One of the undeclared goals of Israel's Operation Cast Lead, some Israeli and US officials say, is to bring Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party back to the Gaza Strip.

In other words, the hope among some Israeli and US circles is that Abbas and his loyalists would be able to replace the Hamas regime, now that it has been remarkably weakened after three weeks of intense fighting.

But in the wake of the Israeli decision to unilaterally halt the three-week-old military offensive, Abbas's chances of returning to the Gaza Strip appear to be extremely slim.

Although the massive air-strikes and ground attacks have caused severe damage to Hamas's civil and security infrastructure, it's premature, at this stage at least, to issue a death certificate for the movement.

Hamas may have lost hundreds of its militiamen in the fighting, but that does not necessarily mean that the movement has run out of gunmen. Various sources in the Gaza Strip estimate that Hamas has at least 25,000 gunmen working in its different security branches. This is in addition to thousands of gunmen belonging to other pro-Hamas radical organizations such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.

The Israelis, Americans and Egyptians would like to see Abbas's forces regain control not only over all the border crossings, but also over the entire Gaza Strip. But given Hamas's military strength and the enormous support it continues to enjoy from a majority of Palestinians, particularly those living in the Gaza Strip, Abbas will have to think 10 times before he undertakes such an adventure.

Before Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007, Abbas had at least 70,000 policemen and Fatah militiamen who hardly put up a fight. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the US-trained and financed Fatah security forces in the Gaza Strip surrendered to Hamas in the first hours of the fighting.

Abbas's "elite" Force 17 Presidential Guard officers who were managing the Rafah border crossing were among the first to flee the scene and hand the terminal over to Hamas.

Most of Abbas's top security commanders in the Gaza Strip fled [with Israel's help] to Egypt and the West Bank after abandoning not only their supporters, but also their villas and businesses.

Abbas and his lieutenants are eager to return to the Gaza Strip. But the last thing they could afford is to be accused of entering the area on an Israeli tank. They were hoping that the Israeli operation would result in the collapse of the Hamas regime, creating a vacuum that only Fatah could fill.

But shortly after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced the unilateral cease-fire, some of Abbas's top aides expressed disappointment that Israel hadn't removed Hamas from power. They also expressed fear that Hamas's security apparatuses had not been completely destroyed.
Yet the Fatah leaders are know that these are not the only reasons preventing them from returning to the Gaza Strip. One of the main reasons why Fatah won't be able to re-take the Gaza Strip is because the party has lost much of its credibility among the Palestinians, largely because of its failure to reform itself and get rid of icons of corruption among its top brass.

In the January 2006 parliamentary election, Abbas's Fatah lost because most Palestinians had lost their confidence in the party. Since then, Fatah has done almost nothing to draw the conclusions from its defeat. The party's leaders are still squabbling over whether or not to hold internal elections that would pave the way for the emergence of fresh faces.

For now, Abbas does not want to return to the Gaza Strip not because he's afraid of Hamas's military wing, Izaddin al-Kassam, but because he knows that the Palestinians there are not going to receive him and his men with roses and candies.

Many Palestinians are convinced that Abbas and some "moderate" Arab leaders had given Israel a green light to launch its attack on the Gaza Strip. In other words, they accuse Abbas, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Jordan's King Abdullah II of collaboration with the enemy, a "crime" for which many Arabs have paid for with their lives in the past few decades.

Moreover, it's quite obvious that a majority of Palestinians still don't see Abbas and Fatah as a viable and better alternative to Hamas, mainly because of reports about continued financial corruption in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

Those in Washington and Jerusalem who believe that Abbas's forces would be able to impose law and order and stop the weapons smuggling or the rocket attacks clearly have a short memory.

According to reliable sources in the Gaza Strip, even when Abbas's men were in control over the Rafah border crossing, they did little to stop Hamas from smuggling weapons and large sums of cash. These sources say that in many cases the Fatah security officers at the terminal were themselves involved in the smuggling business.

Nor did Abbas's troops do much to destroy the underground tunnels along the border with Egypt or dismantle armed militias and gangsters in the aftermath of Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip. They didn't even try to stop mobs from destroying the greenhouses that used to belong to the Jewish settlements and which provided working places for thousands of Palestinian families.

Abbas, who had the full backing of the international community, was supposed to turn the Gaza Strip into a Hong Kong of the Middle East. Instead, he chose to run away from the Gaza Strip as soon as he felt threatened by Hamas, paving the way for Hamas to literally slaughter dozens, if not hundreds, of his followers there.

Today, there is no reason to believe that Abbas and Fatah would be able to deliver in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is certainly bad for the Palestinians. But who said that Fatah is any better?‮

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