s. If it does, it will be because West Bank Palestinians believe Israeli counterattacks are so egregious to leave no option beyond common cause with Hamas radicals. If and when that happens, Netanyahu will share some of the responsibility for placing Israeli citizens in even greater danger.

Kevin A. Lees is an attorney in Washington, DC and the editor of Suffragio.org .