Abbas and his Pyrrhic victory over Hamas
‘My father taught me many things here – he taught me in this room. He taught me – keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” – Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II (1974)
After weeks of talks spearheaded by Egypt at the behest of the Arab League, and with little white smoke to show for them, we at Europe Israel Public Affairs (EIPA) were as surprised as anyone at the news yesterday.
Ismail Haniyeh, the political chief of Hamas, said that the organization is ready to talk reconciliation with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas without preconditions and that he would “dissolve” his leadership committee in Gaza – a key Abbas demand.
This move came like a bolt out of the blue. Hamas had, up until Monday at least, demanded that Abbas halt a series of sanctions taken against it before even sitting down to discuss a reconciliation deal. And Hamas, as we all know, doesn’t do climbdowns.
The sanctions? Well you may remember that Abbas, by presenting Israel with a de facto ultimatum as the key supplier of fuel and electricity to the Strip, unilaterally cut electricity in Gaza in early May, and for good measure slashed the salaries of tens of thousands of Hamas “civil” servants. The move was his not-so-subtle attempt to force the dissolution of the committee that Hamas has used to run the territory in defiance of Abbas’ government.
This crude tactic appears, on paper at least, to have worked.
Summer in Israel tends to be Hamas’ favorite season to unleash bloody mayhem through rocket attacks and tunnel incursions into the State of Israel. Instead, it was one of the quietest summers on record.
Naturally this lull didn’t stop Hamas from making grotesque statements glorifying stabbing attacks and urging bloody retribution for an entirely manufactured and fabricated crisis about Israeli plans to take over the Temple Mount, but still, this move is unprecedented and hands Abbas a much needed victory over his rivals. But does it really?
A brief history recap: the rival Palestinian factions split in 2007 when Hamas violently routed forces loyal to Abbas from Gaza. It was mercenary and bloody, with tit for tat murders and horrific acts of violence, culminating in Fatah leaders in Gaza being thrown off roofs to their death. Very Sicilian. Repeated attempts by numerous thirds parties at reconciling the two sides had hitherto failed.
That’s why we at EIPA remain very wary. While Abbas may have studied the Corleone family playbook in his dealings with Hamas, and while his initiative appears to have borne fruit, we think that this may just be a strategic move on the part of Hamas. The bad blood between both “families” runs too deep.
It’s worth noting the key to all this: that at the same time as the reconciliation negotiations were ongoing, and with an eye firmly to the North where they saw the benefits brought to Hezbollah in cold hard cash, the Hamas leadership has been moving, under the radar to most except thankfully the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency), on a significant rapprochement with Iran. Temporarily burying the hatchet with the PA gives them the space, not to say means, to carry on doing so.
Again, a bit of a recap: let’s go back to February and the election of Hamas’ new political bureau – the leadership body – when it received new leaders and new blood.
The meteoric rise of the militant Yahya Sinwar to the position of Hamas leader in Gaza, and the election of some of the members of the pro-Iranian axis, like Saleh al-Arouri, signaled the beginning of a thaw in Hamas’ relations with Iran. Sinwar is also one of the closest people to the Muhammad Deif, the head of Hamas’ military wing, whose stated interest lies in securing Iranian aid and aping Hezbollah in a perverse “grace and favor” relationship with Tehran.
How all of this plays out would simply be conjecture, but we can say that the Palestinian political and militant dynamic is most certainly in a state of evolving and potentially even more dangerous flux.
So, while the PA leadership may be collectively patting itself on the back, they should beware of hubris. Hamas are not only adept at playing the long game, unlike the PA they also appear to have a long-term strategy.
At the back of it all is Iran. The Tehran regime appears to be extending one of its many fetid tentacles and upping its ante in a dangerous, febrile Middle-East arena: the tinder box that is the Gaza Strip. Food for thought for any EU foreign policy big-wigs who may be rushing to laud this latest move.