If Israel releases Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament as part of a deal for the return of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, PA President Mahmoud Abbas will dismantle the Palestinian Authority, Abbas warned Israel last week.
Abbas sent the warning to GOC Central Command Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni via Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the PA's civil affairs department, who is responsible for coordinating with Israel on anything involving the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Al-Sheikh, who told Shamni that this was a "personal message" from Abbas, stressed that the Palestinian leader did not speak merely of "resigning," but of "dismantling the PA."
Israel arrested dozens of Hamas politicians, including ministers and parliament members, shortly after Hamas kidnapped Shalit on June 25, 2006. Many have since been released by order of a military court, but about 40 remain in Israeli jails.
The message from Abbas was highly unusual, since publicly, he tries to portray himself as the leader of all the Palestinians - for instance, by repeatedly demanding that Israel release all its Palestinian prisoners.
However, after Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, Abbas dismantled the Fatah-Hamas unity government and began waging a political and military battle against Hamas in the West Bank.
Over the last year, he has rebuilt the PA's security services with the help of America's security coordinator for the peace process, Keith Dayton, and both the PA and Israel have been actively engaged in arresting Hamas members and closing down Hamas institutions in the West Bank. Just this week, the PA arrested more than 160 Hamas members in the West Bank, and Hamas threatened yesterday that if the arrests continue, it is liable to stage a coup in the West Bank as well.
Abbas evidently fears that the release of senior Hamas politicians in exchange for Shalit would strengthen the Islamic organization's civilian infrastructure in the West Bank.
According to an Israeli source well-versed in what is happening in the PA, publication of Abbas' threat to dismantle the PA if Israel releases the Hamas parliamentarians is liable to discredit him massively in the eyes of many Palestinians.
In addition, the source noted, this threat creates another obstacle to Israel's efforts to reach an agreement for Shalit's release.
In exchange for Shalit, Hamas is demanding that Israel free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including many who were responsible for major terror attacks. Hamas has sent Israel a list of 450 specific prisoners that it wants released, but Israel has thus far approved only 70. As far as is known, the Hamas list does not include the parliamentarians and ministers whom Israel arrested.
A Hamas delegation went to Cairo yesterday to continue the indirect negotiations over Shalit, which are being mediated by Egypt.
Since his election as PA president in January 2005, Abbas has repeatedly threatened to resign - sometimes due to lack of progress in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or due to internal power struggles within his Fatah movement. However, he has never yet carried out his threat.