(JNS) Following the latest Palestinian terrorist attack, in which a man from Qalqilya with a permit to work within the Green Line murdered an 84-year-old woman in Holon, concerns remain high regarding the growing violence stemming from the West Bank.
According to Col. (res.) Grisha Yakubovich, an expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations and a senior fellow at the MirYam Institute, the mounting attacks are part of a larger trend of the growing dominance of Hamas rhetoric in Judea and Samaria and an ongoing battle for Palestinian hearts and minds based on the message that violence achieves results and that negotiations and diplomacy do not.
“Hamas has been silent recently; we are not hearing them. On the Palestinian street, this silence is being interpreted as preparations by Hamas to attempt a repeat of their 2007 takeover of Gaza – this time in Judea and Samaria,” Yakubovich cautioned.
Addressing Tuesday’s terror attack, the former head of the civil department for the Defense Ministry’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit noted that only a small fraction of the approximately 140,000 Palestinians who can legally work in Israel and the settlements have committed acts of terrorism.
“It is unfortunately impossible to offer 100 percent guarantees. But the overall screening process has been accurate. This is especially true when considering the very high motivation for terrorist actions among a section of Palestinians.”
In addressing the wider strategic situation, Yakubovich observed that Hamas had made a decision to expand its influence far beyond the borders of the Gazan enclave that it rules.
“Its objective is to become the primary leader of Palestinians, and it is skillfully navigating a path towards that goal,” he said. This includes ensuring that its narrative, which holds that only radical terrorism will promote the Palestinian interest when dealing with Israel, becomes the lead narrative among Palestinians.
“In 2001, Hamas realized that firing mortars from Gaza had a strategic effect. In 2005, when Israel left Gaza, it understood it could push its adversary into making unilateral decisions. Now, it is waving the ‘resistance’ flag as part of its political campaign,” said Yakubovich.
“The goal is to tell Palestinians that whatever the Palestinian Authority claimed it could get for them from diplomatic contacts with Israel or the Oslo process, Hamas will obtain using force,” he added.
Now, as tensions rise in the PA due an intensifying succession battle (Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is 86 years old, after all) and the PA is losing control of northern cities such as Jenin and Nablus, Hamas is preparing to exploit the situation for a power move, and possibly, according to Yakubovich, for a Palestinian civil war.
“It is against this concept that Hamas is promoting, of being the standard bearer for the ‘resistance’ flag, that we can view the rounds of violence that have occurred between terror factions in Gaza and Israel. This is a process of trial and error, in which the opportunistic Hamas strengthens itself after each round,” he said.
“They instill in the Palestinian population the belief that there is no hope for diplomacy or a peace process. Israel is the adversary, and the only way to achieve the national goal is by the use of force, according to Hamas’s messaging,” Yakubovich stated. “From this position, they use every incident to their advantage.”
The former IDF officer, who spent years helping shape Israeli policies in the Palestinian arena, said that Hamas has consistently been the only party to skillfully exploit developments to its advantage. For example, it used the cancellation of Palestinian elections by Abbas to launch a rocket war against Israel from May 6 to May 21, 2021, in which it was able to crown itself as the authentic “defender of Jerusalem.”
And in August 2022, Israel’s three-day clash with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza was used by Hamas to portray itself as the only armed faction capable of taking on Israel, Yakubovich argued.
“Hamas even used the Israeli media to its advantage, because the media kept saying that Israel does not want Hamas to enter [the 2022 fighting]. What’s the takeaway? That only Hamas is capable against Israel—just the message that Hamas wants to broadcast,” he said.
In Gaza, Hamas has kept the truce in order to build up its “military” wing and enable civilian society to develop economically to a degree. “The extent of Hamas’s determination to maintain the ‘calm’ was visible to me when I toured the Gazan border and saw IDF tanks and other vehicles working near a Hamas post. Hamas did nothing,” said Yakubovich.
In the West Bank, in the meantime, Hamas is in the advanced stages of preparation to exploit what could be Palestinian civil strife.
In Nablus and Jenin, unaffiliated Palestinian gunmen roam the streets. Some Palestinians view them not as ideological jihadists but as “drug dealers who promote chaos to avoid the PA cracking down on their activity,” said Yakubovich.
For years, Israel enabled Arab Israelis to visit the northern West Bank/Samaria in order to boost the economic situation there, but that also created an opening for criminal elements on the Israeli side of the border to move into Samaria, he argued.
“On the one hand, Israel said, let’s promote soft power by boosting the economy there. On the other, criminal elements were not stopped,” he said.
In the southern territories, in contrast, in cities such as Hebron, “the influence of the clan and the family is much more important. That, together with a robust economic situation, is helping to create stability,” said Yakubovich. “The disparity between Judea [in the south] and Samaria [in the north] is critical to understand.”
Finally, he said, the PA’s own incitement over the years, “which has never stopped—in mosques and in schools—is now finding expression. Look at the Palestinians killed recently in clashes with the IDF. They are mostly aged between 20 and 30, recently leaving the Palestinian education system,” said Yakubovich.
“Fatah, recognizing that Abbas’s days are numbered, is preparing for the day after. It increased its street presence. Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades [also known as the Tanzim], is out in force, and illicit firearms flood the streets in Samaria,” he said. “The PA released a poster depicting all of its ‘martyrs’ who fought Israel. What more is needed to understand what is happening? The PA is saying, ‘Dear Palestinians, we too are resisting [muqawama—resistance].’ Meanwhile, Palestinians on the street are saying, what do we want from Abbas? He needs an Israeli permit to arrive at his own office.”
Now, according to Yakubovich, Abbas has realized that he has gone too far towards the violence narrative, but after he launched an arrest operation in Nablus to bring in Hamas members that resulted in deadly clashes, “he finds himself in serious difficulties.”
Moving forward, Yakubovich sketched out two main scenarios: Either Israel and the PA will be able to keep the flames of violence relatively low in the coming weeks and months, or the situation will spin out of control and Fatah’s armed groups will conduct a growing number of attacks. Hamas would then be expected to escalate its attacks, too, to ensure that it is seen as the lead Palestinian movement.
“Hamas is making preparations, and this is why they are currently silent,” said Yakubovich. “Their silence speaks volumes.”