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OPINION

Hopes up in smoke: Yuriy Matsarsky on how Hamas robbed Palestinians of their last chance of statehood

The war in the Middle East, which began on October 7, will postpone the emergence of a truly independent Palestine indefinitely and radicalize Palestinian society. This outcome seems to agree with Hamas, which provoked the war: the terrorists have gone all-in, seeking to become the mouthpiece of the entire Palestinian people as President Mahmoud Abbas is losing the last crumbs of legitimacy.

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Why Abbas doesn't want Gaza

“I will not enter Gaza on the armor of an Israeli tank,” Palestinian National Authority head Mahmoud Abbas responded to an offer by U.S. government representatives to return the Gaza Strip to Palestinian Authority control. Meanwhile, Israel and its allies see this option – replacing the defeated Hamas with far less radical officials from Abbas's team – as one of the preferred scenarios for the region's post-war order.

Mahmoud Abbas, who headed the nascent Palestinian state in 2005, is formally the president of all Palestinians, both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, which fell under Hamas rule in 2007. However, since the military coup in Gaza, his formal leadership has come to naught, and even in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority's power is far from comprehensive. The region's borders, with both Israel and Jordan, are controlled by Israeli security forces; Israeli troops are stationed inside the West Bank; all exports and imports go through Israel, and Israeli security services search Palestinian homes and arrest tenants without notifying local authorities.

Moreover, the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have nominal control over some of its territory – namely, Jewish settlements, which live under Israeli law and are subject to Israeli authorities. The Palestinians have no army of their own, only a small security force armed with small arms, and no airport. Even the administration's budget is largely formed by Israel, both through direct subsidies and customs regulations. In Palestine itself, this state of affairs is officially defined as occupation.

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas

Even at 88, Abbas is well aware that the Gaza Strip will be handed over to him on terms even harsher than those he is dealing with in the West Bank. Israel will take control of the economy and security of the region, but the Palestinian Authority will be responsible for all the problems, and he will have to be the one to take the fall for them. And the problems will be much harder to handle than in the West Bank because the years of Hamas’ rule have made Gaza's population noticeably more violent. With this understanding, the Palestinian president has set an obviously impossible condition: he is willing to take over the administration of Gaza in return for the end of Israeli occupation: the withdrawal of all Israeli troops, the dismantling of settlements, the transfer of control over the external border to the Palestinians and all administrative and financial levers from Israeli officials to Palestinians.

Even the breakthrough 1993 Oslo Accords, which earned Yasser Arafat, Mahmoud Abbas's predecessor as Palestinian leader, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin the Nobel Peace Prize, said nothing about creating an independent Palestine. Back then, in 1993, the Israelis agreed to recognize the Palestinian Authority and allow the emergence of local Palestinian self-governing bodies, which took over the matters of culture, taxation, tourism, and health care, and the formation of the above-mentioned security forces. In return, Arafat promised to renounce terror, recognize the right of the State of Israel to exist, and focus exclusively on peaceful paths to conflict resolution.

Many Israelis met these agreements with hostility, perceiving them as concessions to the enemy. Similarly, many Palestinians saw the promises made to Israel as a betrayal of national interests. As a result, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who had not forgiven him for Oslo, and Arafat gained dangerous rivals among those Palestinians who were not ready to give up the armed struggle. The most prominent of these rivals was Hamas.

Who fostered Hamas

Supporters of Palestinian political party Fatah like to say that the Israelis themselves created Hamas, that this organization is the Israeli government's brainchild that has gone rogue and turned against its creators. That's an exaggeration, of course – but not entirely ungrounded. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Israeli authorities supported the establishment of various religious, primarily Islamic, institutions in the Palestinian territories: schools, foundations, and universities. They believed that Palestinian Arabs who were passionate about religion and busy studying sacred texts were less likely to join the fighters for independence, who were emphatically secular at the time. Back then, al Qaeda was nowhere in sight, Iran was first a secular monarchy and then an Islamic republic more preoccupied with an endless war against neighboring Iraq than fanning the flames of the Islamic revolution. In other words, years would pass before the rise of religious extremism, and the idea of dissuading Palestinians from revolutionary activities with faith didn't seem as ludicrous as it may now.

In the 70s and 80s, the idea of dissuading Palestinians from revolutionary activities with faith didn't seem as ludicrous as it may now

Among those religious institutions established with Israeli permission was the Islamic Center, which opened in Gaza in 1979, headed by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a theologian paralyzed since childhood. The Sheikh did not hide his hostility towards Israel and even prophesied its destruction by Muslim armies but admitted it was a matter of the distant future, warning believers against dreams of immediate expulsion of the Jews and instead encouraging them to study the Koran, help the poor, and do other godly deeds. Yassin also detested that the fighters for Palestinian independence dismissed religion and clearly didn't see their dream state as a theocracy based on Sharia law. Consequently, the Sheikh urged the believers not to join their struggle.

Sheikh Ahmed Yassin
Sheikh Ahmed Yassin

Despite permitting Yassin to build his educational center, Israel did not fully trust the Sheikh and even imprisoned him in the mid-1980s for illegal weapons possession. However, Yassin’s rhetoric still emphasized the untimeliness of an armed struggle against Israel.

It wasn't until 1987 that his stance underwent a drastic change. In December 1987, an Israeli military truck drove into a van carrying Palestinian laborers from Gaza. Four Palestinians died on the spot and ten were injured. A rumor quickly spread among Palestinians that the Israelis killed the workers deliberately. Protests and attacks on Israeli patrols began, which soon erupted into a large-scale uprising now known as the First Intifada. The mass protests caught the then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his entourage unawares, up to the point that they failed to offer any comment early in the riots.

Palestinian children throw stones at the Israeli military
Palestinian children throw stones at the Israeli military

Arafat's confusion was unexpectedly exploited by Sheikh Yassin, a theologian in a white robe and wheelchair, a renowned religious leader and philanthropist, who suddenly declared that the time for jihad had finally arrived. It was then that Hamas was established, with his blessing and under his leadership, and the provisory pacifist stance was forgotten forever. Hamas' involvement dragged out the Intifada for years, up to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993.

The rift within Palestine

The Oslo Accords may have stopped the Intifada, but they immediately exposed a split within the Palestinian resistance. Hamas and its allied organizations and movements refused to lay down their arms and recognize Israel's right to exist. Instead of negotiating with the Jewish state, they demanded its destruction. Instead of postponing the establishment of an independent Palestine indefinitely, they were gunning for an immediate military conquest of both independence and territory.

Instead of negotiating with the Jewish state, Hamas and its allies demanded its destruction

Hamas may have gone into politics in the early 2000s precisely to annul the peace agreement with Israel and to push Fatah and other moderate groups away from the negotiating table and back into the trenches. When that didn't work out, and Abbas didn't give in to entreaties to sever all relations with Israel, Hamas threw in the towel in 2007 and instead took over the Gaza Strip in a bloody coup.

Since then, the two regions, separated by several dozen kilometers of Israeli territory, have evolved in completely different ways. The West Bank has Israeli settlements and military bases but doesn't suffer from the near-total blockade, unlike the overpopulated, densely developed Gaza Strip. While the West Bank has as many as two breweries and even its own Oktoberfest, Sharia is incrementally growing stronger in Gaza, thanks to Hamas’ efforts, starting with a ban on alcohol and entertainment venues.

There is no public transportation in Gaza, and commerce mainly exists in the form of outdoor markets and artisanal workshops

Tourists and pilgrims travel to the West Bank; there are city buses and offices of foreign companies. As for Gaza, no one went there except journalists and employees of international organizations like the UN or the Red Crescent. There is no public transportation in Gaza, and commerce mainly exists in the form of outdoor markets and artisanal workshops. Gaza’s unemployment rate is many times that of the West Bank, and wages are just a fraction of those in the West. In general, if you compare the two regions, the West Bank looks much more prosperous. But Palestinians are reluctant to compare.

“Gaza is a small prison, but ours is only slightly bigger,” Anton Salman, the then Mayor of Bethlehem, told the author of these lines a few years ago. He could spend hours listing how his town and region suffer from the Israeli military presence and total control. Meanwhile, his adult son Fouad offered a vivid and concise example:

“We don't have McDonald`s, but Israel does. If my kids want a Big Mac, we can't just go there and buy one. We have to apply to the Israeli authorities to allow us to leave. Then we wait for an undetermined period, and if permission is granted, we drive through checkpoints, undergoing searches and total checks. You see, even a trip for a burger is a major event, is costly, and requires careful planning with an uncertain outcome.”

Why Palestinians are unhappy with Abbas

Many Palestinians blame President Mahmoud Abbas for all of their troubles, be it poor access to Big Macs, the constant presence of foreign troops, and the economy's total dependence on Israel. After all, he is the head of a state whose formation has gone on for decades without any signs of completion. Abbas is blamed for failed relations with Israel, which is increasingly reluctant to withdraw from the West Bank and is constantly increasing its presence there. Moreover, Abbas did nothing to prevent the emergence of new Jewish settlements or counter the increased Israeli military presence in Hebron and other cities.

Abbas and the Palestinian government in general are undergoing a profound legitimacy crisis. The latest Palestinian presidential election was held as far back as 2005. That is, the Palestinian Authority is headed by a man who was last backed by voters nearly two decades ago. Only about 7% of Palestinians currently living in East Jerusalem voted in those elections, and many of today's adult Palestinians hadn’t even been born at the time.

The Palestinian Authority is headed by a man who was last backed by voters nearly two decades ago

To say that Mahmoud Abbas is unpopular is a major understatement. In September, polls revealed that some 80% of Palestinians would welcome the politician's early resignation. The polls also showed that 58% of Palestinians would choose armed struggle for independence over diplomacy. Only 20% were in favor of continuing negotiations with Israel. 67% of respondents reject the very idea of the coexistence of independent Israel and Palestine; that is, they believe a sovereign Palestine should expand beyond the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to include the entire territory of the Jewish state.

This poll was conducted before Hamas launched the war on October 7. At the moment, Mahmoud Abbas is losing the last crumbs of legitimacy as we speak, especially since he hasn’t yet taken a firm stance on what’s happening. Whereas opponents of Hamas are unhappy he never condemned the organization for the new round of violence and the killing of unarmed people, Hamas supporters haven’t received validation from him either.

The official Palestinian news agency first published an impotent statement by Abbas saying that “Hamas's policies and actions do not represent the entire Palestinian people,” only to delete the post afterward. In general, Mahmoud Abbas should consider his overdue political retirement instead of toying with the idea of subjugating the Gaza Strip, as the Americans have suggested in their negotiation attempt.

The formation of a Palestinian state is postponed

Israel has resisted the emergence of a truly independent Palestine for decades out of concern for its own security. The millions of anti-Jewish Arabs in the region, many of whom remember their parents' or grandfathers' stories of being expelled from their homes where Israelis then moved in, is a major security challenge in itself. The same millions, filled with the same resentment but already possessing their own state and pursuing an independent policy, including military policy, is a much more serious challenge. That is why Israel has hardly ever earnestly discussed Palestine's future independence, although few politicians of consequence dared to openly oppose it.

Israel has hardly ever earnestly discussed Palestine's future independence

One such politician is current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – a most consistent opponent of Palestinian statehood. In his speeches, he emphasized the impossibility of an independent Palestine, painting it to be a threat to Israel's existence, and only once, in a rare instance of a thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations, did he admit that a Palestinian state could still emerge at some point in the future. Even so, he insisted it would have to be fully demilitarized and only within borders that Israel would deem as safe as possible for itself. It is safe to assume that October 7 caused Netanyahu to revert to his previous views on Palestinian statehood. My best guess is he isn't alone in this change of heart.

A year ago, long before the Hamas massacre and the ensuing new war in Gaza, 58% of Jewish Israelis opposed the emergence of an independent Palestine. Obviously, their numbers have only grown. Therefore, the formation of a Palestinian state will at best remain frozen at the current stage, and at worst Palestinians could face an increased Israeli military presence and cuts in the already limited powers of Palestinian officials.

This freeze carries ominous ramifications for the region since Abbas’ era is apparently coming to an end, and other politicians who are at least formally willing to pursue a dialog with Israel will rapidly lose Palestinian support. After all, if policies don't work, politicians become obsolete as well. Meanwhile, their financial and human resources become available to the radicals - primarily, Hamas, the most active and uncompromising actor and the pinnacle of hope for everyone seeking an independent Palestine no matter the cost.

The Palestinians may face increased Israeli military presence

Even after losing Gaza, its rocket production and storage facilities, and thousands of its fighters, Hamas, or whatever’s left of it after the mass bombardment of the Gaza Strip, will nevertheless gain something new: the status of the key Palestinian force. For Hamas, the current events in Gaza are a ‘make it or break it’ moment: it will either be crushed to a state beyond recovery for years or move to a new level after giving up everything of value to the local terrorist organization to become the mouthpiece of the entire Palestinian people.

The Hamas leadership appears to believe they can survive the new big war with Israel and hit the jackpot. In turn, judging by its politicians’ and generals’ statements, Israel considers it possible to end Hamas once and for all. Meanwhile, missiles and bombs continue killing ordinary people.

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