The Other Half of the Equation to Sidelining Hamas
Now that the fighting between Israel and Hamas is over, everyone–as always happens after these rounds–is turning to the question of preventing more fighting down the road. There is broad consensus across the political spectrums both here and in Israel that this requires rebuilding Gaza in some measure, and an even deeper and broader consensus that this requires weakening Hamas, irrespective of whether or not Gaza is rebuilt.
But there is another side of the coin to weakening Hamas, as doing so will only be an effective strategy in the long term if there is an alternative actor that can gain from Hamas’s loss. This means not only weakening Hamas but bolstering the Palestinian Authority, and the former will not necessarily lead to the latter. Doing so requires a real shift in policy attitudes, and also requires broadening the scope well beyond the narrow question of Gaza reconstruction.
The sudden talk about strengthening the PA requires a concerted exercise in short-term memory loss, particularly on the Israeli side. Defense Minister Benny Gantz has advocated for Israel to boost the PA as the most important element in changing the situation in Gaza for the better, but this appears contrary to the views of Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., who on the first day of Hamas rocket fire on May 10 blamed the PA in a tweet thread for violence and hate yet somehow managed to not even mention the group that was actually firing rockets at Israel.
It also runs contrary to years of actual Israeli policy instituted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has been to foster the PA-Hamas split as a way of preventing Palestinian unity through maintaining the PA in a weakened state in the West Bank and maintaining Hamas in a weakened state in Gaza. While this has been clear to anyone paying close attention, you don’t need to take my word for it; Netanyahu stated the policy directly in a Likud meeting two years ago, arguing that allowing Qatari funds into Gaza every month–which are then distributed by Hamas–helps prevent a Palestinian state by keeping Hamas in power.
— Ambassador Gilad Erdan גלעד ארדן (@giladerdan1) May 10, 2021
It seems that there is now a growing assessment, as there was at the conclusion of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, that trusting Hamas to maintain quiet in return for not only quiet but tacit Israeli acquiescence to its rule in Gaza is not feasible. Then too, a mechanism was established for Gaza reconstruction aid to flow through the PA. That did not work for reconstruction purposes given the breakdown of agreements, the lack of trust among everyone, and the complexity of having too many separate actors that had to approve and coordinate everything while also working toward different aims. But the larger problem is that trying to give the PA a primary role in Gaza reconstruction, or even Gaza governance, while walling that off from a larger policy toward the PA is destined to fail on all fronts.
Gaza reconstruction is important. So is ensuring that Hamas is not the party that benefits from the process, either financially or politically. Trying to construct a policy by which the PA manages or implements Gaza reconstruction is not the same thing, however, as strengthening the PA. For starters, it isn’t clear that the PA even wants to be responsible for Gaza reconstruction without getting something out of it; facilitating the development and rebuilding of Gaza while Hamas remains in place and in control of the territory is not anything that Mahmoud Abbas will be itching to do. It also does not give the PA a political win, which is what is actually needed right now. Hamas launched rockets at Israel in order to take advantage of Fatah’s weakness and demonstrate the viability of its brand and approach, and foisting a large economic development project on the PA without any other measures does nothing to alter the configuration of Palestinian politics. It is the equivalent of giving someone caffeine pills to deal with COVID-19 fatigue.
What will strengthen the PA, and do so at Hamas’s expense, has nothing to do with Gaza. It has to do with letting the PA credibly claim some victories in East Jerusalem and Area C, and demonstrating that Abbas’s approach of engagement with Israel and non-violence is more successful than Hamas’s opposite tack. The situation in Gaza is not what is driving the PA’s deep unpopularity, and allowing Hamas to claim that it is the only Palestinian faction standing up for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem is one of the best ways to maintain chronic PA weakness and undermine the Palestinian faction that is committed to two states. Insisting that the reopened U.S. consulate be located in Ramallah rather than in Jerusalem where it was previously located, for instance, sends the message that the PA is completely ineffectual on the Jerusalem issue, and weakens it and momentum toward two states even more. The party that benefits from that is the terrorist group in Gaza, and the outcome that boosts is a single state from the river to the sea.
On the other hand, if the Israeli government were to announce that it was working with the PA on Gaza reconstruction, and as a gesture to the PA in return halting evictions and demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, that would be a way to bolster the PA’s standing while also fulfilling Israel’s desire to route developments for Gaza away from Hamas. There are ways to take this even further, such as placing a moratorium on Area C demolitions or announcing an agreement between Israel and the PA on Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem–an agreement that both sides managed to come to in previous Palestinian elections. Israel could even orchestrate the involvement of the Abraham Accords states in brokering such a deal, which would give normalizing states a win of their own on the Jerusalem issue and bring the added benefit of sidelining Turkey–which, notwithstanding recent reconciliation efforts, has spent the past decade aligned against the status quo Sunni states–and halting Ankara’s increasing prominence and popularity among East Jerusalem Palestinians.
None of this means treating the PA as an ideal partner or giving it a free pass. It means recognizing that this is not an either/or situation, where the PA either has to be treated with kid gloves or treated as an unrepentant terrorist entity dedicated to a long game of Israel’s destruction. The PA is a desirable Israeli partner in some ways (and anyone who still doubts that might note the relative quiet that reigned in the West Bank during the recent fighting despite the fact that IDF units were rerouted out of the West Bank and deployed around Gaza and inside Israeli cities), and a problematic foe in other ways.
Strengthening the PA politically in ways that allow it to claim winning tangible concessions from Israel does not mean letting up on prisoner and martyr payments, and from the U.S. side, it should certainly not mean reconsidering the Taylor Force Act or finding ways around the restrictions on reopening the PLO mission in Washington until these concerns are addressed. It does not mean ignoring PA incitement against Israel, or its hounding of democracy and civil society activists. It means taking a more holistic approach rather than insisting that until every item on the list of required PA reforms is carried out in full, it can be merely tolerated at best and bludgeoned into submission at worst.
There is an odd fixation on an all-or-nothing framing when it comes to the PA. Nearly everyone is willing to back assistance to the PA Security Forces up to a point, and it points to the tendency to view the PA as nothing more than a vehicle to fulfill some limited U.S. and Israeli security interests. The PA is generally considered illegitimate until it eliminates all vestiges of authoritarianism and corruption, gives up every one of its positions that is objectionable to Israel, and in some quarters until it severs any aspirational connection to Jerusalem. This is a great way to not only keep the PA weak but to weaken it even more, and particularly so in the wake of fighting that was viewed by many Palestinians as being driven over Jerusalem issues specifically. Focusing solely on Gaza and the PA connection there in the aftermath of Operation Guardian of the Walls, and ignoring the PA connection to issues that actually matter more to its viability is a recipe for failure.
The best way to transform Fatah into Hamas is to keep on denying it any of the political wins that it actually needs and cares about, and to view everything through the prism of marginal improvements in quality of life and economic peace. Working with the PA on Gaza reconstruction is important for Gaza and important to keep aid away from Hamas. It does nothing to address core Palestinian desires and nothing to address what the PA is actually working towards. Without acknowledging that and doing something to fix it, talk of strengthening the PA is nothing more than hollow policy and empty words.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.