‘Cynical Power Grab’: Palestinian Power Struggle Is Fueling the Violence

By Patrick Goodenough | May 14, 2021 | 4:39am EDT
Palestinians hoist the flag of the Hamas terrorist group on Monday atop Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. (Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)
Palestinians hoist the flag of the Hamas terrorist group on Monday atop Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. (Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – Hamas’ decision to start a new round of hostilities by firing barrages of rockets into Israel this week was linked to internal Palestinian power struggles and the recent decision to postpone already long-overdue elections, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said on Thursday.

“Hamas saw an opportunity following the cancelation of the Palestinian elections and the difficulties of the Palestinian leadership, to hijack the Palestinian narrative and position itself among the Palestinians as a defender of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and al-Aqsa mosque,” he said.

It’s an issue that has received relatively little attention in media coverage of the flare-up in Israel this week. Most reporting focuses on the potential eviction of several Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, and unrest on the Temple Mount, as triggers for the violence.

Palestinian Authority (P.A.) chairman Mahmoud Abbas recently postponed already long-overdue elections in the Palestinian territories. Legislative polls had been scheduled for May 22, and the presidential election for July 31.

Although Abbas sought to blame Israel, it had become evident that Hamas would pose a serious threat to his Fatah faction.

In the last legislative election, 15 years ago, Hamas won in Gaza, and a year later it seized control of the territory in violent clashes with Fatah. Hamas has controlled Gaza ever since, while the Ramallah-based P.A.’s rule has been limited to parts of the West Bank.

Abbas, who has not set foot in Gaza since 2007, is himself currently in the 17th year of his four-year term, having repeatedly postponed elections since his mandate expired in January 2009. The United Nations continues to accord him the title of “president of the State of Palestine.”

Hamas, an Islamist group established in 1987 as the Palestinian branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sponsored by the Iranian regime, has been a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization (FTO) since 1997.

Fatah, by contrast, is not listed as an FTO, although its al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades military wing was designated as such in 2002, after claiming responsibility for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

Polling by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in March found that, in Gaza, support for Hamas and Fatah as the best faction to lead the P.A. was neck-and-neck (33 versus 34 percent).

In a presidential race between Abbas and Hamas’ Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh, Haniyeh was running ahead of Abbas by 56-41 points in Gaza, while in the West Bank Abbas led by 52 points to 38.

(If the imprisoned Fatah activist Marwan Barghouti was able to run for president, however, the poll found that he would beat both Haniyeh and Abbas. Barghouti is serving consecutive life sentences in Israel for murder.)

Abbas’ decision to call off the election (again) came as a blow to Palestinian voters, who the poll suggested had become increasingly confident that it would actually go ahead this time. In March 61 percent of respondents said they expected them to take place, up from just 32 percent three months earlier.

Palestinian children wave flags of the Hamas terrorist group in Rafah in the Gaza Strip last July. (Photo by Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)
Palestinian children wave flags of the Hamas terrorist group in Rafah in the Gaza Strip last July. (Photo by Said Khatib/AFP via Getty Images)

But reflecting the splits within Palestinian society, 69 percent of respondents said Fatah would not accept a Hamas victory, while 60 percent said Hamas would not accept the result if Fatah wins.

Some observers think Hamas has ratcheted up the violence now as a way of further boosting its support and burnishing its “rejectionist” image. Its flag has been prominent during recent unrest on the Temple Mount.

“The violence is a cynical Hamas power grab, using policy disputes as an excuse for terrorism,” Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) said on the House floor on Thursday.

“This dispute is not actually about four houses in East Jerusalem,” prominent Palestinian human rights advocate and media analyst Bassem Eid argued in a Times of Israel blog post. “This is about Hamas seeing a chance to seize the narrative and increase its own influence and control over Palestinians in Jerusalem. Don’t buy their fake news and let them dilute their own blame.”

“Without an election to win, [Hamas] needs a way to demonstrate that it, not Fatah, is the real leader of the Palestinians and the real threat to Israel,” Matti Friedman, a Canadian-born Israeli author and former Associated Press reporter in Israel, wrote in Tablet magazine this week.

“It must show that its ideology of perpetual religious war is the way forward not just here but across the Middle East, as opposed to the path of compromise and normalization that we’ve seen in parts of the Sunni Arab world over the past year,” Friedman added.

The comment referred to the bilateral normalization agreements brokered by the Trump administration between Israel and four Arab states – Bahrain, the UAE, Sudan and Morocco – in 2020.

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