By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies
After the events of the past week that included an exchange of fire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), there is yet another example of the almost yearly explosion in the Middle East. This time, the arrest of PIJ leader Bassam al-Saadi in the West Bank caused the PIJ leadership in Gaza to threaten missile attacks to Israel.
After several days of mediation attempts by Egypt involving Hamas, the PIJ was planning to execute an attack. However, the Israeli air force attacked first and killed the PIJ’s military leader in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, Tayseer Jabari.
A day later, the Israeli air force killed the PIJ military leader for the southern part of the Gaza Strip, Khaled Mansour. These two deaths enabled the Egyptians to convince the PIJ to agree to a ceasefire, a decision Hamas was happy to join.
Hamas Has Held Power in the Gaza Strip for Decades
The Gaza Strip has been controlled by Hamas for almost 20 years at this point. Hamas is an Islamist movement; it does not recognize Israel and refuses to join the peace process. Since Hamas decided to separate from the Palestinian Authority that controls the West Bank, Hamas has run its own show with no clear, long-term political agenda.
Every year or two, there is a military clash with Israel, but nothing changes in any meaningful way. Several attempts through the years to reunite the Gaza Strip have failed, and it seems that real change will occur when there is a leadership change in the West Bank.
The PIJ and Hamas Cannot Give Gazans a Political Future
Hamas is challenged from the right by the PIJ. PIJ, which is aided by Iran and conciliatory towards Shia Islam – a touchy subject in Muslim Brotherhood circles – is not able to give the people of Gaza a political future.
If there is to be a change in Gaza’s economy, Gazans will need to work with Israel, which already has a booming economy. Hamas cannot currently achieve that improvement; there would need to be a significant ideological transformation within Hamas.
Gazans now consider Hamas to be responsible for the harsh economic conditions in the Gaza Strip. However, Hamas has not yet been willing to change its historical position, which calls for the destruction of Israel and negates any possible negotiations.
The Likely Future of the Palestinian Authority after Mahmoud Abbas Is No Longer Its Leader
The current leader of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) is in his 80s. Also, Abbas is the last of the original founders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
During his years in power, Abbas has not done much except to keep the Palestinian Authority from collapsing. After his party lost the Palestinian parliament election in 2005 to Hamas, Abbas decided to limit the power of the legislation and brought about a short civil war.
In Gaza, Hamas killed Fatah supporters in 2007, and in the West Bank, Hamas officials were arrested by forces loyal to Abbas. Since then, there have been discussions of another election, but it is clear to most pundits that such elections will end with a Hamas victory.
The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel-Aviv University summed up the situation very well, saying “Abu Mazen therefore became both an asset and a burden for Israel, as well as the Palestinians. He enabled strategic stability in the West Bank despite the profound shockwaves of the past decade; contributed to the Arab Spring bypassing the Palestinians; blocked Hamas advances; and maintained close ties with Israel. At the same time, he adhered to a dogmatic political line, losing political opportunities – most notably the proposals raised in the Annapolis talks – which led to the ossification of the Palestinian leadership.”
It is impossible to know what will happen after Abbas dies. Will the Palestinian Authority collapse, or will it be taken over by Hamas? Will there be fights in cities and villages between different factions?
No one should expect a democratic process in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but can there be a strong leader emerging from the Fatah ranks who will unite the West Bank behind him? Some experts mention Mohammad Dahlan as a possible successor to Abbas; Dahlan was exiled by Abbas for gaining too much power in the ranks of the security services. Others mention Mustafa Barghouti, who is now in an Israeli prison as the result of a terrorism conviction, as the most likely successor to Abbas.
What Can Be Done to Preserve the Palestinian Authority?
The potential for the deterioration of the Palestinian Authority is considerable, and there is a good chance that there will not be a peaceful transition of power, let alone a free election. The collapse of the Palestinian Authority could send the entire region into chaos, but there seems to be little outside forces can do at this point.
Palestinian society will have to make the decision about where it is heading. It may revert to the tribal connections so common in the Middle East or commit to a broader outlook for the common good. Hamas will need to make a choice about its role, and that choice will set the path of Palestinians for the foreseeable future.
There are many reasons not to be optimistic about the future of the Palestinian Authority and the Gaza Strip. International forces like the U.S. and the European Union should not develop unrealistic expectations for democracy in the area or believe they will have the power to change the course of events on a wide scale. The ultimate choice for the future of Palestine will be with the Palestinian public.