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The Hamas time bomb in Gaza/ Palestinian views on terror

Apr 1, 2016

The Hamas time bomb in Gaza/ Palestinian views on terror

Update from AIJAC

April 1, 2016
Number 04/16 #01

This Update features two valuable pieces on the situation in Gaza – which looks very likely to deteriorate into another round of conflict in the not too distant future. It also includes an important analysis of the polling data on Palestinian views on the current round of terrorist violence – which also offers bad news about the prospects of a lull in the violence emanating from the West Bank.

First up is a good piece from Jerusalem Post security affairs correspondent Yaakov Lappin – who focuses on how economic forces are likely to force an explosion in Gaza, given Hamas’ failed economic policies there and the build-up of tunnels and rockets to prepare for a new conflict with Israel. He notes that unemployment is very high, especially among the vast contingent of young people, most Gazans are dependent on UN aid, population is growing unsustainably, and yet Hamas represses any complaints. He says Hamas is making promises of economic improvements it cannot keep, while the only party attempting to help the Gaza population is Israel, via the reconstruction mechanism it has facilitated. For Lappin’s complete look at the sources of the next Gaza conflict, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Avi Issacharoff, Palestinian affairs correspondent for the Times of Israel, looks at a new political force which is shaping Hamas’ plans – the rise of a populist military leader named Yahya Sinwar, who is challenging Hamas’ established leadership, acting contrary to their instructions, and pushing the organisation in a more militant direction. In particular, Sinwar, who was jailed for 22 years but then released in the Shalit prisoner exchange in 2011, is responsible for Hamas’ growing links with ISIS in Sinai, and also for trying to retain ties with Syria and Iran that the Hamas leadership abroad is trying to distance the organisation from. For this important insight into the reality of the politics going on within Hamas, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Israeli political scientist Dan Polisar – who did an important longer piece a few months ago on Palestinian attitudes toward peace and violence over time – analyses the latest polling on Palestinian attitudes to the current “lone wolf” violence directed against Israelis in recent months. While he finds that there is declining support for the sort of knife attacks we have seen, this news is not as good as it appears, because most Palestinians would prefer to see the knife attacks morph into an “armed intifada” – that is attacks with guns and bombs. A full 65% expressed support for “attacks on Israeli civilians within Israel,” a figure higher than at any point in decades. For this disheartening news about Palestinian attitudes to terrorism, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

The Gaza Time Bomb

by Yaakov Lappin

IPT News, March 30, 2016

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Inside Hamas, a bitter and very personal battle for control

Qatar-based political smoothie Khaled Mashaal is gradually losing authority to ruthless ex-prisoner Yahya Sinwar, the people’s champion who is directing operations from Gaza

Times of Israel, March 19, 2016, 11:00 am

When Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas’s political wing, was interviewed on the France 24 television channel this week, his statements about a possible escalation in Gaza were unequivocal. “Hamas is not seeking war [with Israel]. We are eager to avoid it,” he said. He added that while Iran had supported Hamas in the past, it had reduced its assistance since Hamas came out openly against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Currently, Mashaal said, Hamas was working to develop additional funding sources.

So he said — but plenty of people in the Gaza Strip were none too bothered. Although Mashaal supposedly still holds the highest position in Hamas, his status as the organization’s top leader does not seem as strong as in past years. He is no longer the sole decision-maker in Hamas, certainly not when it comes to the Gaza Strip.

As The Times of Israel reported in December, a new leader by the name of Yahya Sinwar has emerged in the Strip. A charismatic man, Sinwar is leading an intensifying challenge to Mashaal’s leadership and to Hamas’s senior echelons abroad. While Mashaal, who was born in the West Bank village of Silwad, stays in luxury hotels in the Gulf states and meets with world leaders such as the president of Turkey, Sinwar lives in the Khan Younis refugee camp and is seen as the champion of the oppressed, suffering alongside them.

Sinwar spent 22 years in Israel’s prisons until he was released in the 2011 Shalit prisoner-exchange deal. A man who avoids the limelight, he is considered a radical hardliner who inspires the loyalty of the leadership of Hamas’s military wing.

The clash between Mashaal and Sinwar is at the heart of a growing rift between Hamas’s “Gazans” and the “ones abroad.” The resolution of issues such as Hamas’s reconciliation with Fatah, its relations with Egypt and its own broad strategy hinges on the result.

Oil and water

To begin to understand the clash, a good place to start is with the natural competition between the West Bank and Gaza — not just inside Hamas but within Palestinian society.

It is no secret that the inhabitants of the West Bank look down on the Gazans. This was even more the case in Hamas after the killing of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in March 2004 and the elimination of Abdel-Aziz al-Rantisi a few weeks later. Hamas had lost its two most prominent leaders in Gaza.

Still, many of their counterparts in the West Bank were either imprisoned in Israel or had been assassinated, so the killing of Yassin and al-Rantisi marked the beginning of a “golden age” for Hamas’s leadership abroad. Ex-West Banker Mashaal and other “exiles” like his deputy Moussa Abu Marzouk were considered the highest-ranking and most important people in Hamas everywhere, including in Gaza, and the military wing took its orders from them. Even when Hamas’s Gaza terror chief Muhammad Deif and, later on, Ahmed Jabari began rising to prominence, there was still no doubt as to who gave the orders.

Sinwar’s release from prison wrought a change in the structure of the entire leadership. Sinwar began asserting himself as Hamas’s Number One man in Gaza: One of the founders of the Izz a-Din al-Qassam military brigades, he had tried to scuttle the Shalit deal, even though it wound up securing his freedom after 22 years, because he felt it made too many concessions. That helped him solidify the respect of all Hamas’s members.

Sinwar has worked to change Hamas’s priorities. For him, Gaza is not a stepping-stone in a wider strategy of taking over the West Bank and the PLO, as it is for Mashaal. Rather, Gaza is a separate and sanctified goal: the first and only entity where the Muslim Brotherhood’s doctrine held sway. The members of the political bureau abroad see a takeover of the entire Palestinian leadership as an end that justifies any means, including concessions in Gaza if required. Not so, for Sinwar.

Another strategic issue on which the two camps are divided has to do with the clash of civilizations in the Middle East and the fight between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites. While Mashaal and his group made clear their reservations regarding the “Shi’ite axis” as far back as 2011, Sinwar and his comrades in the Gaza military wing refused to part ways with their friends in Tehran and Damascus.

Mashaal tried several times to draw close to Saudi Arabia and even visited there. But the members of the military wing, led by Deif and with Sinwar above him, kept in close contact with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Al-Quds Force and continued to receive funding through various channels.

But Mashaal’s all-too-overt support of Riyadh, together with his firm opposition to the Houthis’ activity in Yemen, led to a significant cutback in Iranian aid to the Gaza Strip (at least for the military wing).

The Mashaal-Sinwar disagreement is also evident regarding relations with the Egyptians.

A Hamas delegation, including Abu Marzouk, visited Cairo this week and met with heads of Egyptian intelligence (the Mukhabarat), which is trying to court the leaders of the political wing, in Gaza and abroad, to counter the actions of Sinwar and the military wing. Evidence presented to members of the delegation that Hamas activists trained the assassins of Egypt’s prosecutor general astonished them.

Plainly, the military wing is pursuing, under their very noses, an independent policy regarding relations with Islamic State personnel in Egypt. Transferring wounded members of IS in Sinai for medical treatment in the Gaza Strip, digging tunnels into Egypt, moving arms and ammunition to Sinai, and training Islamic State fighters — all these activities are taking place as an organized project of the military wing, with the knowledge of Yahya Sinwar, but without the consent of the members of the political wing in Gaza, and certainly without the consent of Mashaal in Qatar.

Mashaal has urged his fellow Hamas members to stop all smuggling from the Gaza Strip to Sinai and sever all contact with Islamic State. But Gaza has needs of its own, and he has been ignored. Officials of the military wing have decided to keep communication channels with Islamic State open because the smuggling of arms and funds to and from Sinai is deemed so important.

The “ideological” disputes are causing practical difficulties regarding the way Hamas should be run. It’s not always clear exactly who is making the decisions: Is it Ismail Haniyeh or Mahmoud a-Zahar, both of whom are considered senior members of the political wing in Gaza? Is it Mashaal and Abu Marzouk, who live abroad? Or are Sinwar and Deif now the ones in charge?

One illustration of this confusion is last month’s execution of Mahmoud Eshtawi, who had been considered the battalion commander of Gaza City’s Zeitoun neighborhood, on charges of collaborating with Israel. Eshtawi, a prominent member of Hamas’s military wing, came from a family with deep roots in the organization. The decision to execute him aroused a great deal of anger among Hamas supporters, and it’s still not clear whose decision it was: the political wing, Sinwar and Deif, both?

Or take statements made by members of Hamas’s political wing after a series of tunnel collapses in recent weeks. A-Zahar gloatingly announced that Hamas was digging tunnels into Israel, but members of the military wing then took him to task, asking, in effect, where he got the authority to make such statements. He then claimed to have been misunderstood.

New elections for the Hamas political bureau are to be held over the coming year, and it is not clear whether Mashaal will be re-elected. The balance of power is tilting rapidly in favor of Gaza, and it is likely that Sinwar will want to be installed as head of the political wing or will select one of his close associates for the post.

For Sinwar, there is quite a bit of historical and social baggage here: He is the representative of the refugees and the prisoners — the underprivileged Gazans who have always been considered second-class. And while he and his close associates suffer in the dust of Gaza’s tunnels, it is galling for them to see others such as Mashaal — the far-seeing statesman born in the West Bank, the consummate politician who has never known the sound of gunfire or the stench of prison — live in luxury at Gaza’s expense and claim Gazans’ fealty.

Hamas is not about to fall apart, and the rifts are not unbridgeable. But for the next few months at least, Mashaal will likely keep on giving orders from Qatar, and the military wing and Sinwar will keep on ignoring them.

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What Palestinians Think about the Knife Intifada

Six months after the current wave of violence began, some observers think it might be running out of steam. But what next?


Daniel Polisar
March 31 2016

Is the “knife intifada” beginning to run out of steam? Some observers say so. Yet this Friday, April 1, marks an impressive half-year since the launch of the current wave of Palestinian violence. Characterized largely by stabbings carried out by youngsters, generally acting alone or in pairs, this round of attacks has already claimed the lives of 29 Israelis, two Americans, an Eritrean asylum seeker, and a Palestinian bystander, and caused more than 400 injuries.

During this time, according to official Israeli sources, there have been over 200 stabbings or attempted stabbings at an average pace greater than one per day, as well as 40 car-ramming assaults and 80 shootings. Though perpetrated almost exclusively by Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and focused largely on these areas, the attacks have also reached Israel’s coastal cities, most notably Tel Aviv. And though not yet nearly so long-running as the first (1987-1991) or second (2000-2004) intifadas, the current wave, given that it appears to be driven by individual initiative rather than by organized militant groups like Hamas or Fatah, has shown remarkable staying power.

What explains its endurance? One reason may be that the perpetrators both reflect and are largely motivated by Palestinian public opinion—a subject to which I devoted a comprehensive essay in Mosaic last November. Here I want to explore what has changed over the last six months in how Palestinians see their conflict with Israel, and especially the desirability and efficacy of resorting to violence. In doing so, I’ll rely principally on polls conducted during this period by three of the leading Palestinian polling institutes whose published results reliably indicate what Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza think.

To begin with, most Palestinians, despite the fact that their countrymen are the ones initiating attacks on Israelis, see themselves as being under attack by Israel—on both the national and the individual level. In a December 2015 poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), 51 percent of respondents were convinced that Israel’s long-term goal with respect to the al-Haram al Sharif area in the Old City of Jerusalem (known to Jews and many Christians as the Temple Mount) is to “destroy [the] al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques and build a synagogue in their place.” Among Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, that figure rose to 66 percent—a significant datum given that residents of these two areas are almost exclusively responsible for the current uprising and that their views exert a corresponding influence on its course. Far from being a one-time fluke, this finding extended a pattern observed in surveys during the previous year, and was replicated in PSR’s most recent poll in March 2016.

What makes this Palestinian fear particularly remarkable is that the Israeli government has repeatedly gone on record opposing any change in the core element of the status quo put in place on the Mount in 1967, which is that Muslims worship there en masse in a number of structures dedicated to that purpose, but no place exists for Jewish communal prayer and Jewish visitors are forbidden from praying there even as individuals. Not a single party or leading figure in Israel’s current government or any of its predecessors has proposed the building of a synagogue on the Mount, or suggested harming the Muslim holy sites that have stood on it for the past thirteen centuries. Similarly, no Israeli government has taken any steps that could plausibly be interpreted as indicating an interest in such actions.

Yet none of this seems to have the slightest effect on the sense among most Palestinians not only that Israel aims to destroy the Muslim holy sites in the future but that an attack against them is already under way. In a November 2015 survey conducted by the Center for Opinion Polls and Survey Studies at An-Najah National University, respondents were asked several questions that assumed as much—and their answers made it clear that they accepted the premise. To one such question—“Do you think that the continuous assaults on al-Aqsa Mosque by settler groups are encouraged by the Israeli government?”—92 percent answered affirmatively. Among residents of the West Bank and Jerusalem—who, being much more frequent visitors to the Mount, presumably should have more accurate information than their counterparts in Gaza—the figure was an astonishing 94 percent.

Here again one would search in vain for a factual basis to this claim. There have been no reliably reported instances of Israeli settlers attempting to enter the al-Aqsa mosque in the last several months, let alone any attacks on the structure or its worshipers. True, there has been a modest increase in the number of religious Jews visiting the Mount, where the First and Second Temples stood for around a millennium, and a small number of these visitors might well have prayed there surreptitiously; but if so, such acts did not take place in or near the al-Aqsa mosque, and could hardly be considered an assault in any reasonable sense of the term.

Perhaps most noteworthy of all was the response to the following question in the December 2015 PSR poll:

Two months ago, large-scale confrontations broke out in the Palestinian territories against the occupation forces and the settlers in which many Palestinians fell after being shot by the Israeli army or settlers claiming that they stabbed or tried to stab Israelis. Do you think that most of those Palestinians have indeed stabbed or tried to stab Israelis or that most of them did not stab or try to stab Israelis?

Among residents of the West Bank and Jerusalem, 57 percent averred that “most of them did not stab or try to stab Israelis,” despite the widely available videos of the stabbings, despite the fact that family members of many of the perpetrators publicly took pride in what they had done, and despite the fact that leading Palestinian figures and media often celebrated these attacks.

Most Palestinians, then, especially in the West Bank, see themselves as on the defensive and thus justified in supporting and encouraging attacks on Israelis. At the same time, most have also shown record levels of pessimism regarding the prospect of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel in the next five years.

Just before the outbreak of the current uprising last fall, PSR, which has consistently asked about this subject over the last nine years, registered a record 78 percent viewing the chances of a two-state solution in the next five years as low or non-existent. Three months later, with the knife intifada in full swing, the figure fell only slightly to 75 percent.

One factor here is that Palestinians have become less flexible regarding a possible deal with Israel. To take but a few examples: 76 percent of those surveyed by PSR in December declined to accept Israeli sovereignty over western Jerusalem in exchange for Palestinian sovereignty in the eastern parts of the city, the highest percentage of nay-sayers in a decade; 62 percent, the highest ever, rejected a deal for a two-state solution modeled on the Clinton parameters (widely perceived to be at least as generous as any Israeli government is likely to be in the foreseeable future); and another record-breaking 61 percent rejected the idea of mutual recognition between “Israel as the state of the Jewish people and Palestine as the state of the Palestinian people.”

In all of these cases, the figures are even higher among Arab respondents from the West Bank and Jerusalem. Though reflective of a rejectionist attitude that has been developing over the course of a decade and a half, through periods of greater and lesser conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, these latest polls have indicated an even stronger unwillingness to compromise on core issues.

Given this congeries of views, it is no surprise that most Palestinians were supportive of the current uprising when it first broke out. In the December 2015 PSR poll, for example, support for the use of knives to attack Israelis was at 67 percent overall and commanded a majority among virtually all sectors of the population, including residents of the West Bank and of Gaza, adherents of Hamas, Fatah, and other parties, and all age groups.

And yet—here’s where things get complicated—by the middle of March, two weeks ago, a PSR poll was showing that overall support for knifing attacks was down to 58 percent, while in the West Bank, whose residents were bearing the brunt of the negative consequences from these attacks, it had dropped to 44 percent. These findings corroborate a JMCC poll in early March showing a similar decline in support for knife attacks and for continuing the current uprising more generally.

Of course, the current level of support is still quite significant, which might account for the fact that so far in March, there have been a dozen knifing attacks, four shootings, and three attempts to run Israelis over. But the drop and the reasons behind it are worth noting for what they may signal about the future.

What has changed, it seems, is the belief that the attacks are an effective means of securing gains. In PSR’s December poll, 51 percent of respondents thought that continuing the uprising would advance Palestinian rights in ways negotiations could not. By March, only 43 percent were telling PSR field workers that continuing the current confrontations would serve Palestinian national interests more effectively than negotiations. Meanwhile, the corresponding figure in the West Bank decreased to 36 percent.

It’s not hard to make sense of these figures, which seem rationally grounded in experience. Generally speaking, the attackers, and especially the knife-bearers, who have become the symbol of the uprising, have been thwarted. All told, more than 200 stabbing attacks have led to a relatively modest total of fifteen deaths, most of them during the first three months of the uprising, with a comparable number of Israelis killed in the 120 car-rammings and shootings. The perpetrators have fared far worse, as virtually all have been killed, seriously injured, or arrested.

Thus, if the goal has been to bring about substantial Israeli casualties at a tolerable price, one cannot view the uprising as a success in its own terms. Nor has it succeeded in instilling fear in Israelis, compelling them to alter their way of life or leading them to pressure their government to change its policies or to try and topple it through elections. After a few weeks of modifying their habits to lessen the chances of being attacked, the vast majority of Israelis have largely resumed normal life, albeit with greater vigilance and, for those licensed to carry guns, with personal weapons frequently at the ready. The government, for all its internal difficulties, appears to be suffering little from adverse public reaction to the violence or to its handling of it.

The uprising has also failed to elicit substantial sympathy for the Palestinians or to blacken Israel’s reputation in significant circles in the West—despite the potential “David versus Goliath” appeal of teenage boys and girls wielding knives and scissors and dying or being disarmed and arrested at the hands of Israeli policemen and soldiers. To be sure, there have been the occasional egregious pieces of reporting, most notably by the BBC when it headlined a story about the stabbing deaths of two Israeli civilians by diverting attention to police actions aimed at stopping the perpetrator from continuing his killing spree: “Palestinian Shot Dead after Jerusalem Attack Kills Two.”

There have also been occasional statements by diplomats blaming Israel as the cause of the attacks, most prominently Secretary of State John Kerry’s October assertion (subsequently walked back) that “there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years, and now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing.” In December, similarly, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon declared that “The anger we are witnessing is bred from nearly five decades of Israeli occupation. It is the result of fear, humiliation, frustration, and mistrust.” But such statements, giving a public-relations victory to the perpetrators of violence, have been relatively rare and have gained little traction.

A host of factors help to explain this phenomenon. They range from the restraint employed by Israeli police and soldiers in neutralizing the attackers without killing those already disarmed (with the apparent exception, in circumstances not yet clarified, of a recent case in Hebron), to the sound decision by most Western leaders not to reward violence by condemning Israel or pressuring it for concessions, to the worldwide preoccupation with the incomparably worse carnage in Syria and with the refugee crisis it has helped to precipitate. Whatever the reasons, nothing in the international reaction has compared with the savaging Israel faced in many quarters after the Gaza wars of January 2009 and summer 2014.

Were this the full story, observers concerned with putting a halt to the current campaign and actually restoring calm might take heart from the Palestinian polls indicating that denying gains to those who use violence curtails public support for such violence, which in turn may translate into a reduction in its use.

Unfortunately, however, this is not the case. To the contrary, recent surveys show that a majority of Palestinians have reached quite a different conclusion: namely, that stabbings and car-rammings are too low-octane to achieve their ambitious national goals, and that doubling down by resorting to more deadly violence would be more effective.

In PSR’s December 2015 poll, for example, 46 percent considered an armed intifada the most effective means of securing a Palestinian state, nearly twice as many as chose the second-place answer of negotiations. Moreover, two-thirds believed that the current uprising’s developing into such an armed intifada would be more effective than negotiations in advancing Palestinian interests—a figure 15 points higher than for the options of continuing the current uprising as is or shifting to large-scale non-violent protests. That same month, the percentage of Palestinians saying they would support a return to an “armed intifada and to confrontations” if the path of negotiations were to fail reached 60 percent, the highest recorded level in the two dozen times this question has been asked in the last six years; likewise at an all-time high was the 20 percent saying they would “certainly” support that course of action.

Even more tellingly, 64 percent in the same poll indicated support for “attacks on Israeli civilians within Israel,” a figure higher than at any point during the second intifada, when such attacks, especially suicide bombings, were common and enjoyed substantial legitimacy throughout Palestinian society.

And the latest PSR poll continues the trend, showing that 65 percent of the public (including 59 percent in the West Bank) sees an armed intifada as more effective than negotiations in securing Palestinian gains. In the press release announcing its March results, PSR cited both the “notable drop in the West Bank in the support for knifing attacks, due, it seems, to a rising perception of its inefficacy” and the fact that “a large majority continues to view an armed intifada as more effective than these attacks.

Public opinion among Palestinians is certainly not the sole determinant of what will happen next. Yet, as a powerful force driving the current uprising, it should be taken very seriously in thinking about the likely course of events and how to prepare for them. With Palestinians increasingly convinced of their victimhood, unwilling to compromise on key substantive issues, and beginning to believe that an armed intifada is the better way to go, policy makers and others interested in curbing the escalation of violence would do well to consider what steps can be implemented to prevent an explosion.

About the author

Daniel Polisar, a political scientist, is the provost and executive vice-president of Shalem College in Jerusalem. His research has focused on democratization, Israel’s constitutional development, and the challenges of liberalization in the Palestinian Authority.

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