The deadly escalation of violence across Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, in which at least 40 people have been killed and hundreds injured, has demonstrated how the core fault-lines of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians still run deep. But the dynamics of the violence also underscore internal divisions and crises of leadership on both sides.
For Israelis, this has manifested itself in four elections in two years that have so far failed to end in the formation of a stable government. The most recent election, held on March 23, is still mired in wrangling between various parties and factions. Coalition talks were frozen on Monday after violence exploded in Jerusalem and Gaza.
For Palestinians, meanwhile, the ongoing crisis of leadership has been encapsulated in Hamas commandeering the resistance, further sidelining Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority, of which he is president.
Tensions between Fatah and Hamas have dominated Palestinian politics since 2006, when Hamas was victorious in the Palestinian Authority’s last parliamentary elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, ending the era of Fatah’s dominance. After armed conflict between the two factions and the failure of an attempted unity government, the Palestinian leadership has been divided since 2007, with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority governing the West Bank, and Hamas governing the Gaza Strip.
Despite numerous reconciliation efforts over the past 15 years, rifts have remained. Both parties agreed in autumn 2020 to new elections, but these were postponed “indefinitely” by Abbas at the end of April. While the Palestinian Authority cited Israeli restrictions on Jerusalem residents voting as the cause for this delay, many surmise that it was more due to Abbas’ low popularity in recent polls, with challenges not only from Hamas, but also two Fatah splinter groups.
In the lead-up to the election, Hamas cleverly sought to link its movement with protecting Jerusalem, an issue with high political and religious resonance, especially during the month of Ramadan. They planned to run an electoral list of candidates named “Jerusalem is our destiny”, and fired rockets as a show of force and solidarity with Palestinians who were protesting against Israeli police restricting access to Damascus Gate. Damascus Gate is one of the main entrances to Jerusalem’s Old City, and a popular meeting place for Palestinians, especially during Ramadan after the evening prayer.
Later, Mohammed Deif, the leader of Hamas’ military wing, issued a warning to Israel over the eviction of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. Ongoing attempts to alter the demographics of this majority Arab suburb have mobilised widespread popular demonstrations in recent weeks.
These shows of solidarity by Hamas were in sharp contrast to the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which had failed to respond directly to the tensions in Jerusalem. It doesn’t help that the Palestinian Authority resumed security cooperation with Israel earlier this year.
Face of the resistance
Without the ballot box to prove its legitimacy, Hamas has now doubled down on projecting its image as the face of resistance to the occupation. Since the storming of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque by Israeli police on Monday May 10, Hamas has launched more than 1,000 rockets into Israel. These have been largely neutralised by Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defence system and Israel has retaliated with airstrikes on Gaza. Dozens of civilians have been killed and scores wounded, seemingly setting up another “Gaza war” like those of 2009, 2012 and 2014, which resulted in thousands of casualties.
Hamas doesn’t need to “win” wars in the traditional sense to be victorious. By simply resisting, it affirms its legitimacy and popularity, which has tended to surge after such escalations in the past. This is especially in comparison to the Palestinian Authority, which is seen as weak at best and complicit at worst in terms of relations with Israel.
This doesn’t mean that Hamas’ ideology or governance is popular; there is widespread dissatisfaction with conditions in Gaza that some blame on Hamas as well as Israel. But Hamas is wasting no time in seizing the moment in the current crisis to bolster its standing, both in Gaza and beyond.
Nonetheless, the question remains whether the activists and organisers leading the popular uprisings in Jerusalem and elsewhere will continue to see Hamas as an ally or a leader – or simply another faction exploiting the crisis and hijacking the resistance.