Assassination Attempt on Palestinian PM Failed, but Dealt Mortal Blow to Reconciliation

Though the senior PA officials escaped with their lives, one thing is clear: Egyptian efforts to effect reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah have suffered a mortal blow

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah walks behind a bodyguard in the northern Gaza strip, Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Adel Hana/AP

Who tried to assassinate the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, Rami Hamdallah, and the head of the PA’s intelligence services, General Majid Faraj, immediately after they arrived in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday morning? Was this a failed attempt on their lives or just a threatening signal to the PA’s leadership?

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

The answers to these questions, in the first few hours after the incident, are still rather blurry, contradictory and rife with conspiracy theories that in any case had prevailed with respect to the relations between Fatah and Hamas.

>> Palestinian prime minister survives assassination attempt in Gaza; Abbas blames Hamas >>

What is clear is that even though the two senior PA officials escaped the blast without injury, the efforts led by Egypt to effect a reconciliation between the two Palestinian factions have suffered a mortal blow.

It is unlikely that Hamdallah will come to Gaza for another visit anytime soon. And the Hamas leadership – whether they are behind the attack or just enabled it due to an act of omission – have now earned themselves an even more determined rival in Faraj, who is arguably the most powerful person in the West Bank today.

Hamdallah arrived in Gaza on Tuesday, on his first visit in months, to cut the ribbon at the launch of a new sewage-purification plant in the northern Strip, in whose construction the PA had participated. Hovering in the background, the Egyptian attempt to broker a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas has hit a dead end. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas sees – somewhat justifiably – Hamas’ conditions for such an agreement as a dangerous honey trap for him. The Hamas leadership wants to dump the ongoing civil operation of Gaza on Abbas, without subordinating its military forces to the PA.

At the same time, Fatah fears that Hamas will try to exploit a reconciliation to carry out a hostile takeover, starting with the institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organization and then later taking over the reins of power in the West Bank.

Tuesday's explosion will exacerbate the tension between the various quarreling Palestinian camps. Some in the PA have already accused Hamas of being responsible for endangering the safety of those riding in the convoy.

Hamdallah went on to give a speech in Gaza and announced that he will continue to visit there, but a short time later cut short his tour and quickly returned to the West Bank, via Israeli territory. The convoy packed up and turned around – taking with it a few security guards who were lightly injured by the explosion.

The assassination attempt took place just a few hundred meters south of the Erez crossing on the Gaza-Israel border, on the Strip's main north-south thoroughfare. This is an area that is ostensibly under the strict supervision of Hamas' security services. Nonetheless, someone managed to infiltrate it, and to conceal a very powerful explosive device (based on the large mushroom cloud that rose high over the scene after its detonation) under the road.

It appears that if the blast's timing had been arranged in a more professional way – and had not hit only the last vehicle in the convoy – the injuries to the senior PA officials would have been much more serious.

This leads to two possibilities: first, that the organization behind the attack is one that is operating in opposition to Hamas policy; or, alternatively, that Hamas turned a blind eye to an act that was intended to threaten senior PA officials, but not kill them.

Hamas does not have total control over the Gaza Strip. One of the heads of the security services there, Tawfiq Abu Naim, spoke shortly after the attack about an investigation of the incident. Abu Naim was wounded in October 2017 in an assassination attempt. At the time, the accusations were aimed at extremist Salafist groups, which Abu Naim had been handling with an iron fist.

This time too, those responsible may be Islamic Salafist extremists, but the long list of suspects also includes Mohammed Dahlan’s men. Dahlan is a former senior PA official who is at odds with Abbas, as well as with Hamas, or at least certain elements in that organization.

Hamas quickly blamed Israel for the blast, by the way.

This is not the first such incident on this road. In October 2003, three American security guards were killed in an explosion aimed at a convoy of vehicles heading south from the Erez crossing, near Beit Hanun. That incident, which the popular resistance committees in Gaza seem to have been behind, fomented a long-term crisis between the PA and the Bush administration. This time, too, even though no lives were lost, the incident could have far-reaching consequences – especially concerning the already-charged relations between the PA and Hamas.

The explosive device used against Hamdallah’s convoy was detonated only a few hours before the convening of a special conference in Washington called by the White House, over the ways to deal with the severe humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Unlike the previous meeting on the subject, which was held recently in Cairo, this time both the PA and Hamas are boycotting the conference, which will include American and Israeli representatives.

The incident in Gaza will cast a large shadow over the meeting in Washington. The chances of improving the situation in the Strip, if only by a little bit, now look to be even slimmer than they were before the bombing.