Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hamas-Fatah reconciliation: the test is NOW

If U.S. policy was to "wait and see" how the Hamas-approved Palestinian reconciliation process would unfold in practice, the test is now.

On June 12, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank while hitchhiking outside the Israeli settlement bloc of Gush Etzion. In addition to potentially undermining stability in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and southern Israel, the incident could severely complicate Palestinian political moves toward reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

According to Israeli security sources, West Bank terrorist groups had made forty-four kidnapping attempts on Israeli civilians and soldiers over the eighteen months preceding last week's incident, all of them thwarted. Israeli authorities have continuously warned the public not to accept rides from strangers, especially on West Bank highways, though the practice is quite common among the settler community.

...the abduction of three people and the inability to locate them after several days indicates a high level of operational sophistication and planning by the perpetrators. It is unlikely that this was an isolated or spur-of-the-moment act, necessitating as it did a multiperson cell, transportation, evasion methods, and -- if the youths are still alive -- a secure holding location.

The Israeli response has been decisive, though at this point inconclusive. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have streamed elite combat infantry units into the southern West Bank, in particular Hebron and its surrounding villages, believed to be the most likely location of the missing civilians. IDF forces in the area have been reinforced by battalions from outside the West Bank, including a limited call-up of reserve units. Main access routes into Hebron have been monitored by "flying" inspection checkpoints, though a full-scale closure of the city has not been implemented. The Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) is known to be working around the clock gathering intelligence leads, and house-to-house searches as well as large-scale arrests of known terrorist operatives have been undertaken across the West Bank. Senior Hamas leaders in particular have been targeted for arrest given the widespread belief among Israeli officials that the group is directly or indirectly responsible for the kidnapping.

Meanwhile, the border region surrounding Gaza has witnessed sporadic rocket fire targeting Israeli towns over the past several days. The IDF has elevated its force posture in southern Israel, including the additional deployment of Iron Dome antirocket systems. For its part, the Israeli Air Force has launched retaliatory strikes on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad bases in Gaza.

The kidnapping comes at a sensitive moment in intra-Palestinian politics. Despite the inherent difficulties in the April 23 reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah...the two parties were in the process of implementing its terms. 
...Tellingly, prior to his arrest by the IDF over the weekend, Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a prominent West Bank Hamas leader ... freely admitted that the group's seven-year experiment in governing Gaza had eroded its support base there [and said] 
"...The Palestinian Authority has only the option of negotiations, while Hamas has many options...The current situation in Gaza could lead to an explosion, and Israel will be the target of this explosion...and the first target of Hamas...Hamas is [now] responsible for nothing."
Further complicating the political atmosphere is the nearly two-month hunger strike by eighty-five Palestinian administrative detainees being held in Israeli prisons. The issue is a highly evocative one among the Palestinian public -- during a recent visit to Ramallah, the author noted that most street corners were adorned with black flags of silhouetted prisoners, hands raised aloft, unshackled. Demonstrations on behalf of the prisoners have been held in central Ramallah over the past several weeks, as well as solidarity strikes by West Bank business owners and symbolic protests outside the prime minister's office. Given that the Palestinian media regularly refer to IDF arrests of Palestinian suspects as "kidnappings," the popular sentiment militating for the kidnapping of Israeli citizens as bargaining chips was considerable. Indeed, shortly after Thursday's abduction, the official Fatah Facebook page and a prominent PA daily ran cartoons supporting the act.

Whether the three Israeli teenagers are still alive, how the hunt for those responsible is concluded, and the actual identity of the perpetrators will all dictate how events unfold going forward. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and various IDF officers have already stated that Hamas is likely responsible...

For his part, President Abbas condemned the kidnapping only after several days' delay. At the same time, he condemned IDF actions in the West Bank... Further pressure was heaped on him by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who recently stated that the "Hamas-Fatah unity pact" has led to an increase in terrorism from the West Bank.

If the kidnapping is not brought to a peaceful end -- and if it is shown to be a Hamas operation, sanctioned or not -- then Israel and the international community will pressure Abbas to launch a wide crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank. Such developments could damage the Palestinian reconciliation process, putting into question Abbas's entire political strategy since the breakdown in negotiations with Israel. 

The next milestone of the reconciliation agreement calls for the seating of the Palestinian Legislative Council, a move now in doubt given that most West Bank Hamas legislators, including parliamentary speaker Aziz Duwaik, have been arrested. Moreover, in the event of a military flare-up in Gaza (whether due to potential Israeli retaliation or other factors), it is highly unlikely that PA security forces could be deployed there as planned or that Egypt would agree to open the Rafah crossing, to say nothing of Abbas's rumored upcoming visit to the territory.

In Israel, the kidnapping has consumed the public's attention, with numerous prayer vigils held and nonstop media coverage urging the "return of our boys." Accordingly, the Netanyahu government will feel pressure to continue responding forcefully, not only with military raids, economic sanctions, and other legal measures in the West Bank, but perhaps with airstrikes targeting the likely "address" of the operation in Gaza. The Israeli cabinet is already reportedly mulling these and other steps against Hamas, including the group's political wing...

... Public sentiment in Israel is also shifting against the idea of releasing Palestinian terrorists as part of a prisoner exchange similar to the 2011 Gilad Shalit deal. The Knesset is set to pass a bill making presidential pardons impossible in certain egregious cases of terrorism and murder, a move meant to dissuade future kidnapping attempts.

In light of these factors, the potential for military escalation is real and carries the added risk of further deterioration in Israeli-Palestinian relations. Escalation could also scuttle prospects for the questionable Palestinian reconciliation process; in fact, given the timing of the kidnapping, that may well have been one of the operation's objectives (in addition to gaining the release of Palestinian prisoners as part of a hostage negotiation). Spoilers and rejectionists, it seems, may have more than the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in their sights.

Finally, the kidnapping only underscores the current quandary of U.S. policy. In his remarks condemning the crime, Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed the U.S. view that Hamas is a terrorist organization, but he has said nothing further on the technocratic reconciliation government that exists because of Hamas approval. That ambiguity will be difficult to maintain...  
If U.S. policy was to "wait and see" how the technocratic government performs in practice, the test is now.

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