(JNS) Israel must maintain a firm retaliation policy against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in order to prevent the terror organization from strengthening its status in the West Bank, a former Israeli defense official has said, as power struggles intensify over who will succeed the aging Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Col. (res.) David Hacham, a former Arab-affairs adviser to seven Israeli defense ministers, and a senior research associate at the MirYam Institute, said it was in Israel’s fundamental security and political interests to make every effort to prevent extremist, hostile forces from exploiting the post-Abbas era to grow stronger in the West Bank, particularly Hamas.

“If there is rocket fire from Gaza, Israel has to retaliate against every attack. It cannot walk away without a response,” said Hacham.

Israel’s lack of a military response to two rocket attacks fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel on Friday night, coupled with Jerusalem’s decision to instead seal the Erez Border Crossing with Gaza—preventing the entry of some 20,000 Palestinian workers—represents an Israeli attempt at containment, noted Hacham, the results of which will become clear in the coming days.

Past experience has shown, however, that economic pressure does not influence the behavior of Hamas and has not proven itself as a formula that can stop Hamas’s hostility and aggression, he cautioned.

Hacham said in the West Bank, “Hamas is militarily much weaker than it is in Gaza, but its ongoing incitement is leading Hamas to rear its head” there, too.

“We saw Hamas flags being raised in the Al-Aqsa mosque site during this Ramadan period,” he told JNS. “This messaging strengthens its position. Israel, for its part, is conducting arrests of Hamas members in the West Bank.”

According to Hacham, there is “no doubt that Hamas’s strategy is to expand its control and not remain minimized just to Gaza.” As such, he assessed, the terror group’s strategic goal is to overcome obstacles to its hegemony in the Palestinian arena, and take control of the P.A. and the PLO—something Hacham said Israel will not allow Hamas to do.

“I do not see our government and security forces allowing a crawling takeover by Hamas of the West Bank. Israel’s interest here is too fundamental. We must not allow a new active front,” said Hacham. “Beyond that, the United States, the European Union—and regional actors like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia—all understand the risks in that. They are interested in safeguarding the status quo and minimizing violence, which is the opposite of what Hamas wants.”

And yet, he added, some of these elements do not act in line with these interests, such as Jordan, which verbally attacked Israel after recent riots on the Temple Mount.

‘Health condition projects directly on Palestinian arena’

Beyond the headlines over clashes between Palestinian rioters and Israeli police at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem during Ramadan, the central topic of the day in the Palestinian arena, according to Hacham, is who will succeed Abbas.

“The sense is that we are approaching the end of Abbas’s era,” he said.

Hacham, who maintains regular contact with a range of Palestinian sources, said “there is no doubt that Abbas is in the twilight zone of his rule and approaching the end of his grip on the three central roles he holds: chief of the P.A., head of Fatah and chairman of the PLO Executive Committee.”

Due to turn 87 in November, Abbas suffers from severe physical exhaustion amid chronic heart and lung problems. He has also survived a previous bout with prostate cancer.

“Of course, his health condition projects directly on the Palestinian arena,” remarked Hacham, by stirring power struggles for his succession.

He noted two central scenarios that could follow Abbas’s departure from power: a relatively smooth changing of the guard to a new leadership that holds similar outlooks to him, or a violent chaotic phase of clashes among would-be successors and their camps. As part of that scenario, radical elements like Hamas could exploit the chaos to influence the process and advance their status.

Abbas has begun preparations to promote the scenario of a smooth transfer of power, said Hacham, including appointing senior Palestinian officials who are close to him to the PLO Executive Committee, such as Minister for Civilian Affairs Hussein Al-Sheikh, a figure earmarked by some observers as a possible successor.

In March, Abbas appointed the former chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Rawhi Al-Fattouh, to the position of chairman of the PLO’s National Council. This move is significant since in 2004, Al-Fattouh served as temporary P.A. leader after Arafat’s death, enabling a smooth transfer of power to Abbas in 2005 following Palestinian elections. No elections have been held since due to fears of a Hamas victory.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on May 25, 2021. Photo by Flash90.

‘Able to safeguard core Palestinian principles in conflict’

In assessing Abbas’s legacy, Hacham noted that in the 17 years he was in power since the death of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, in 2004, Abbas has no significant political achievements to his name, but was able to maintain the status quo and to “safeguard the core Palestinian principles in the conflict—territory, Jerusalem, refugees, prisoners and payment to families of terrorists, ‘martyrs,’ ” said the former officer.

After the departure of former President Donald Trump, Abbas was able to reinvigorate the international consensus regarding the proposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mainly the concept of a two-state solution, he stated.

Diplomatic dry spells for Abbas during the years when Benjamin Netanyahu served as Israeli prime minister have continued into the Naftali Bennett premiership, said Hacham, despite recent meetings between members of the Israeli government and Abbas.

“Abbas strives that every scenario involving the changing of the guard will not be accompanied by the staining of his name and harming of his legacy,” said Hacham. “From Abbas’s perspective, it is also important to safeguard the interests of his family and his two adult children,” he added.

“The time marking the end of Abbas’s rule could be filled with raw emotions, tensions, rivalries and power struggles, especially among would-be successors,” warned Hacham. “Under these circumstances, the key question is whether Abbas will succeed in the time he has left in power to ensure that people affiliated with him and his path succeed him, or whether a new leadership will rise up that will mark the end of Abbas era in the Palestinian system.”

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