RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended Israel’s conduct in the Palestinian conflict — and his vision for Gaza. For most of the speech delivered in Jerusalem on Wednesday night, he hit his government’s usual talking points: The Israeli operation was "justified and proportional"; the relationship with the United States was much better than has been reported; and Hamas must be disarmed and Gaza demilitarized.
On one issue, however, Netanyahu’s position has shifted dramatically since before violence broke out on July 8. The Palestinian Authority (PA), he noted, has a place in rebuilding Gaza and controlling the territory’s borders. "We’re cooperating with them and are prepared to see a role for them," Netanyahu said.
This is the same PA whose unity government was approved by Fatah and Hamas — and which Netanyahu urged the world not to recognize because doing so would "strengthen terrorism." On Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister did not reiterate his demand that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dissolve the government.
Perhaps Netanyahu sees the PA as a vehicle for empowering Hamas’s rivals in the Gaza Strip. The PA is almost entirely controlled by Fatah: Abbas is its most important figure and its bureaucracy comprises mainly technocrats who are almost exclusively close to Fatah. An agreement giving PA security forces responsibility for guarding the Rafah border crossing with Egypt appears set. The Wall Street Journal reported a U.S., Israeli, and Arab effort "to place the Palestinian Authority … at the heart of efforts to disarm Hamas and open Gaza to economic development."
These plans are as risky as they are beneficial for Fatah. Party officials don’t want Palestinians to see them as returning to Gaza on the back of an Israeli Merkava tank, metaphorically speaking.
"They are damn liars," said Abdullah Abdullah, deputy commissioner of Fatah’s International Relations Commission, when asked about Israeli officials’ suggestions that the PA could fill the vacuum left by a defeated Hamas. "No, we’re not quislings. Israel is against Palestine, against Palestinian rights. Don’t believe their lies."
Abdullah’s angry reaction was par for the course — it would be political suicide for the party to be seen as siding with the Israelis in such a way. However, Fatah officials see themselves as members of a ruling party with a responsibility to govern — not only in the West Bank but also in the Gaza Strip.
The dilemma is the very heart of the party’s split identity; it’s "schizophrenia," as Husam Zumlot, a senior foreign affairs advisor for Fatah, put it. On one hand, Fatah was a liberation movement; on the other, a ruling party that must provide for an occupied people. Fatah organized mass demonstrations and pressed for Israel’s condemnation at the United Nations. It also tried offering basic services, such as education, health programs, and a support for a functioning economy, Zumlot said.
By contrast, Hamas only cares about revolution, he said. "When they tried to have the governance side in Gaza, they failed miserably."
Fatah may also find itself under pressure from two of its most important patrons, the United States and Egypt, who would be keen to bolster the PA in Gaza. Add a dash of competition between Hamas and Fatah for control of the Palestinian national movement, a healthy dose of mistrust, and it’s not hard to see the recipe for more conflict. The Israeli military campaign may have just been the first battle in a much longer struggle for control of Gaza.