Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's fear that a Palestinian state could become a Hamas-controlled entity - Hamastan - that would threaten Israel's security is not unjustified.

Hamas is contuing its efforts to take control over the West Bank with the hope of achieving its ultimate goal of replacing Israel with an Islamic state.

Just last week the Fatah-dominated security forces of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced that they had thwarted an attempt by Hamas to stage a "coup" in the West Bank.

According to Palestinian security officials, Mohammed Sliman Qatanin, a 33-year-old Hamas operative from Nablus, was plotting to overthrow Abbas's regime in the West Bank with the help of a vast network of Hamas members who managed to amass a large amounts of weapons and explosives.

For his role in the alleged coup, Qatanin, who was arrested less than a year ago, was sentenced by a Palestinian "security court" to 18 months in prison.

Earlier, Abbas's security forces announced that they had uncovered a large cache of weapons that were hidden beneath a mosque in the West Bank city of Qalqilya.

Abbas's aides say that had it not been for the tough measures that the Palestinian Authority, and Israel, were taking against Hamas supporters and the infrastructure in the West Bank over the past three years, it is highly likely that the Islamic movement would have been able to extend its control from the Gaza Strip to Ramallah, Bethlehem and other places.

Hamas, for its part, has not concealed its desire to seize control over the West Bank. Hamas leaders argue that their government is the only legitimate government since it came to power through a free election in January 2006.

The West Bank-based government of Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, they explain, is "unconstitutional" because, first, it was never elected by the people and, second, because it was never approved by the parliament known as Palestinian Legislative Council.

Moreover, Hamas maintains (and many Palestinians seem to agree) that Abbas himself has lost his legitimacy to stand at the head of the Palestinian Authority because his four-year term in office expired in January this year.

So as far as Hamas is concerned, both Fayad and his boss, Abbas, are unelected leaders who should be replaced with "legitimate" representatives of Hamas.

Putting Hamas's arguments aside, there is good reason to believe that the Islamic movement's prospects of extending its control from the Gaza Strip to the West Bank are not bad.

Although Hamas's military infrastructure in the West Bank has been hit hard by Abbas and the Israel Defense Forces, the movement continues to enjoy tremendous support, largely thanks to the massive network of social, economic, educational and health services that it continues to operate in many cities, villages and refugee camps.

Hamas also owes its popularity to the fact that it has been successful in depicting itself as a "victim" of a US, Israeli and Palestinian Authority conspiracy to topple its democratically-elected government.

Another reason why Hamas is likely to take over the West Bank in the future is because many Palestinians do not regard Fatah as a better alternative. Since its defeat in the 2006 parliamentary election, Fatah has failed to reform itself and is continuing to suffer from a power struggle between its young guard and old guard.

Over the past 20 years, Fatah managed to hold only one internal election, while Hamas has sent its supporters to the ballot boxes (in secret votes) at least four times since 1996.

Hamas's last election was held last month, while Fatah representatives continue to bicker over whether to hold a long-awaited "general conference" to choose new leaders.

Hamas's successful vote prompted Abbas last week to announce that the conference would finally be convened in Bethlehem or Jericho on July 1. The announcement, ironically, has aggravated the crisis in Fatah, with many of the faction's operatives insisting that the gathering be held in one of the Arab capitals so that delegates living outside the West Bank and Gaza Strip would be able to attend.

Many Palestinians also have doubts as to whether Abbas's security forces would be able to prevent a Hamas takeover when and if Israel pulls out of the West Bank. Abbas and Fayad are in power largely thanks to the massive presence of the IDF in the West Bank.

Palestinian and Israeli security officials have been following, with a great degree of concern, reports according to which Iran, Syria, Sudan and Hizbullah are continuing to supply Hamas with various types of weapons, some of which have clearly made their way also to the West Bank.

Hamas has been in power in the Gaza Strip for three years and there are no signs that it is on its way out. On the contrary, Hamas's tight grip on the Gaza Strip seems to be growing stronger by the day, while the credibility of Abbas and Fayad appears to be rapidly declining.

Under the current circumstances, an Israeli withdrawal, or redeployment, from West Bank could lead to a Hamas takeover, just as the Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip facilitated Hamas’scontrol over the area. To avoid a repeat of the Gaza Strip fiasco, it would be wise to wait until it is fully determined that Abbas, Fayad and Fatah are not going to lose also the West Bank to Hamas.

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