- - Tuesday, May 25, 2021

HEBRON, West Bank — In the aftermath of an 11-day war with Israel and last month’s decision by President Mahmoud Abbas to postpone their elections, Palestinians here find themselves in a drearily familiar position — divided about what comes next and how to get there.

Some say they want a clean slate, elevating a new generation of political leaders who can chart a surer path toward statehood and economic revival. But others who had been lukewarm about the militant Islamist Hamas movement, which rejects Israel’s existence and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., say now they are the only ones fighting for their rights. They want jobs and security, but they also want dignity and a combative stance with Israel

In fact, analysts and those on the ground say the recent fighting only served to shore up support for Hamas, repeating a familiar pattern from past Israeli-Palestinian clashes: An unplanned incident sparks violence, Palestinian missiles spark an Israeli counterstrike, Israel’s military works through a list of targets — human and physical in Gaza — before U.S. and international pressure forces a cease-fire, Hamas supporters claim victory just for surviving, and nothing fundamentally is changed.

And renewed popular support for Hamas among Palestinians makes a resolution to the larger conflict including a two-state solution almost impossible, analysts say. In the short term, they add, prosperity and progress are off the table.

“During March and April, many polling institutions in Gaza and the West Bank who run public opinion polls were finding that Hamas’ popularity in Gaza was plunging as a result of poverty, unemployment, lack of basic services and the continued closure by Israel and Egypt,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University. “Now we are witnessing a dramatic change that puts Hamas back on track, and it’s more popular than ever in Gaza, the West Bank, and even among Palestinians inside Israel.”

This month’s war, the fourth between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group’s 2007 takeover of the administration of Gaza from forces loyal to the rival Palestinian Authority, followed an uptick in disputes over Jerusalem, including access to holy sites for Muslims and Jews. 

In the subsequent brief but intense fighting, Palestinian officials say Israeli airstrikes killed at least 248 people, injured 2,000 more and left nearly 2,000 homes uninhabitable in Gaza. Hamas rocket fire killed at least 12 people in Israel, and intercommunal rage spread to cities inside the country’s internationally recognized borders with unprecedented clashes between Arab and Jewish civilians. 

But when the cease-fire largely brokered by Egypt finally took hold last week, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip took to the streets to mark their “victory.”

Siding with Hamas

Like all Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank under 34, Samia Swirky has never taken part in national elections, which were last held in 2006. But the Gaza City resident now says she would vote for Hamas if she could.

“We do not like wars, killing, and devastation but what happened in Jerusalem, especially in Sheikh Jarrah, is reason enough to protect the people from forced expulsion,” said Ms. Swirky, a 26-year-old computer engineer who spent much of the past week cowering from bombs with her two children. “Armed resistance is the sole and best way to achieve our dreams.”

Shortly before the fighting began, Palestinian elections were canceled once again, for fear, many here suspect, that Hamas would trounce the aging, more moderate leadership of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

“After the canceling of the elections, this war, and what is happening in Jerusalem, we are looking to replace [longtime PA leader Mahmoud Abbas] with a new president who believes that armed resistance is the only way for an independent Palestinian state,” she added. “Peace is not an option as the Israelis want all our lands.”

The 85-year-old Mr. Abbas has led both the Fatah nationalist political party and the Palestinian Authority since 2005 when he succeeded the movement founder Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Abbas contended he was forced to postpone the elections because he could not get Israeli approval to hold the vote in the Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem. His authority has struggled for credibility as the Israeli settler population in his nominally held territories grew to 500,000 people. More than 200,000 additional Jewish Israelis live in east Jerusalem, which is also home to more than 300,000 Palestinians.

Palestinians say they felt increasingly sidelined after the Trump administration moved to recognize full Israeli sovereignty over the city by moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018.

Mr. Abusada thinks Mr. Abbas may have committed a strategic blunder by waiting. Hamas, he argued, won a significant public relations battle by holding its own in the recent fighting with Israel. It is embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is facing questions at home for failing to eliminate critical figures in the Hamas leadership or completely destroy the organization’s network of defensive tunnels, both primary objectives of the campaign.

During the latest operation, the Israel Defense Forces reportedly tried at least twice to kill the leader of Hamas’ military wing, Mohammad Deif, but both times he escaped unscathed.

“This whole war erupted because the Palestinians in east Jerusalem called for rescue, and they called for Hamas to respond,” Mr. Abusada said. “They didn’t go to President Abbas in Ramallah for assistance. They pleaded for help from Hamas in Gaza, and now we have unprecedented attention to our issues after 27 years of failed negotiations with Israel.”

Dim prospects

Yet a freshly emboldened Hamas dims the hopes of moderate Palestinians and international diplomats for a deal that would finally give the Palestinians their long-sought state. 

While Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian leadership recognized Israel in the 1992 Oslo Accords, the 2017 Hamas charter advocates the “liberation” of lands within Israel proper. Hamas says it is ready to accept a state based on 1967 borders as long as it’s not required to recognize Israel

Hamas shifted the light from Jerusalem to Gaza,” said Rami Badawi, a 29-year-old psychology graduate from Hebron University in the West Bank. “After the war ends, destruction is the only thing that we can see in Gaza, while the Israelis will continue their plans and evict the people of Al-Sheikh Jarrah.” 

Mr. Badawi, who served six months in an Israeli prison on security charges, still believes democracy and diplomacy are the best way to secure statehood for the Palestinians.

“War has no benefits, and the international community must stop both Israel and Hamas — there must be a solution that stops Israel from taking more lands and houses,” Mr. Badawi added. “Palestinians must have elections as soon as possible. We should have the right to choose new faces and new policies.”

Dalal Iriqat, a diplomacy and conflict resolution professor at the Arab American University Palestine, said the challenge for Palestinians is to leverage their new visibility after four years of the Trump administration’s embrace of Mr. Netanyahu and the steady expansion of Jewish settlements into disputed territory.

“The Trump administration’s recognition of [Israeli sovereignty in] Jerusalem gave a green light for what’s happening today,” said Ms. Iriqat. “What Israel is doing now is totally isolating the West Bank, and Netanyahu is leaving no option but a one-state reality.”

The escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis now has the attention of the Biden administration. Ms. Iriqat met Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hady Amr during his fact-finding mission in the days leading up to the cease-fire, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken is currently on a post-conflict tour of the region.

“The [Biden] administration is working toward bringing the two parties together and trying to start negotiations,” Mr. Iriqat said. “But when you talk to people in Palestine, they will tell you, no matter if we agree with Hamas or not, it’s helped [them] get back [their] dignity and with that, the chance to pursue human rights and statehood for our people,” Iriqat said.  

Even so, Mr. Iriqat doubts if the Palestinians are in any position to hold elections today, even if President Abbas gave the go-ahead.

“Should the Palestinian leadership agree to hold elections now,” she said, “there’d be pressure to delay by the international community, which has seen the popularity of Hamas rise significantly after this war.”

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