The Unity Deal, Kidnappings, and a New Round of Escalation

About a month ago, I tweeted a link to an article in Haaretz that reflected a rather disturbing aspect of the recent deal between Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government. I was feeling cautiously optimistic about the prospect for this new government to be able to serve as the first unified partner in peace negotiations since Hamas's takeover of Gaza. Even now, this is still a possibility, but I could not shake the feeling that Hamas was attempting to have its cake and eat it to. As a Hamas source put it: "Hamas wants to avoid ministerial responsibility for civilian matters, but it wants to maintain its power as a popular-resistance group." This suggests Hamas wishes for the PA to take responsibility for any domestic difficulties while it avoids having to make tough choices about day-to-day government and can stick to "resistance." The problem with that, of course, is that Hamas's "return address" is still very clearly Gaza. This allowed me to remain cautiously optimistic, but if Hamas is behind the recent kidnapping of three Israeli teens, the unity government seems certain either not to last or to suffer a complete Israeli boycott.

At the same time, the PA has talked about the unity deal in terms of a "weakened" Hamas attempting to save face by running for the PA's protection. This comes across as crowing. With Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu now saying that the PA is responsible for terror attacks emanating from any part of "its" territory, including Gaza (never mind that the PA's control over much of Palestine is tenuous at best and non-existent in Area C where the teens were kidnapped), the perceived humiliation of Hamas via the unity deal, Hamas's apparent desire to return to "resistance," and comments by Hamas's then-Prime Minister that kidnapping Israelis (particularly soldiers) was Hamas's "top priority" to use them as "bargaining chips," it would not be surprising if Hamas were responsible for the disappearance of the three teens kidnapped last Friday. It is a way of showing it is not a spent force, contrary to what the PA suggests, and it would make sense as part of Hamas's stated strategy. That said, Hamas has long said kidnappings were a priority and it's not clear that this would necessarily be the right time. Other Palestinian political groups are also annoyed at being excluded from the talks between the two largest factions, Fatah and Hamas. Some of them are quite well organized. This could just as easily be an attempt by one of them to express displeasure at the deal, weaken it, and score points for continuing "resistance." And who knows? It could be a group a criminals or an unaffiliated group of activists.

Israel's response has been swift (after initial delays, it seems) and forceful: It has run a large search operation throughout the West Bank, focusing in particular on Hebron and, later, Nablus. It has arrested 240 Palestinians since the start of the operation, 180 of them Hamas men. As part of these operations, Israeli soldiers have not always acted in a way that will win them friends among Palestinians. For example, I have heard that some Israeli soldiers had removed three Palestinian families from their homes so they could sleep there. Maybe there was no other option and maybe this was an isolated incident, but it is definitely something that will increase tensions rather than ease them. (Though one must admit that "easing tensions" is understandably not currently part of Israel's agenda.)

All of this may backfire strategically. The PA's president Abbas has said that the kidnap victims must be returned and he had previously said that security cooperation with Israel is "sacred." A Palestinian academic I recently spoke with on the subject related to me that Abbas risks being seen as a "collaborator," further damaging his legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians. The PA's apparent cooperation with Israel while the latter seems determined to root out Hamas in the West Bank is almost certain to drive a wedge between the two Palestinian groups and destroy the unity government. This may be what Netanyahu wants: To force Hamas back out of an arrangement with Fatah. But it is not clear that weak, divided, and desperate opponents are always the best option for peace and stability over the long term. Israel is right to do whatever it can to rescue its kidnapped citizens and the Palestinian side has often been disappointingly cynical, sometimes denying that the boys were even kidnapped and at other times suggesting that this is entirely equivalent to Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Nevertheless, Netanyahu risks sparking a new round of violence and uniting Palestinians in anger, rather than a mood for conciliation, with his current, divisive approach.


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