Is Israel preparing for the inevitable civil war in the West Bank?
As President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken ponder how to entice the Palestinian Authority (PA) to negotiate with Israel, a far more significant problem is being ignored. The Biden team marched along, facilitating a transfer of money to the PA and reopening the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, another Palestinian demand, without tangible reciprocity. But this will not reveal the elephant in the room: an inevitable, coming uprising by Hamas in the West Bank.
Hamas instigated the Gaza war in May as part of a strategy to weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party and increase Hamas’s popularity among Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank. As Amos Harel writes in Haaretz, the rule of Abbas “is less stable. … The succession battles among his subordinates are being waged openly and, above all, Hamas is continuing to gain popularity against the backdrop of what is perceived as its success in standing up to Israel during the fighting in May.”
The U.S. evidently thinks it can strengthen the PA’s standing with the Palestinian people by insisting any rebuilding of Gaza be coordinated through the PA and not Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror organization. But covering over the rot of the PA with increased foreign aid is a Band-Aid at best. Hamas may allow some money to flow through the PA to Gaza, but Abbas won’t control it for long.
That will not save the PA, which is considered corrupt by many Palestinians. That corruption includes accusations of stealing billions of dollars in internationally contributed money designated for the Palestinian people over many years, money that allegedly ended up enriching Abbas and his Fatah cronies. Hamas also reportedly has stolen donated money and used it to build villas on the Mediterranean and tunnels to ferry terrorists and to buy missiles to target Israeli civilians.
If an election were held today, Abbas likely would be humiliated, as he was in 2006 when Fatah unexpectedly lost to Hamas — except this time, Abbas would lose more decisively. As during the Hamas coup in 2007 in Gaza, this time they would execute Abbas’s security forces, given the chance. That is evidently why Abbas called off the parliamentary election this spring and the presidential vote scheduled for this summer.
The current unrest in the West Bank is not only the product of the war that Hamas started to undermine the Fatah-controlled West Bank; it also has a lot to do with the killing of Abbas’s political opponent, Nizar Banat, who died while in PA custody in Hebron. His death has been a rallying cry, adding fuel to the unrest. Banat, for context, was no angel. He was a supporter of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Hezbollah, and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
This is all excellent news for Hamas. It already was more popular than Fatah, which isn’t saying a lot. But its popularity dramatically rose after it was perceived as the victor of the latest Gaza war (Operation Guardian of the Walls) and marketed itself successfully as the defender of Muslim Jerusalem. The PA appeared weak and feckless.
As Ghaith al-Omari, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote, “Fatah is facing one of its worst crises since its creation. The divisions that emerged in the run-up to the canceled elections will not go away, as they are rooted in longstanding grievances and dissatisfaction with Abbas’ authoritarian leadership style. … Once the dust settles, Hamas will probably find itself more popular among Palestinians outside Gaza than within. Hamas will try to use this to agitate in the West Bank and try to organize mass protests to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority.”
Hamas has made great strides in positioning itself to take over the West Bank when Abbas’s tenure ends. Since its coup in Gaza 15 years ago, Hamas has been preparing for the opportunity to create an uprising in the West Bank. Today’s conditions are ripe for such, and a single Hamas match could ignite the region in a Palestinian civil war — which Hamas is likely to win. The losers would be Israel, Jordan, America, Egypt, the Gulf states and the Palestinian people. The winners would be Iran, Turkey, Russia and Qatar. How will the losing side adjust to a Palestinian Authority controlled by Hamas in charge of Gaza and the West Bank?
Are Israel, America and their Middle Eastern allies planning a strategy for the likely possibility of a civil war in the West Bank? Do they believe that funneling humanitarian aid to Gaza through the PA will lead to a long-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas or inhibit Hamas from setting the West Bank on fire once sufficient arms, material and money get into their hands?
The attention of the international community is focused on Gaza, but Hamas apparently is one step ahead, strategizing with its Islamist patrons to find opportunities to move closer to taking over the West Bank. Then it could impose Muslim Brotherhood control on the rest of the Palestinian State. Funding from Iran, Qatar and Turkey is in place to help make this happen.
Israel’s next war with Hamas may be not just in Gaza but also in the West Bank, centered in Judea and Samaria, as happened during the Second Intifada of the early 2000s. This time, Israel may be fighting on three fronts simultaneously. Add to that Iranian-controlled militia embedded in Syria and Iraq, ready to transfer arms and troops to tip the balance in favor of Hamas.
America has one foot out of its small presence in Iraq and Syria and is counting on a strong Israel for its security interests. America should be encouraging and helping Israel to strategize with Jordan, Egypt and their Gulf allies for a Hamas-instigated civil war in the West Bank, which appears more and more to be inevitable. Now is the time for all the players against Hamas to coordinate for such an eventuality, changing the primary focus from Gaza to the West Bank.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides, and is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report/Jerusalem Post.