PA, IDF Arrest Hamas Activists in West Bank Amid Tense Municipal Elections
Islamist group is laying the groundwork for an alternative PLO, expert says
Dozens of Hamas activists have been arrested in recent days and weeks, in what appears to be the latest desperate effort by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to curb the Islamist movement’s growing support in the West Bank.
Hassan Yousef, a co-founder of Hamas and a prominent leader of the movement in the West Bank, was arrested by Israeli forces near Ramallah on Monday. He promised his organization will continue to expand its activities.
As Hamas celebrates the 34th anniversary of its founding, it is ready to offer itself as alternative to the PLO, in preparation for the post-Mahmoud Abbas era.
Palestinian security forces arrested more than 30 activists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad during in recent days in Nablus, Hebron and Ramallah. Some arrests took place at Birzeit University, north of Ramallah, including of prominent members of Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).
The Israel Defense Forces arrested Yousef at his home in Beitunia, near Ramallah during what seems to be a wide-scale campaign aimed at preventing chaos and security deterioration in the West Bank. Shin Bet Director Ronen Bar warned Israel’s cabinet last week that, given the Palestinian Authority’s weakness, Israel must urgently act to strengthen the PA and block Hamas from acquiring greater influence and power.
Dr. Ido Zelkovitz, head of the Middle East Studies program at Yezreel Valley College and a research fellow at the University of Haifa, says Hamas’ influence in West Bank has grown significantly since the IDF’s Operation Guardian of the Walls, an 11-day cross border conflict with Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza in May.
“Hamas was able to position itself as the defender of the holy places in Jerusalem. Until then, the PA felt easy with the status quo where Hamas ruled Gaza and was left to its devices. But since May the status quo had changed and it was a wake-up call for the PA,” Zelkovitz told The Media Line.
We know that Hamas is not only trying to incite and ignite violence through campaigns on social networks, but also to create a military infrastructure in the West Bank
In a recent survey, approximately 80% of Palestinians said they wanted to see octogenarian Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA and chairman of its ruling Fatah party and of the PLO, leave political life. Other polls, performed by Dr. Khalil Shikaki of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, showed that support for Hamas had significantly increased since May.
Israeli security leaders have repeatedly warned that, in addition to building its base of support in the West Bank, Hamas also is creating a vast network of terrorists there to carry out attacks against Israel. A few weeks ago, such a network, orchestrated from Turkey, was uncovered by Israel and 50 of its members were arrested. Some arrests were also made in September.
“We know that Hamas is not only trying to incite and ignite violence through campaigns on social networks, but also to create a military infrastructure in the West Bank,” Zelkovitz said.
“This development is challenging the PA and of course it’s against the vital interest of Israel. The current wave of arrests also happens around the 34th anniversary of Hamas, and we saw the arrests of students in Birzeit who were affiliated with Hamas and the PFLP along with senior Hamas leaders such as Hassan Yousef. His arrest is of course symbolic and is meant to send a message to Hamas,” the professor added. The current arrests also occurred close to the 54th anniversary of the PFLP’s founding.
The preliminary results of the first stage of local elections that took place in the West Bank on December 11 provided a clear indication of Fatah’s weakness. Amid political stalemate and the recent wave of arrests, Hamas boycotted the vote in the West Bank and canceled them in Gaza altogether.
“Even though Hamas didn’t run, Fatah performed poorly in the elections. It got only a small share of the votes, a little more than 20%, while the majority of the votes went to independent candidates or to the Palestinian National Initiative headed by Mustafa Barghouti,” Dr. Mkhaimar Abusada, chairman of the Department of Political Science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told The Media Line.
Partisan lists garnered 29.14% of the seats while independent lists won 70.86%, according to the Palestinian Central Elections Commission. Abusada says many of the independent candidates were Hamas members.
“I don’t think that they [Hamas] were afraid to lose the vote in the West Bank. Hamas demanded to go ahead with the whole package and to also have presidential and parliamentary elections, not only local elections. However, if the [municipal] elections were held in Gaza, then they [Hamas] would definitely lose. The people here are against Hamas, because of the poverty and the siege. The majority here are not supportive of Hamas,” Abusada said.
Hamas leaders also rejected holding the local elections in phases, although they were conducted that way in previous years. The next phase of local elections is due to take place on March 26, 2022 when the PA hopes they also will be held in the Gaza Strip.
Despite the mass arrests in the West Bank and Hamas’ decline in popularity in the Gaza Strip, the organization’s leadership is trying to project a business-as-usual attitude while getting ready for the next phase. In the 2006 legislative election, the party was able to secure a majority in the parliament. The following year, Hamas carried out a military coup and seized power in the Gaza Strip. For many years the Islamists have worked to join the PLO, the umbrella organization that represents the world’s Palestinians. Hamas has been unable to achieve this thus far because of its rejection of Fatah leadership, which has ruled the PLO with a high hand for many years.
It now seems that Hamas is preparing the groundwork to create an alternative PLO, says Zelkovitz.
“Hamas is working non-stop in Europe, creating associations and conferences. They are fighting for hegemony [of the Palestinian arena], not only in Gaza and the West Bank, but also in Europe. The spillover of this infighting was also well felt in Lebanon during the last few days,” Zelkovitz said.
It is still early to tell how the latest steps of the Israeli government and the PA leadership will affect the situation on the ground. The unrest in Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank has been felt for months now, and the ongoing economic crisis is aggravating the situation even more. Even if the economy improves due to urgent foreign aid or Israeli decisions, a political storm in the near future appears to be unavoidable.