JERUSALEM–The raids launched by the Israeli security forces in the West Bank, on Saturday night, as they tracked down a Hamas cell, reflected Israel’s concern about the growing influence of the Palestinian militant movement in the West Bank.
According to analysts, the growing presence of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, also poses a challenge to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who seems unable to keep security under control in the whole of the West Bank.
Israeli Channel 13 reported that the raids carried out by Israeli security forces in the West Bank prevented a “major terrorist attack.” The channel alleged that the Hamas cell planned to carry out a series of kidnappings and killings.
IDF and police forces arrested 20 suspected members of the cell in recent days, according to the IDF, which believes there are more Hamas cell members still at large.
The Israeli channel said the arrest raids began after Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, concluded that the group was about to carry out a series of armed attacks. The channel said that officials suspect that there is a direct line of communication between the cell and the Hamas movement in Gaza.
On Sunday, the Israeli army reported the killing of five Palestinians after an exchange of fire between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in four West Bank towns, against the backdrop of the arrest raids.
“Hamas is trying to escalate the situation in the West Bank,” said Ram Ben-Barak, chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defence committee, in a press statement.
He pointed out that “Hamas cannot be allowed to escalate the situation in the West Bank, while it tries to maintain calm in Gaza.”
Recent months have witnessed a ratcheting up in violence in the West Bank with increased clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants. Last month, four Palestinians were killed in Jenin refugee camp by Israeli troops during violent clashes.
Direct confrontations often occur between Palestinians and Israeli forces when the latter carry out raids in PA-controlled areas of the West Bank.
Although the radical Islamist movement has been ruling the Gaza Strip since 2007, it has a strong presence in the West Bank, which is run by the PA and its most prominent faction, the Fatah.
Israeli officials have long worried that Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is seeking to consolidate its clout in the West Bank so as to challenge the Western-backed PA. This, they fear, would increase security risks to Israel.
Analysts attribute the escalation by Hamas of tensions in the areas under the control of the PA to its conclusions that Mahmoud Abbas’s hold on power has weakened and that his security services are unable to control Hamas elements in areas under his authority. This, they say, muddles the calculations of the PA as it seeks to resume peace negotiations with Israel, especially now that security agreements between Tel Aviv and Ramallah include provisions for cooperation over the extradition of wanted persons, coordination in combating terrorism and the exchange of intelligence information. The PA seems however unable to implement the security agreements.
Israeli officials assert that it is not possible to resume Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations while areas remain outside the control of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza.
The upsurge by Hamas comes amid signs of the authority’s inability to enforce security in the West Bank and in the absence of any prospects for a political settlement.
Hamas leading figure and former minister of health Basem Naim, said Monday that the main front for the upcoming battle with Israel will be the West Bank, as “it is the Achilles heel of the occupation and the most important pretext it uses to legitimise its presence on our land.”
Naim added that, “all national and popular efforts must be harnessed to revolutionise the cities, villages and hamlets of the occupied West Bank,” noting that “to achieve this great and strategic goal, there must be a consensus, starting with a national vision to confront the doctrine of security coordination.”
He called on those he described as the adepts of this doctrine to “either side with their people and their national project, or step aside, having lost any legitimacy, so that our people can exercise their natural duty in resisting the occupation.”
Naim’s statements aim to exacerbate existing pressures on Abbas, who faces growing divisions within the Fatah movement and a sharp decline in popularity.
Analysts say that Abbas was never weaker politically and in public opinion than he is today. They point out that ten years ago Hamas would not have dared anger the president, let alone spark an escalation in the West Bank under his watch.
They believe, also, that any moves by Abbas at this stage to bring the security situation under control by reining in Hamas cells, especially in the Jenin camp, will further weaken him at the grass root level and make him appear uncommitted to the liberation agenda, which Hamas is cultivating in various ways, including in its preparations for the upcoming elections.