Lost among the coverage of the ongoing Hamas-organized protests at Gaza’s border with Israel have been significant protests against Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas. The latest protests began on Sunday, June 10th, in the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah in the West Bank. Protestors blame Abbas and other PA officials for hardships faced by Gaza residents after a year of PA sanctions on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The protests in the West Bank are meant to express solidarity with the cause of their fellow Palestinians in Gaza.
Last year, Abbas introduced a series of sanctions on Gaza to pressure Hamas into relinquishing control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority. As part of the sanctions, Abbas drastically cut salaries, forced thousands of civil workers into retirement, cut medical and social services, and reduced foreign aid imports into Gaza. He also raised taxes on fuel and stopped paying bills for Israel’s electricity supply into Gaza.
The demonstration on Sunday was supported by at least 1,500 Palestinians, who travelled from the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Haifa to attend the protest. The protestors’ main demand was for Abbas to lift all sanctions on Hamas in Gaza, but additional demands revealed discontent with international peace negotiations and PA authority, particularly Abbas. Some among the crowd called for Abbas to step down, while others called for Gaza and the West Bank to form a united Palestinian front against Israel.
Protesters held signs and chanted slogans accusing the PA of coordinating with Israeli security forces in the “occupation.” They were organized by far-left activists associated with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Hamas’ electoral victories in 2006 marked the beginning of the divisive and occasionally bloody rivalry between Hamas and the Fatah party to lead the PA. Hamas, a known terror group, wrested control from the Fatah party, then continued launching missiles and attacks on the Israeli forces and towns. Since then, the Gaza Strip has been the site of Israeli counter terror operations and internal violence among Hamas supporters. Both Israel and Egypt implement blockades to protect their borders from Hamas’ operatives, except Israel routinely provides Gaza with food, fuel and electricity.
In October of 2017, Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation agreement, but concrete steps have yet to be taken to actually implement the agreement. The deal was meant to allow Palestinian Authority forces to regain control of Gaza and Hamas’ weapons supply. Although Hamas desires to restore national Palestinian unity, the group refuses to concede its weapons and curtail attacks against Israel.
The protests on Sunday exposed the fragility of this agreement, as PA officials blamed Hamas and Israel for Gaza’s problems and Hamas blamed sanctions enforced by the PA. After the second round of protests on Tuesday, PA authorities banned protests in Palestinian territories, at least until after the end of Ramadan celebrations, which begin on Friday.
Despite the ban, protestors demonstrated again on Wednesday, this time resulting in violence and ten arrests. Protestors have claimed that their group has been infiltrated by PA officials and undercover security forces who are attempting to carry out slander campaigns against the protesters. Hamas has expressed support for these demonstrations and called on Palestinians in Gaza and West Bank to continue demonstrating.
At each of the protests, participants have claimed the PA, not just Abbas, is collaborating with the “Israeli oppression” to punish residents in Gaza. Some on social media have compared the Palestinian Authority’s suppression of Wednesday’s protest to Israeli practices. Israeli security forces do cooperate with the PA to prevent attacks in the West Bank, though Palestinians don’t recognize the benefit of the added safety. The Palestinian public reports high levels of corruption and abuse at the hands of PA security, breeding high levels of mistrust in their forces. By equating the PA with Israel, protestors are encouraging new leadership that will be more explicitly anti-Israel, such as Hamas.
As calls increase for Abbas to step down – 64% of Palestinians want him to resign – he must also weigh his deteriorating health. He was recently hospitalized for the third time in a month in yet another health scare. He has taken steps to prepare for new leadership, changing the protocols to block Hamas from fully taking over the Palestinian Authority and ensuring his successor will be someone he trusts.
Abbas has already refused to further work with the U.S. to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. appears ready to work with a replacement, though U.S. officials are continuing to work toward reaching a peace deal.
Later this summer, President Donald Trump is expected to release a peace plan. Abbas has already declared that he won’t agree to it because he does not view the U.S. as objective mediators in the dispute. According to chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, the U.S. killed any possibility for peace when the U.S. moved its embassy to Jerusalem, the city claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians to be their true capital. U.S. Envoy for the Middle East is also quoted as saying the Palestinians need not consent to the deal and that the U.S. will implement the plan rather than negotiate it.
A series of recent public polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicates the increasing popularity of Hamas in all Palestinian territories. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah is favored in a hypothetical presidential race in all territories. In hypothetical parliamentary elections, the Fatah party would still win, although Hamas has been trending upward in popularity over the last year.
Hamas has successfully organized mass protests against Israel in Gaza, and it seems support for them is spreading into PA-controlled territory in the West Bank. If the PA is unable to make significant reforms to its policies, it will spread discontent further into PA-controlled territory in the West Bank. If Hamas becomes the de facto leaders of both Gaza and the West Bank, U.S. ally Israel would suffer from an increase in attacks from multiple flanks.
After Israel recently destroyed an underwater tunnel, it was revealed that Hamas’ military capabilities are becoming more refined and deadly. Although no invasions via this tunnel were reported, it demonstrates Hamas’ intent to creatively find new ways to attack Israel.
While the Palestinian Authority has a history of refusing to negotiate with the U.S. and Israel for a permanent peace deal, they have generally assisted the Israelis in maintaining public order in the West Bank and preventing large-scale, Gaza-style protests from reaching PA-controlled territory.
Hamas, on the other hand, has carried out lethal attacks on Israelis since its inception, and has no intention of slowing. Recent protests in Ramallah in the West Bank reveal that young, local Palestinians are growing tired of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Although the protesters didn’t openly express support for Hamas, it is clear they are losing faith in the PA, leaving the door open for Hamas to recruit more supporters in the West Bank.
Despite the PA’s attempts to dismantle Hamas through sanctions, the popularity of Hamas has endured, and many Palestinians observing the PA’s response to West Bank protests may look to Hamas for new leadership.