Playing Palestinians off Against Each Other

By Ghassan Khatib – West Bank
In spite of their recent fierce confrontations and the continuing hostile rhetoric, there are apparently three levels of direct and indirect dealings between Israel and Hamas of Gaza. A ceasefire was reached and is still maintained, negotiations are taking place through third parties on a likely prisoners’ exchange and the two sides are exchanging views over the possible opening of the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt.

The most striking aspect of Hamas-Israel relations has been the success and duration of the ceasefire. It is worth noting, that since the resumption of violent confrontations between Israel and the Palestinians in 2000, this has been the most successful ceasefire to date. Based on that, the Israeli security establishment has already drawn its conclusions about the strength of Hamas and its willingness and ability to abide by its commitments.

Palestinian fears of a possible development in the Hamas-Israel relationship are deeply rooted in the Islamic Resistance Movement’s history. The late president Yasser Arafat repeated more than once in closed circles that during peace negotiations, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had expressed regret for the earlier Israeli involvement in supporting and encouraging the creation of Hamas. Israel did this during the first intifada in order to counterbalance the growing strength and influence of the PLO.

Now, however, and judging by its behavior, Israel seems comfortable with Hamas’ control over Gaza. In addition to undermining Palestinian aspirations for independence and statehood, the split between Hamas in Gaza and Fateh in the West Bank is causing each to compete with the other over who can better prevent Palestinian violence against Israel. The split, moreover, and Hamas’ control over Gaza are reducing international pressure on Israel. Israel is thus free to continue its violations of international law, avoiding its responsibility to implement United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, expanding and building more illegal Jewish settlements in occupied territory and maintaining its draconian and inhuman closure policies in both the West Bank and on Gaza.

Maariv, an Israeli newspaper, earlier this month published a report about a meeting between the top eight Palestinian security chiefs, most of whom are new appointees, and the Israeli army commander in the West Bank. The report revealed the extent of the security cooperation between the two sides, centered around the "common enemy", Hamas. The two seem to be anticipating an intensification of the confrontation with Hamas, including in the West Bank next January, when President Mahmoud Abbas’ term as president ends.

The irony is that on the one hand Israel is committed to a ceasefire and is conducting prisoner exchange negotiations with Hamas while on the other hand, Israel is supporting, training and coordinating with the West Bank Palestinian security services the continuation of the internal Palestinian confrontations and divisions. This would make sense if on the political level of relations, the two sides were moving toward an agreement on ending the occupation or at least stopping the expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territories. This is not the case.

The Israeli manipulation of the Palestinian leadership and its cooption during the Oslo process, with the consent of the international community, undermined that leadership, and led directly to the popularity of Hamas that ultimately secured its election victory in 2006. The current deepening of Israel-Hamas coordination and cooperation in Gaza and the continuing failure of the political negotiations to end the occupation will only enhance the current trends of radicalization and sustain the factors that caused the shift in the balance of power against the peace camp.

-Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham. (Originally published in, September 22, 2008)

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