The Hamas “Return March” campaign in Gaza, which began on March 30 and has continued on a weekly basis each Friday, has exposed what is really happening in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians, led by Hamas, are fighting at the border fence against the Israeli restrictions that have gone on for 11 years. But the Palestinian Authority and Arab states have abandoned them, in effect giving Israel the “green light” to deal with Hamas-trained Palestinian violence as it sees fit.
P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas does not conceal his attitude towards Hamas. Two weeks ago, he and his adviser, Mahmoud Habbash, accused the Hamas leadership of sending Gaza residents to their deaths at the border with Israel.
Abbas achieved new legitimacy at a recent gathering of the Palestinian National Council (PNC) in Ramallah, and he is waiting for the end of Hamas’s “Return March” campaign to renew his efforts to take fresh control of the Gaza Strip.
Several months ago, Abbas imposed strict sanctions on Gaza, including stopping salaries to local government workers, which aggravated the humanitarian crisis in the area. His plan, directed by Gen. Majid Faraj, head of Palestinian intelligence in the West Bank, was to incite the Gazan population against Hamas. However, the plan boomeranged, and Hamas managed to channel the anger on the street against Mahmoud Abbas himself.
Abbas’s reserve plan is that as soon as the “Return March” campaign is over, he will issue the Hamas leadership with an ultimatum to hand over all government authority and weapons in Gaza to the P.A. If the Hamas leadership refuses, Gaza will be declared “a rebellious province” with all of the implications of this designation.
Why are the Arab countries so hesitant to help Hamas?
The last time armies from the Arab countries fought on behalf of the Palestinians was 70 years ago, during the War of Independence in 1948. Today, the Arab regimes are more involved with their own domestic issues and maintaining the stability of their governments.
These countries have issued many statements and condemnations of the conduct of Israel and the IDF towards the demonstrators at the Gaza border fence. However, beyond this, they have not done anything practical. Kuwait attempted to whip up condemnation of Israel at the U.N. Security Council by proposing a draft statement, though the United States was bound to veto it. After the height of the campaign on May 14 and 15, when more than 60 Palestinians were killed and as many as 2,000 others injured, the Arab League gathered in Cairo at the Foreign Ministry level only to discuss the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
More relevant to the Arab leaders than the Palestinian problem is their own fear of Iran and the danger of ISIS terrorism.
As the Palestinians have completely rejected U.S. President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” even before it has been presented, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are attempting to convince Abbas to agree to evaluate the plan.
The more moderate Sunni countries consider that getting closer to Israel behind the scenes is a sure way to get closer to the Trump administration so that he will take care of their interests. They are worried about the exposure of their true connections with Israel, but they are prepared for normalization with Israel as soon as this becomes possible.
The Arab countries are careful to outwardly emphasize the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinians, and even though they have not rejected Trump’s “deal of the century,” they say openly that a solution to the Palestinian problem needs to be found in accordance with the Arab peace initiative. They are simply playing a double, hypocritical game. The Palestinians know this very well, and they don’t believe in their declarations of support.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are working hard against the Hamas leadership in Gaza. From their point of view, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is subverting Arab regimes.
Bahrain has supported Israel
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa expressed support for Israel when it attacked Iranian targets in Syria on May 10. Writing on his Arabic Twitter account, he declared: “As long as Iran continues the current status quo of its forces and rockets operating in the region, then any country, including Israel, has the right to defend itself by eliminating the source of danger.”
Bahrain is aware of the relationship between Hamas and Iran. It perceives Iran and its satellites as a threat. In Bahrain, the Sunni royal family rules over a Shiite majority, and it put down a Shi’ite insurgency during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Bahrain has condemned Israel over recent events at the Gaza Strip, but Hamas is calling this mere “lip service.”
Egypt also looks upon Hamas as a terrorist organization. Egypt participated in an embargo on Gaza by closing the Rafah border crossing most of the year. However, it has been compelled to change direction toward Hamas because it wants quiet in northern Sinai following ISIS terror there. Hamas assisted ISIS with its terrorist activities in Egypt, but Egypt has reached an understanding with Hamas on this issue.
The newspaper Al-Araby al-Jadeed reported on May 16 that Egyptian intelligence instructed senior media figures in Egypt not to attack the Hamas delegation, led by Ismail Haniyeh, when it arrived for a very brief visit, to prevent the outbreak of demonstrations in Cairo and other Arab capitals.
To calm the situation, Egypt announced that the Rafah crossing would remain open until further notice and it would allow the entry of all kinds of products into the Gaza Strip.
Where does Qatar stand?
Qatar, which hosts senior officials of the Muslim Brotherhood in its capital, Doha, is Hamas’s greatest supporter, and it has good connections with Iran.
Qatar is investing millions of dollars in the reconstruction of Gaza, but even though it is coordinating this activity with Israel through special envoy Mohammad al-Amadi, it still sharply condemned the IDF’s actions against the “Return March” campaign.
Jordan is very suspicious of Hamas and is afraid that the “Return March” campaign will weaken the stability of the Hashemite kingdom, where millions of Palestinians are currently living. At the same time, Jordan has held a special status at the holy sites in Jerusalem since the peace agreement with Israel in 1994, and it is concerned that Trump’s new diplomatic plan may affect this status. Therefore, it is working closely with the P.A. leader to torpedo the U.S. plan.
The current round of violence in the Gaza Strip is expected to go on for another few weeks—or maybe even longer if the Hamas leadership decides to turn it into a kind of new intifada on the border fence with Israel.
The Arab countries do not intend to do anything to help Hamas to make its campaign a success. They are satisfied with issuing statements and condemnations, but they are avoiding any arguments with Israel and the Trump administration.
The P.A. hopes that Hamas will fail and not achieve anything against Israel. Abbas has received new legitimacy from the PNC, and he wants to bring down Hamas and destroy any chance for it to claim that it is the true representative of the Palestinian people.
Hamas, therefore, remains (almost) alone. The concern is that if it feels pushed to the wall and too isolated, it may create a security escalation in the Gaza Strip to reshuffle the cards and change the situation.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.