Alongside the dramatic health and political developments in Israel, there have also been developments on the Palestinian side, that while not as dramatic are worth watching. The coronavirus scare has captured Palestinian public opinion.
Aside from obvious anxiety about the spread of the virus, according to sources in Ramallah there are also political concerns related to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s health. The octogenarian is in the highest risk group due to his age and the fact that he receives treatment that weakens his immune system.
According to the sources, Abbas is not granting audiences and his meetings are being conducted via telephone. Fatah institutions are also not convening, and their power, coherence and connection with the district offices is growing weaker. The Jenin Municipality, for example, refused to receive a delegation from Ramallah to coordinate the popular struggle against the U.S. “Peace to Prosperity” plan. The entire “Popular Struggle” program is reportedly crashing, including the active participation of Europeans in Friday marches.
On the Temple Mount, the coronavirus is also playing a role in a theological debate. According to sources in eastern Jerusalem, Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Islamic Liberation Party), an anti-Jordanian radical party that also opposes the Palestinian Authority, planned to send a delegation to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (and possibly the king) to request that Saudi Arabia replace Jordan as the “guardian” of the Al-Aqsa compound (Temple Mount).
Hizb ut-Tahrir is considered to be robust, with strong influence among many of the mosques’ activists. It became clear to Jordan that among the members of the delegation were also Waqf personnel. The kingdom threatened that it would immediately stop their salaries if such a delegation visit took place. Several heads of the Waqf rushed to Jordan to wash their hands of the expedition. Then the coronavirus story broke, and the matter was frozen.
Following the publication of the new Saudi Arabian curriculum, according to which the mosque compound on the Temple Mount is the responsibility of Saudi Arabia, and the most recent initiative of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, it is clear to the Jordanians that Saudi Arabia is setting its sights on the Mount. The Jordanians suspect that this is happening in coordination with Israel.
Hizb ut-Tahrir showed its cards during the last Ramadan holiday when it announced the beginning and the end of the fasting according to the lunar calculations of Saudi Arabia, and not those of the P.A. and Jordan. The dispute led to fights in Hebron.
The rift between Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Ismail Haniyeh, who left Gaza to try to establish himself as the Hamas leader on the “outside,” continues to grow. Sinwar is the leader of the organization’s religious Shura Council in Gaza, versus the secular Hamas Politburo outside of Gaza. Khaled Mashal, despite his resignation from the Politburo in 2017, is still the strongest man, though, according to our sources in Ramallah, he has heart disease that restricts his activity.
Haniyeh has a problem. He and Sinwar differ about finding some kind of resolution with Israel. Sinwar promotes reconciliatory steps, while Haniyeh opposes them. Qatar, a supporter of Hamas and Gaza reconstruction, agreed to host Haniyeh after he left Gaza, but stands with Sinwar. Qatar has made its position very clear to Haniyeh.
Haniyeh may have to set himself up in Turkey or Iran. In Turkey, the Hamas office is headed by Salah Aruri. As for Iran, that will not be an easy decision for Haniyeh. The Hamas leader defied Egypt when he left Gaza to deliver a eulogy for slain Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Tehran. If Haniyeh moves to Lebanon, he will have to express support for Hezbollah, at a time when Lebanon is experiencing internal turmoil, and that, too, will not be an easy decision for the Hamas official.
Pinhas Inbari is a veteran Arab affairs correspondent who formerly reported for Israel Radio and Al Hamishmar newspaper. He currently serves as an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.