Sep 3rd 2014
FROM a stage adorned with models of drones and rockets fashioned from plastic drainpipes, on August 30th Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement, hailed its resumption of political activity in the West Bank. After seven years of a near ban on working there, speakers in military fatigues called on 2,000 followers gathered in a square in central Ramallah to re-enact here the heroics of fighters in Gaza. “We will die in the cause of God,” echoed the separated ranks of men and women, brandishing huge green Hamas banners and Palestinian flags emblazoned with the Islamic profession of faith.
Hamas has been largely suppressed in the West Bank since the security forces of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president from the rival Fatah movement, ousted Ismail Haniya, Hamas’ prime minister, in 2007 after the Islamists took control of Gaza. (Fatah has subsequently ruled Palestine’s West Bank population by decree.) But Mr Abbas has used a lighter touch in the wake of the 50-day war in Gaza against Israel, the region’s most powerful army, which stopped when an indefinite ceasefire was agreed on August 26th. According to a poll released on September 2nd support for Hamas in the West Bank has doubled from 23% to 46% since March of this year while Fatah's has fallen from 45% to 27%. In a direct presidential election Mr Haniya would now defeat Mr Abbas, according to the poll.
Israel blames Hamas’s comeback in the West Bank on the reconciliation agreement signed by Hamas and Fatah in April. Bent on breaking their professed unity, it has publicly warned that Hamas is planning a coup. There are signs of strain between Fatah and Hamas, too. Despite Hamas formally bowing out of government, as required by the agreement, Mr Abbas says it still runs a shadow cabinet. He accuses it of inflicting unnecessary suffering on Gaza’s population by prolonging the war. So intense is the escort Hamas provides for Mr Abbas’ officials visiting Gaza that Fatah cadres accuse them of preventing them engaging with Gaza’s people.
Hamas officials, meanwhile, grumble that some 2,000 members, including its leadership and 36 of its parliamentarians, remain in prison in Israel. The Palestinian Authority (PA), Mr Abbas's administration in the West Bank, has long since dissolved the charitable boards running Hamas's welfare associations and, together with Israel, confiscated millions of shekels that financed them. It has dismissed Hamas’s elected mayors and closed the parliament, where the Islamist party had a majority.
For all the acrimony and rumour-mongering, much of it coming from Israel, Hamas is unlikely to directly confront Mr Abbas in Ramallah. The PA remains Palestine’s main source of funds, with 177,000 employees supporting up to 1.5m of Palestine’s 4m people, and few reckon Hamas could sustain an armed struggle in the West Bank. More likely, Hamas will try to put pressure on Mr Abbas. Speakers from the podium called on him to release the Islamist detainees and suspend security coordination with Israel, which they say has turned the Palestinian security forces into an arm of Israel’s occupation. Mr Abbas suffers from dwindling political and financial capital, as donors, fearful of doing more to continue Israel's occupation than prepare for Palestinian statehood, cut funding by a third compared to 2013 and, after five years of growth, the West Bank economy is sliding into recession.
Tellingly, the speakers stopped short of calling for elections. Both Fatah and Hamas say they remain committed to the joint delegation they formed to negotiate with Israel in Cairo to find a permanent ceasefire for Gaza, as well as to the reinstatement of PA security forces on Gaza’s southern border with Egypt, a condition for opening the crossing. Hamas’s restraint might yet change if Egypt and Israel continue their siege on Gaza and Mr Abbas, under pressure from Israel as well as his own security chiefs, clamps down in the West Bank. The PA’s arrest of 20 Islamists who organised the August 30th rally, say Hamas's cadres, is a worrying sign.