The Hatred and Mistrust That’s Killing Palestinian Unity

Tuesday's unprecedented attack on Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Gaza reflects the continued enmity between Hamas and the PA, even if the attack was the work of disgruntled Hamas security personnel acting independently

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Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, center left, is surrounded by bodyguards as he arrives for the opening ceremony of a sewage plant project in the northern Gaza Strip, March 13, 2018.
Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, center left, is surrounded by bodyguards as he arrives for the opening ceremony of a sewage plant project in the northern Gaza Strip, March 13, 2018.Credit: Adel Hana/AP
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

In 2013, the head of An-Najah University in Nablus, Prof. Rami Hamdallah, succeeded Hamas’ fierce enemy, Salam Fayyad, as the Palestinian consensus government’s prime minister. Although Hamas leaders chose him by name, they quickly discovered that “he was too polite to stand a chance against [President] Mahmoud Abbas’ monopoly of power,” as a Hamas leader once told me.

Hamdallah adequately filled the administrative role of a bureaucratic servant, but was incapable of challenging Abbas’ authority despite his opposing opinions. Hamdallah’s transparent weakness and limited engagement in the political conflict motivated Hamas’ recent demands to replace him with a stronger character – to which Abbas responded with a firm no.

The small scale of Tuesday morning’s explosion as Hamdallah’s convoy entered the Gaza Strip signified there was no intent to kill, but rather an attempt to scare Hamdallah off. As Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Zahar reportedly put it, “Had Hamas wanted him dead, his body parts would have reached Ramallah.”

Better put, it is hoped the incident will force Hamdallah, as interior minister, to coordinate with and rely more on Hamas’ security forces on the ground – and subsequently include them in his government, since only their own civil servants were included in the Palestinian Authority’s 2018 budget.

However, should such a demand be met and both parties cooperate, there are no guarantees that Hamas won’t use force against the PA to twist its arm, or kick it out of Gaza again if it resists compliance with Hamas. Or, conversely, that the PA won’t jail Hamas activists again if Hamas handed over security control and its weaponry to the PA.

Additionally, in order to maintain his sovereign oligarchy, Abbas is highly unlikely to recognize some 20,000 security and police personnel who have pointed their guns at him on more than one occasion in the past. Neither would he keep roughly the same number of PA security personnel in Gaza, after they discarded their guns and raised the white flag in the 2007 clashes with Hamas. Both forces would be on the early retirement list, in the best case scenario.

Yet 20,000 armed and trained Hamas employees with access to its hidden armory are not only likely to dissent if asked to sit at home with no income. They are also liable to initiate such attacks as Tuesday’s when surrounded by an atmosphere of uncertainty, insecurity and abandonment.

Although Hamas immediately denied playing any part in the explosion, and some even suggested it was a plot by Ramallah’s intelligence services, such an attack is unlikely to be undertaken from outside of Hamas’ circles. Given that Hamas’ intelligence penetrates Gazan society to the deepest and darkest spots, minor armed groups have consistently avoided facing the consequences of walking outside the lines drawn by the organization.

A realistic estimate is that the attack – against a man perceived as the barrier to fulfilling Hamas’ demands and a partner in the PA’s strangulation of Gaza – was likely carried out independently by some Hamas personnel without the political bureau’s green light.

An analysis of other independent violent incidents in Gaza – such as improvised rockets, explosions or kidnappings – only sheds more light on the deep divides within Hamas and the powerful polarization between its different lobbying groups, some of which have a stake in the inefficiencies of the status quo and would rise on the back of this event.

They are tempted by self-defeating opportunism to continue on an uncooperative path – seemingly the rational way to produce an irrational outcome of deepening Palestinian internal conflict. This also increases mutual distrust and hatred, which dates back several decades from when Hamas believed PLO leader Yasser Arafat spoiled “their own first intifada” by selectively favoring and bribing some activists without others, in a patronage-client pattern that shattered the street’s unity with whisperers accusing one another of being on Arafat’s payroll.

That hatred was further entrenched when the historic return of Arafat through the Oslo Accords officially killed the first intifada and gave birth to the ever-deepening and systematic divide between the elite and the self-proclaimed rebels in Gaza.

Arafat’s returning “gang of exiles” were granted superior citizenry status over the non-exile population, starting a competition over who deserved the biggest share of the cake. Hamas, which considers itself the popular group that sacrificed and fought the most on the ground, and “is still holding firm to armed resistance,” saw the PA as a foreign entity that had come to collect the spoils on a golden plate.

In turn, the PA’s leaders have long perceived Hamas as having simply hijacked the notion of resistance, in order to consolidate its own political power and take a bigger share of the cake. An imposter whose armory is no longer pointed against “the enemy,” but instead is used, alongside religious slogans, to impose new realities on the ground.

Deepening this dilemma is the international community’s peace-making efforts which, by nature, favor one group – with whom they have the most in common – over another that believes itself to be representative of the people. The elitist PA was and always will be expected to perform counterinsurgency measures that mainly target Hamas personnel with mass arrests, torture, harassment and strict surveillance, marking the PA as an extended arm of the occupation.

The vicious circle of deep distrust leads to behavior that bolsters the validity of that distrust rather than invalidating the other’s concerns. Tuesday’s incident only emphasizes a limbo predicament in which the past is hard to forget, the present challenging to surmount, and the future impossible to foresee – except for Hamas awaiting the chaos that will follow Abbas’ death or retirement.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

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