“Distinguishing Middle Eastern myths from realities,” the historian and diplomat Michael Oren wrote in 2007 “remains the most daunting challenge facing Americans.” Nearly fifteen years later, Oren’s warning remains relevant—particularly in the realm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On June 23, 2021, 73 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a letter to the Biden administration calling to “formally withdraw [from] the previous administration’s ‘peace plan.’” In addition to calling for a return to the status quo, the letter asserted that the conflict can only be resolved through a “negotiated two-state solution.” Two days before, the prestigious Foreign Affairs magazine published an op-ed by a former Obama administration official entitled “Biden can keep the two-state solution alive.”
As one former Pentagon official observed, “the Beltway echo chamber is in full effect.” Indeed, the stated desires of the press and policymakers don’t jibe with the realities on the ground.
The first reality is that Fatah, the movement that dominates the Palestinian Authority, rules over the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), where the majority of Palestinians live. Fatah’s rival, the U.S. designated terrorist group Hamas, has controlled the Gaza Strip since a 2007 civil war between the two factions. Neither Hamas nor Fatah has held elections since. Who, then, speaks for Palestinians?
Another reality looms—and it deserves attention from inside the Beltway and beyond. Hamas wants the West Bank—and recent events indicate that the terrorist group is hoping for a takeover—an occurrence which would uproot U.S. and Israeli policies alike.
The PA was created in 1994 as a result of the Oslo Accords. In return for promising to renounce terrorism and pledging to resolve outstanding issues via bilateral negotiations, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then led by Fatah’s Yasser Arafat, would receive the opportunity for limited self-rule. Despite rejecting several offers for statehood and paying salaries to those who attack Israelis, the PA has continued to receive both Western and Israeli support. The United States and the international community have given the Authority billions in aid, and even trained its security forces. For better or for worse, the PA has remained a lynchpin of U.S. strategy toward the conflict.
Yet, the PA remains hopelessly corrupt.
In April 2021, PA President Mahmoud Abbas, an octogenarian in the 16th year of what was supposed to be a four-year-term, “postponed” elections, which were announced in January and set for the summer of 2021. Polls had indicated that Abbas was likely to lose the election, either to Fatah rival Marwan Barghouti or to the leader of Hamas, whose participation Abbas had allowed despite an Oslo Accords prohibition against terrorist political candidates.
In the last six months, Abbas and the ruling clique in Fatah have accelerated a campaign of repression, imprisoning and torturing dissidents, critics, and rivals. Death threats leveled at Fadi Elsalameen, a Palestinian-American commentator and a U.S. citizen, attracted little attention from Western media outlets. But the death of Nizar Banat, a Palestinian critic of Fatah who was reportedly beaten to death by PA security forces, has prompted blowback—including protests in the West Bank.
As the reporter Khaled Abu Toameh has documented, Palestinian journalists covering the protests have been assaulted and their cameras broken or confiscated. Fatah operatives have even assaulted protesters outside of the PA’s embassy in Beirut. Much of the West Bank is in a state of upheaval, with journalists being summoned by the PA’s intelligence services and the Authority promising to create a commission of inquiry into Banat’s death.
Hamas, however, isn’t about to let an opportunity go to waste.
The terror group has encouraged and organized turn-out against Abbas. Indeed, it was doing so weeks before Banat’s murder, with Hamas flags ominously appearing at sermons where PA-appointed clerics were speaking. As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) has highlighted, the recent Israel-Hamas war was itself sparked, in part, by Hamas’s desire to exploit West Bank Palestinians who were dissatisfied with Abbas’s decision to cancel the elections.
Both Abbas and the old guard of Fatah are deeply unpopular. A June 2021 poll of Palestinians showed that “support for Hamas, and willingness to vote for it, increased dramatically while support for Fatah” dropped significantly. The poll, conducted by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, also showed that “a majority of the Palestinians think that Hamas is more deserving of representing and leading the Palestinian people” and that more than 70 percent want to hold legislative and presidential elections soon. A clear majority also viewed Hamas as winning the latest conflict. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed said that the P.A. is corrupt—narrowly edging out Hamas, which 70 percent said was corrupt. For Abbas and Fatah, these are ominous numbers.
Hamas’s founding charter asserts that the movement is both global and Islamist in aspiration—but “one link in the chain of jihad.” The same document calls for Israel’s destruction and rejects any “so-called peace solutions” with the Jewish state.
Is Hamas capable of supplanting Fatah? Probably not without a fight. But in 2007, Hamas handily beat Fatah in armed conflict, successfully seizing the Gaza Strip. Thanks to its chief benefactor, Iran, Hamas is well-armed. The terror group also has morale, religious fervor and a clear vision—the liquidation of Israel—on its side. More importantly, Hamas can sell itself as more successful in attempting to carry out that vision.
Further, the very threat of rising support for Hamas in the West Bank could spur a desperate Abbas to launch an intifada (armed uprising) against the Jewish state. Abbas’s predecessor, Yasser Arafat, supported Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel in the 1990s and early 2000s—in part as an attempt to ward off competitors and rivals.
In the eyes of a growing number Palestinians, Hamas is looking like a good bet. Policymakers and the press had better take note. It wouldn’t be the first time that the unthinkable became reality in the Middle East.
(Note: A different version of this article appeared as an op-ed in the Washington Examiner on July 5, 2021)