Nearly two weeks after Israel launched a crackdown on the militant Islamist group Hamas in the West Bank, prompted by the abduction of three Israeli youths, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal is speaking out. In an interview aired Tuesday, Meshaal denied any Hamas involvement with the kidnappings, despite Israel’s insistence that the Palestinian group is responsible.
Far from easing tensions, however, Meshaal may have inflamed them: the leader-in-exile defended the abductions, stating they are “a logical and natural reaction to the violations of occupation forces.” The provocative statement comes as Israel intensifies its Operation Brothers’ Keeper to search for the missing teens and a simultaneous dragnet of Hamas operatives in the West Bank, detaining over 250 hundred Palestinian suspects, including members of Hamas’ top brass, and coming down on its financial network in its heaviest crackdown in nearly a decade. Israel has made no secret of its hope to thus weaken the Palestinian movement, and by extension its fledgling alliance with the Palestinian Authority (PA) , which governs the West Bank. (On June 2, the longtime rivals unexpectedly formed a unity government, to the displeasure of Israel and the United States.)
Israel’s strategy looks to be working. The Wall Street Journal notes:
With much of Hamas’s leadership detained—and blamed by Israel for the alleged abductions—the conflict leaves the fate of the Palestinian unity government in doubt, many Palestinians and Israelis agree.
Indeed, the rifts within the unity government are showing. In his interview with Al Jazeera, Meshaal alluded to tensions with Fatah, the party at the head of the Palestinian Authority, and notably its former rival’s commitment to security coordination with Israel. Here, the ideological divide at the core of the unity government is apparent: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has pledged commitment to the peace process, while Hamas leadership remain committed to the destruction of Israel.
With the recent abductions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has found a prime opportunity to exploit that divide, and weaken Hamas’ reputation abroad – something the cash-strapped and politically isolated group can ill afford. On Tuesday, Netanyahu condemned Meshaal’s statements, stating that the Hamas leader “once again made clear that Hamas remains committed to its war against Israel and its war against every Israeli citizen, and coincidently, against every Jew around the world.”
The Israeli premier added that if Abbas is truly committed to peace, he must abandon his truce with Hamas. By laying down arms to help Israel search for the abducted teens, Abbas may be doing just that, and indeed has been slammed by members of Hamas as well as by his own Fatah party. So less than one month after the PA and Hamas made an unprecedented rapprochement — a move that showed Washington and Israel alike that Palestinians are not dependent on a U.S.-brokered peace process, all while garnering international support — Netanyahu looks to have gained the upper hand. Until, that is, tensions in the West Bank hit a fever pitch and, as many analysts warn, a third Palestinian intifada erupts.