Fears of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank are exaggerated

Recent violence in the West Bank has worried Israel, but Hamas does not have the capabilities to take over.

Islamic Jihad fighters attend the funeral of Osama Soboh, a Palestinian who was killed by Israeli forces during clashes in a raid, in Burqin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on September 26, 2021 [File: Raneen Sawafta/Reuters]

Over the past few months, there has been an escalation of violence in the occupied West Bank. Armed clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army in Jenin and Jerusalem and elsewhere have resulted in the deaths of several Palestinian fighters and civilians and the injuries of several soldiers from the Israeli occupation forces. There have been also stabbings, car-ramming attacks, and shootings at different locations targeting Israeli soldiers and settlers.

These incidents coincided with the escape of six Palestinian political prisoners from the Israeli Gilboa prison.

In view of these developments, Israel’s security services have expressed increasing concern about the growing resistance in the West Bank. More specifically, Israeli officials have raised the spectre of a Hamas takeover of the occupied Palestinian territories currently under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). But how realistic is this prospect?

Since Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, Israel has perceived the movement as a grave threat. Then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made it clear that his government was not going to cooperate with a Hamas-led cabinet, the way it had with the Fatah-led PA.

The subsequent tensions between Fatah and Hamas, fuelled by external forces, escalated into armed clashes, in which Hamas fighters were able to take control of the Gaza Strip. Israel imposed a debilitating siege on the strip and in the following years launched repeated deadly wars on its people, killing thousands and destroying civilian homes and infrastructure.

Meanwhile, the PA, now under Fatah’s control again, launched a massive security operation to uproot Hamas from the Wes Bank. Working with Israel, it arrested hundreds of Hamas members, closed its offices and associations and clamped down on its supporters. The same happened with Islamic Jihad, an ally of Hamas.

Since then, the movement has been able to set up small cells to carry out limited operations against Israeli forces. But the violence of the past few months raised concerns within the Israeli security community about the extent of Hamas’s penetration of the West Bank and its ability to rally other groups to carry out resistance activities.

Some have perceived the new “security infrastructure” Hamas has built as different from the limited cells it had in the past and more difficult to trace. Such a development can be considered a major failure of the Israeli occupation forces and intelligence, which over the past few years have tightened their grip on the West Bank.

Hamas also appears to be increasingly coordinating on-the-ground activities with other Palestinian factions. In mid-September, as the violence escalated and fears emerged of an Israeli assault on Jenin, Hamas, along with the armed wing of Fatah and Islamic Jihad, announced a joint “operations room” to fight off any Israeli attack.

One major consequence of these developments is the increasing feeling of insecurity in Israel and among Israeli settlers in the West Bank. There are fears that the West Bank and Jerusalem might plunge into violence, as they did during the so-called Knife Intifada of 2015-16, when hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis were killed, or during the series of bombings in the 1990s and the second Intifada in the 2000s.

These attacks have taken place despite the Israeli army’s regular arrest campaigns, security summons, and repeated round-the-clock incursions into cities, villages and refugee camps across the West Bank, as well as the continuous Israeli security coordination with the PA.

It is important to note that the recent armed attacks took place in the context of growing anger at the PA. In April, President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled the Palestinian legislative elections for fear of Fatah, which dominates the PA, losing to Hamas. This drew sharp condemnations from various Palestinian political factions and the Palestinian people.

Palestinians were also angered by the feeble response of the PA to Israeli aggression against worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque and forced evictions of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. Likewise, the Palestinian government did little to counteract the deadly Israeli assault of Gaza in May.

The death of Nizar Banat at the hands of the PA’s security forces in late June was another event that fuelled Palestinian rejection of Abbas. The assassination drew large crowds of Palestinians to the streets, where they faced a brutal crackdown by Palestinian security forces. This only caused further outrage and amplified calls for Abbas’s resignation.

A poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and published in September revealed that 80 percent of the respondents want the president to resign. At the same time, 45 percent believe that Hamas should lead the Palestinians, while only 19 percent said Fatah deserves this role.

The popular opposition to Abbas and the armed military struggle against the Israeli occupation in the West Bank have ignited fears in some circles that Hamas might benefit from these events and mobilise other factions for its own ends. Some Israeli and foreign analysts have been vocal about the possibility of such mobilisation leading to Hamas taking control of the West Bank as it did in Gaza.

It is true that Hamas would like to be the dominant force in Palestinian politics and end Abbas’s dictatorial rule, but statements about the possibility of a Hamas takeover of the West Bank seem greatly exaggerated for several reasons.

First, Hamas still does not have an integrated, durable infrastructure in the West Bank and therefore, does not have the necessary strength to extend its influence over it. Its popularity may have increased, but the PA and the Israeli occupation forces continue to put serious efforts into dismantling cells and networks loyal to the group. This is preventing it from establishing a deeper footprint.

Second, the PA may be rejected by many Palestinians, but it still commands full military power over the West Bank. It may suffer from internal tensions, but it is still able to mobilise all its loyalists, who are united in their fear of losing their privileges if their patrons fall from power. PA officials are ready to do everything and anything to stay in power and would not hesitate to seek Israeli military help.

Third, Israel constantly seeks to dislodge Hamas from the West Bank at any cost, given the grave threat that any increased Hamas capabilities there would pose to the more than 400,000 Israeli settlers illegally residing on occupied Palestinian land. It is highly unlikely they would allow Hamas to grow its power in the West Bank to the point where it can stage a takeover.

This fear-mongering on part of Israeli officials about Hamas’s capabilities may be aimed at undermining any efforts of mediation between Hamas and Fatah, after the recent tensions following the cancellation of the elections. It is in Israel’s direct interest to keep Palestinian factions divided so they can never present a united front to its occupation and crimes.

The Israeli leadership is also playing up this Hamas’s “resurgence” possibly to garner more international support for its brutal security campaigns against the Palestinians. The increased international spotlight on the raids on Islam’s third holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the forced expulsions of Jerusalemites from their homes has worried it. It is, therefore, seeking to take attention away from these crimes and dominate the narrative on Palestine again.

What Israel and its allies, however, cannot preclude is the spectacular loss of legitimacy the PA has suffered, which renders its rule over the West Bank in the long run completely untenable.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.