How the Gaza war affected Palestinian politics

The latest confrontation with Israel saw Hamas emerge victorious and Fatah appear weaker than ever.

Supporters of Hamas wave flags during a rally in Gaza City on May 24, 2021 [AFP/Mahmud Hams]

For many Palestinians it was clear that the recent war in Gaza was going to inevitably affect the Palestinian political scene. After all, war is an extension of politics.

The military escalation in Gaza was triggered by events in Jerusalem, where Israeli forces repeatedly stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque and were preparing to expel yet another group of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. As anger among the Palestinians simmered and protests repeatedly broke out, violently suppressed by the occupation forces, the Palestinian Authority (PA) only made feeble statements that no one paid attention to.

The Arab world issued verbal condemnations and stopped at that; some Arab states, notably the ones that normalised relations with Israel last year, did not even do as much. The international community similarly released its familiar statements of “concern”, calling on “both sides” to de-escalate.

As Israeli brutality intensified and much of the world’s governments remained mum, some Palestinians called for Hamas to intervene. On May 10, the resistance movement issued an ultimatum to the Israeli forces to withdraw from Al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah. They did not comply, so al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, fired rockets towards Jerusalem.

The response of the occupation forces was swift. They started bombarding Gaza, destroying civilian homes and killing hundreds of Palestinians, including 66 children. But that did not stop the rockets towards Israel. The Iron Dome intercepted many, but not all. The destruction they caused was minuscule compared with what Gaza suffered once again, with many residential buildings destroyed and the infrastructure of the strip completely decimated. But they did cause some casualties, closed Tel Aviv airport and disrupted public life in many Israeli cities and towns.

Hamas’s response to Israeli aggression was welcomed by many Palestinians in and outside Gaza. Pro-Hamas chants could be heard at protest sites in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the 1948 territories.

In the West Bank, Palestinians took to the streets in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem and Gaza, demanding an end to the PA’s “security cooperation” with Israel. In response, the PA’s security forces attacked some of the protests and arrested some activists.

On May 14, the PA appeared no longer to be able to control the situation in the West Bank and massive protests gathered across the occupied territory, with the Israeli army killing 11 Palestinians.

After the ceasefire was announced, the PA’s suppression of Palestinian activism continued. The Palestinian security forces under its control launched a campaign of arrests against Palestinian activists, trying to intimidate them into silence.

Many Palestinians believe that it is the PA’s weakness and cooperation with Israel that has allowed Israeli forces to commit crimes against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem with no consequences. It is under the PA’s watch that  the expulsion of Palestinian families has continued, as part of the brutal judaisation of the city, and so have the regular violent raids on Islam’s third holiest site, Al-Aqsa Mosque.

In fact, in the eyes of many Jerusalemites, the PA is complicit in the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian land and property in Jerusalem. It has never taken action against Palestinian individuals known to facilitate these takeovers.

The PA’s feeble condemnations and continued security cooperation with Israel during the protests and the war on Gaza only further confirmed this belief. Thus, PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his party, Fatah, find themselves in a very weak political position after the violence in Jerusalem and the war in Gaza. Along with Israel, they seem to be the biggest losers in this confrontation.

By contrast, Hamas has gained even more popularity among Palestinians, having been handed by Israel and the PA the exclusive claim to defending Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah.

The political loss the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah faced was also clear on the international scene. Except for a phone call with US President Joe Biden, in which he was asked to try to reduce tensions in the West Bank, Abbas appeared politically isolated.

During the ceasefire negotiations between Hamas and Israel, Hamas leaders talked directly to regional and international mediators, while PA officials were sidelined.

In the confrontation with Israel, Hamas sacrificed dozens of its fighters, lost some of its military capabilities, and suffered the consequences of the enormous destruction in Gaza as a result of the Israeli bombing. Yet the movement feels that it has gained regional and international political legitimacy owing to its military performance. This, combined with its rising popularity among Palestinians, has given the movement a significant political boost.

These developments came at a time when the Palestinians were supposed to head to the polls to cast their votes in the first Palestinian legislative elections in 15 years. But in late April, Abbas postponed the elections under the pretext that Israel did not agree to allow polling stations to open in occupied Jerusalem. This decision frustrated the Palestinian public, who saw it as a denial of their most basic democratic right.

Both Abbas and the Israeli government feared that a free Palestinian election may bring Hamas to power in the West Bank as well, given the low support Fatah enjoyed and its many internal divisions. Now these fears are even more pronounced.

Hamas for its part saw the protests and the support in the Palestinian streets as a referendum on its performance and now considers itself capable of leading the Palestinians not just in Gaza, but also in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

This, coupled with the near-consensus among all Palestinian factions, except Fatah, that the leadership of the Palestinian national movement should not remain in the hands of Abbas, does not spell anything good for the ageing president’s political prospects.

That is why it is likely that the PA will continue to postpone elections to avoid allowing Hamas to capitalise on its growing popularity. The Biden administration, a committed supporter of Israel, also wants to avoid a Hamas victory and will likely back such a decision.

Such a scenario would not be accepted by Hamas, which has started reaching out to all Palestinian political factions, with the exception of Fatah, to try to form a unified national leadership in defiance of the unelected government in Ramallah. This move will certainly be met with a lot of resistance from Fatah as well as regional and international actors, which do not want to see Hamas at the helm of the Palestinian leadership.

The PA, with the support of its foreign backers, can continue to postpone the elections, but its legitimacy will only suffer further decline. Sooner or later, it will reach a point where its leadership position will become unviable. The Palestinian people, reinvigorated in their struggle by the protests in Jerusalem and the war in Gaza and the growing support they are receiving from abroad, are increasingly showing little tolerance for Palestinian leaders who do not have their best interests at heart.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.