RAMALLAH, West Bank — Indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were set to resume this week, as United States Mideast envoy George Mitchell prepared for yet another round of shuttle diplomacy intended to revive a peace process long eclipsed by mistrust.
But that hasn't stopped preparations for more fighting.
Hamas is steadily rebuilding its power in the West Bank, stockpiling weapons and material underground, biding its time for a renewal of the conflict with its Fatah rivals.
Palestinian security officials have been telling me this for some time, and they are frankly filled with fear and foreboding. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas mentioned it again in an interview with the Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat during the week, accusing Hamas of smuggling weapons to the West Bank.
The Hamas buildup is one of the reasons Abbas has allowed his independent prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, to stay in his job so long, despite the popularity Fayyad is accruing at the expense of Abbas’s Fatah. Fayyad has managed to reform the Palestinian security forces, persuading the U.S. to give tens of millions of dollars in security aid.
Without those reforms, the Palestinian security forces would either fold in minutes if faced with a Hamas uprising in the West Bank, or would even join Hamas to save themselves.
So it’s significant that after 10 days in which Abbas repeatedly berated Fayyad’s plan to declare a Palestinian state in 2011 — which would convince the world that if Fayyad could create a state, Fatah might’ve become irrelevant and therefore not worth the cash it siphons away — the president also highlighted the urgency of Fayyad’s most important achievement. (He first talked about it in an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper in January, when he said he had “verified information” that Hamas planned to take over the West Bank by force.)
Of course, U.S. and European security advisers to the Palestinian security forces don’t claim to have made much of their new charges. If Hamas is able to recreate its West Bank network, the Palestinian security forces will hold up their advance for only about a week, they estimate.
That’s not bad, given that two years ago the Palestinian security forces were good for nothing much at all. A week might also buy time for a cease-fire, which might in turn preclude an Israeli invasion of the West Bank — it’s unimaginable that the Israelis would allow the West Bank to come under Hamas control.
Part of Abbas’ accusation against Hamas is that its leadership is allowing radical young military leaders to blow off steam by plotting a West Bank armed takeover. In return, those military leaders aren’t pushing as hard for rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza.
The Hamas leaders in Gaza are keen to avoid such attacks, because they’re barely recovering from the hammering they received a year and a half ago at the hands of the Israeli army. The cause of that war, remember, was rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.
Hamas kicked Fatah out of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Fatah people were shot and tortured, and a few were tossed from tall buildings. Since then, both sides have engaged in a low-flame civil war which involves lengthy detentions without trial, torture and kneecappings.
The West Bank looks like an attractive playground into which Hamas can shove its angrier military types. After all, if the Fatah cops fail to intercept a Hamas attack against Israelis in or from the West Bank, Israel usually blames Fatah rather than Hamas.
Within the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, there has been an increase in support for more militant action — yes, more militant than the leadership which ultimately wants to eradicate Israel but is prepared to wait a long time to do so.
Those military leaders have turned, according to international analysts, to a brand of Islam more commonly called “Salafi.” In short, it’s the extreme Islam favored by many in the Gulf States. It’s quite alien to most Palestinians, who are conservative but not particularly fundamentalist in their religion. Still, once a military type gets stirred up, the hard line often looks appealing.
Abbas better hope he hasn’t leaned too hard on Fayyad. The week of grace his prime minister’s reforms will have bought him in the event of an attempted coup by Hamas might prove to be the difference between a nice retirement at his house in Dubai and the kind of kangaroo justice meted out by the Islamist in Gaza three years ago.