Ben Lynfield
Ben Lynfield

Abbas and Hamas: A turning point towards peace with Israel?

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY PRESIDENT MAHMOUD ABBAS AND PROMINENT FATAH LEADER JIBRIL RAJOUB HAVE PULLED OFF A NEAR MIRACLE BY PERSUADING HAMAS LEADERS YIHYA SINWAR AND ISMAIL HANIYEH TO COMMIT THE “ISLAMIC RESISTANCE MOVEMENT” TO ADOPT POPULAR PEACEFUL RESISTANCE AND STOP ROCKET ATTACKS, AT LEAST FOR NOW. IF THIS IS SUSTAINED, AND MUCH DEPENDS ON ISRAEL’S RESPONSE, IT COULD MEAN NO MORE INDISCRIMINATE ROCKET FIRE AT ISRAEL AND NO MORE SUICIDE BOMBINGS.

AN OPENING TOWARDS PEACE?

One big step for Hamas, one giant leap for Abbas

When Israel was a small, tightly knit and young country, citizens had a name for their aging leader and founding father, David Ben-Gurion: “hazaken”, which means “the old one”.

Palestinians have their own “zaken”, 85-year-old Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Unpopular in recent years, dictatorial, weak and with a coterie perceived as corrupt, he nevertheless made history in recent weeks and took his people a step closer to statehood by getting Hamas to commit to dropping the armed resistance (terrorism in the eyes of Israel and most of the world), that was once its raison d’etre, in favour of “peaceful” popular resistance.

As is publicly known by now, the change is delineated, along with a commitment to the 1967 borders, in a letter by PA Minister Hussein Sheikh, who is in charge of the American file, to Hadi Amr, the Biden administration’s new point man for Israeli and American affairs.

Hamas’s move could become a seismic change. God willing, and much now depends on Israel’s response, the shift could portend the minimisation or complete end of bus bombings and indiscriminate rocket attacks.

So Abbas may have just saved a lot of Israeli and Palestinian lives, something he deserves credit for.  If it translates into reality, and Hamas’s dropping of violence is sustained, he should be nominated as a candidate for the Nobel peace prize.

It would mean he succeeded in doing what Israel failed to accomplish in three wars with Hamas: the stopping of rocket fire.

For Abbas, opposing violence is nothing new. He believes it doesn’t serve the Palestinian interest in establishing an independent state. And as someone who was never in the terrorist wing of the PLO, he may just find it distasteful.

During the second intifada, when Hamas and Fatah were suicide bombing buses, coffee shops and even a hotel, Abbas came out strongly against this strategy. And as president for the last 15 years (new elections are scheduled for May for the fledgling legislative council and in July for the presidency) he has tried his best to stop attacks against Israel.

Although his approach is unpopular with much of the Palestinian public, he has for almost all of this period adhered to “security cooperation” – sharing intelligence and working together with the Israeli army – to foil attacks on Israeli targets and to foil any rumblings by Hamas.

Abbas even once described the security cooperation as “sacred”, drawing fire from many directions, as most of the public still views attacks as legitimate resistance activities.

A poll taken in December showed that two-thirds of the public want Abbas to resign. With a shrinking economy, soaring unemployment, PA corruption and cronyism and the land where the future state is supposedly being used by Israel for illegally expanding settlements, Abbas has nothing to show for his policies.

But with the apparent taming of Hamas, this may now change if the Biden administration so decides.

Abbas is angling for a peace conference with Israel overseen by the quartet – the US, Russia, European Union and UN. But he would probably settle for a secret channel mediated by Amr, the new state department linchpin.

Abbas is not the only Fatah hero in this episode, which was appropriately revealed during the Purim holiday when things are supposed to be transformed and turned upside down.

Somehow, his immediate subordinate on the Fatah central committee, General Jibril Rajoub, widely known as Abu Rami, who spent 17 years in Israeli prison, succeeded in the hard task of convincing Hamas leaders during meetings in Istanbul and Cairo.

The two movements fought a civil war in Gaza in 2007 and have been particularly bitter rivals ever since. But now, that too seems to be changing. There are even rumours the two groups will run a joint list in the legislative elections if they take place.

Also deserving credit is Hamas leader [and possibly now the former terrorist] Yihya Sinwar, the man who gives the orders to fire rockets or hold fire. Like Rajoub, a veteran of a long term in Israeli prison, he was released in 2011 as part of the very lopsided Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange.

His core base is the military wing of Hamas, giving him the credibility and capability to suspend the violence. Interestingly, while he was in prison he developed a brain tumour that was successfully removed by Israeli surgeons.

Much of the impetus for this seismic shift goes to Sinwar, who realises that Hamas’ falling popularity is largely the result of dire living conditions and a sense of hopelessness.

He sees the key to reviving the Gaza economy lies in getting Israel and Egypt to lift their blockade, and this gave Abbas the leverage he needed to make Sinwar renounce armed resistance.

More broadly, both the Fatah and Hamas leaders also realised and acknowledged that disunity was destroying the Palestinian cause.

Sinwar has now shown he can be a pragmatist who wants above all else to have the crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockades of Gaza lifted. He will probably revert again to violence if Israel does not respond in kind to the cessation of violence. What an opportunity for peace Abbas has opened!

Ben Lynfield is former Middle East affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post and contributes to Arab News en Francais.

This article was first published by Plus61J media and used with its permission.

About the Author
Ben Lynfield, a freelance journalist, is the former Middle East affairs reporter at the Jerusalem Post and covered Israel and the West Bank for the Independent. He has contributed to the New Statesman and the Palestinian website Akhbar al-Balad.
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