OpinionIsrael at War

Does the PA really want to return to Gaza?

Instead of preparing the P.A. for regaining control of the Gaza Strip, Abbas has opted to focus his efforts on delegitimizing and isolating Israel.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Cairo on Feb. 23, 2012. Credit:  Mohammed al-Hums/Flash 90.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Cairo on Feb. 23, 2012. Credit: Mohammed al-Hums/Flash 90.
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Khaled Abu Toameh
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award winning Arab and Palestinian Affairs journalist formerly with The Jerusalem Post. He is Senior Distinguished Fellow at the Gatestone Institute and a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

While some in Israel and the United States are fixated on the question of who will govern the Gaza Strip after the current war, many Palestinians, including the Palestinian Authority, seem less concerned about what will happen to the coastal enclave once Hamas is removed from power. 

Although the P.A. has publicly indicated its desire to return to the Gaza Strip, Palestinian officials in Ramallah say they know that this cannot happen as long as Hamas’s military capabilities have not been completely destroyed. 

P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas is not thinking about returning to the Gaza Strip, the officials say. His top concern right now is ensuring that Hamas does not win on the battlefield or in the arena of public opinion. 

All he can do on the battlefield front is silently hope that Israel vanquishes Hamas and puts an end to the terrorist organization’s rule over the Gaza Strip. 

The growing popularity of the Iran-backed Hamas among Palestinians and the terrorist organization’s prominence in international affairs following the Oct. 7 massacre of Israelis appear to be Abbas’s primary concern. 

The P.A. president is apparently not happy with all the attention that Hamas has been getting since Oct. 7. He is also upset that since the attack, Hamas has become more popular among Palestinians as well as other Arabs and Muslims. Abbas, in addition, is worried about the fact that Hamas leaders continue to be accepted by many in the international community as legitimate actors in the Palestinian arena. 

At meetings of the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, Abbas has avoided bringing up the issue of returning to the Gaza Strip. He is aware that this is a very delicate subject and that Hamas and his political enemies could use anything he says to label him as an Israeli collaborator. 

Since the Oct. 7 massacre, Abbas has been cautious not to challenge Hamas directly. However, he has sharply criticized Hamas—not for the heinous crimes it committed, but for providing Israel with a pretext to invade the Gaza Strip. Abbas knows quite well that if he criticizes Hamas, especially when it is at war with Israel, he will lose favor with many Palestinians.

At the May 16 Arab summit in Bahrain, Abbas accused Hamas of giving Israel pretexts and justifications for waging war against the Gaza Strip, but stopped short of denouncing the crimes committed by Hamas terrorists against Israelis. “The military action that Hamas carried out, at its own decision, on that day, Oct. 7, gave Israel even more excuses and reasons to attack in the Gaza Strip, an attack it has continued with full force, with murder, destruction and uprooting,” he said.  

The day after

According to the Palestinian officials, Abbas and the P.A. leadership do not have a plan for the day after the war.  

The new P.A. government led by Prime Minister Mohammad Mustafa has still not come up with a strategy to expand its authority to include the Gaza Strip, primarily because Hamas objects to Abbas’s “unilateral” decision to name a prime minister without first consulting with the terrorist group.

It is, therefore, unlikely that Mustafa’s government will take up duties in the Gaza Strip anytime soon, given the fact that Hamas remains in control of many parts of the coastal enclave. In the past few weeks, Mustafa has been busy trying to find a solution to the P.A.’s financial crisis. His top priority is to pay full salaries to P.A. employees, not returning to the Gaza Strip.

As part of its effort to prevent the return of Abbas loyalists, Hamas militiamen have been keeping an eye on the whereabouts and behavior of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who are recognized to be associated with the PA and its ruling Fatah faction.  

Hamas security personnel dressed in civilian clothes are patrolling the streets of several Gaza Strip communities, occasionally stopping individuals and requesting to verify their personal documentation. 

Last month, Hamas announced that its men had detained several P.A. intelligence officers who had “infiltrated” the Gaza Strip posing as humanitarian assistance workers. Hamas claimed that the officers were on a covert mission organized and supervised by Majed Faraj, commander of the Palestinian General Intelligence Service, in coordination with Israel and some Arab countries, presumably Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. 

In the past few months, Hamas has issued numerous warnings declaring that it will not allow any foreign party to be present in the Gaza Strip. The warning was issued in reaction to information circulating about the possible deployment of an Arab peacekeeping force in the Gaza Strip. The warning was also directed against Abbas and his close advisers, including Faraj and Hussein al-Sheikh, Secretary-General of the PLO Executive Committee, who is touted as a potential successor to the 88-year-old Palestinian rais (president).

There is hardly any meaningful debate among the Palestinians when it comes to who should lead the Gaza Strip if Hamas is overthrown.

But many Palestinians are attentively monitoring reports in the Israeli and foreign media concerning the controversy surrounding the P.A.’s return to the Gaza Strip. The majority of the information they receive on this matter is sourced from Israeli and foreign journalists, with Palestinian officials, political analysts and commentators rarely discussing the topic in public. 

In the Gaza Strip, many Palestinians are frequently unwilling and afraid to bring up the subject, at least in public. They are aware that despite the significant losses Hamas has sustained during the war, it still maintains many eyes and ears throughout the Gaza Strip. 

In the West Bank, many Palestinians do not seem to care about who will rule the Gaza Strip after the war. The two main concerns that the majority of the West Bank Palestinians have these days are whether the P.A. will pay its employees fully or partially and whether or not Israel will ever permit Palestinians (from the West Bank) to work in Israel again. More than 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank had permits to enter Israel for commercial and work purposes prior to Oct. 7. 

The international Criminal Court

In the absence of a plan and a genuine intention to return to the Gaza Strip, Abbas and the P.A. leadership have intensified their diplomatic war against Israel in the international arena, exemplified by the International Criminal Court prosecutor Karim Khan requesting arrest warrants from the court’s judges for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

The offensive also involves renewing the Palestinians’ application for full United Nations membership, gaining recognition for a Palestinian state from more nations and convincing numerous governments and international organizations across the globe to boycott and punish Israel. 

Instead of preparing the P.A. for regaining control of the Gaza Strip, Abbas has opted to focus his efforts on delegitimizing and isolating Israel and achieving symbolic victories, including persuading more countries to recognize a Palestinian state. His main goal is to show the Palestinians that the P.A. remains as relevant as ever. His message to the Palestinians: “While Hamas is fighting Israel on the streets of the Gaza Strip, I’m waging another type of war against Israel in the international arena. My war is no less painful to Israel than the Hamas attacks against Israel.”

Abbas is hoping that his diplomatic offensive will help him regain legitimacy and the confidence of Palestinians, many of whom, according to public opinion polls, prefer Hamas to his corrupt and incompetent P.A. For now, he would rather remain in Ramallah, continuing his diplomatic warfare against Israel and efforts to win recognition of a Palestinian state, than return to the Gaza Strip and face a potential bloodbath—with some of the blood being his own—courtesy of Hamas.

Originally published by The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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