How the Israeli teen abductions damaged Abbas in Palestinian eyes

Mahmoud Abbas condemned the abduction of three Israeli teens who were buried yesterday. But his nonviolent stance has won him little support from Israel and has angered Palestinians.

Mohamad Torokman/Reuters/File
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gestures as he speaks during a conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 19, 2014.

Deep in the recesses of a carpet shop in Ramallah, where business is slow during the Ramadan holiday, seller Luay Manasrah says he is disappointed with the kidnappings of three Israeli teens found dead this week.

But unlike tens of thousands of Israelis who came to their funeral yesterday, he is upset not over the teens’ murders but because their kidnapping failed to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners, including his uncle and brother. He blames Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas for not being as tough as his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

“Arafat would have never done this or said this. He gave two options to Israel, either the olive branch or military confrontation,” says Mr. Manasrah. “All this guy [Abbas] wants is peace, peace, peace. [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu doesn’t even take him seriously.”

Even before today's apparent revenge killing in Jerusalem of a Palestinian teenager, tensions in the West Bank were already rising over what was seen here as Israeli military overreaction to the disappearance of the three yeshiva students. And while the anger is directed mostly at Israel, there is also scorn for Abbas. And that could backfire on Israel and its allies if it further marginalizes a conciliatory Palestinian leader and his shaky government. 

From the outset, Mr. Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the students' June 12 abduction and days later rebuffed Abbas's condemnation of the kidnappings. MeanwhileHamas, the Islamist movement whose declining fortunes pushed it to reconcile with Abbas's Fatah party last month after a seven-year split, seized the opportunity to champion violent resistance against Israel and undermine Abbas’s policy of nonviolence and negotiations.

“He is under the Israeli hammer and the Hamas anvil,” says Bassem Eid, founder of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

Wider assault on Hamas

What began as Israel’s search for kidnapped teens Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frenkel broadened into a much wider assault against Hamas, including the arrest of more than 350 Palestinians – the majority of them from Hamas – and raids on 64 Islamic charities suspected of links to Hamas.

At least six Palestinians were killed in the Israeli sweeps, including 15-year-old Mohammad Dudeen of Hebron, who was reportedly among a crowd throwing stones at Israeli soldiers when he was shot dead. PA security forces in some instances tried to put a stop to such stone-throwing against Israeli soldiers, only to find themselves pummeled instead.

"Doesn’t the PA realize they are also a target of our anger?" asks Manasrah, the carpet seller, who witnessed such an incident in a neighborhood near Ramallah several days ago.

Israel added insult to injury by parking its armored vehicles in front of Palestinian police stations and launching raids on Palestinian neighborhoods in the West Bank.

The liberal Haaretz newspaper accused Netanyahu in an editorial yesterday of intentionally weakening Abbas, calling it one of the Israeli government’s “ongoing strategic mistakes,” adding that “it is liable to be one we will rue for generations.”

Over the past few years, close security coordination between the PA and Israel has been widely credited with establishing a relative calm in the West Bank. Some were hopeful that the recent reconciliation between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip would stabilize Gaza as well after years of periodic rocket barrages on Israel.

Yesterday Israel launched air raids on Gaza in response to rockets it said were fired into southern Israel. There were no immediate reports of deaths. 

Keeping the PA 'barely alive'

Many accuse Israel of intentionally undermining Abbas and the PA, without completely destroying them, in order to maintain an appearance of continued commitment to a negotiated two-state solution.

"[Israel's] whole strategy now is just to keep the PA barely alive," says Husam Zomlot, senior foreign policy adviser for Fatah, in an interview in his Ramallah office. "They know if they hit the PA directly, the PA will just become popular. So the best thing is to have the people really angry [at the PA]. And they have been brilliant at aggravating the people."

Netanyahu’s spokesman Mark Regev says it was not any Israeli action but rather Abbas’s own decision to reconcile with Hamas – which Israel and the US have designated as a terrorist organization – that undermined him and his government. 

“President Abbas and the Palestinian leadership have to ask who are their partners, and how can we take them seriously as a partner in peace if they maintain their alliance with terrorists and the murders of children?” says Mr. Regev. “President Abbas has to choose … his pact with Hamas, or peace and reconciliation with Israel, because the two are diametrically opposed.”

However, many Palestinians and their supporters say the reconciliation of Gaza and the West Bank is crucial for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal to stick, and could help Hamas moderate its positions.

“We are looking for unity and we want to bring Hamas to our side,” says Mahmoud Labadi, a senior member of Fatah’s International Relations Commission. “If Hamas is coming to our moderate side, this means it is to the benefit of Israel, so why is Netanyahu against it?”

Stay out of the boxing ring

Dr. Zomlot says the US’s focus on the Israeli teens to the exclusion of Palestinians killed during Israel's military offensive, is part of a broader trend of America’s failure to act as a fair broker.

“Obama … sends unreserved condemnation of the murder of these kids, which I expect and respect, but fails to touch the wounds of an entire nation with one word, one sentence,” Zomlot says. 

The challenge for the PA now, he says, is to create a “bloodless sense of crisis” in Israel – achieving a sense of urgency but without resorting to violence.

“If you want to fight [Mike] Tyson, don’t take him to the boxing arena,” says Zomlot. “He will always want to invite you to the boxing arena – and this is what Netanyahu has been doing for the past couple of weeks, he is desperate to get us to the military arena.”

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