RAMALLAH, West Bank — My first visit to the big Palestinian city since the start of the current wave of terror ended with an optimistic smile.
On the way home, my escorts thought the fastest way out of the city and through the jammed Qalandia checkpoint would be to catch a ride at the closest point to the Israeli security check. “This is Shlomi and he’s from Israel, could you take him in your car?” my escort asked a random Palestinian woman. Her teenage son sat beside her. To my surprise, her response was “Ahlan wa sahlan” — “Welcome.” Here’s a thought experiment: How would an Israeli woman respond if I asked her, “This is Mohammad from Ramallah, could you take him in your car?”
“I hope you don’t have a suicide belt,” the kind Palestinian driver laughed, and I responded with a big smile. “Listen,” she said, “all that we want is a future for our children. This is my son, Ali, what do I want after all? That he’d have a good life. So come on, tell your people that it’s time they saw us.”
The sense in Ramallah is that Hamas is trying to incite the West Bank through field operations, social media and TV broadcasts from Gaza, but at the same time truly fears another conflict with Israel centered at the Gaza Strip.
“There is no intifada,” Ali from Ramallah told Al-Monitor. (He and others interviewed for this piece asked that their last names not be divulged.) I met him at a local restaurant called Nazareth. “If this were a real intifada,” he said, “you wouldn’t sit here and eat hummus with us. It’s not even an outburst. But it’s easy for you to say that there’s an intifada and that [President] Mahmoud Abbas supports it and so does the whole Palestinian people. Look around you, what do you see? People who want to live and don’t want war. We don’t want blood and don’t want our young people to go and die in your cities.”
In Ramallah and other Palestinian cities, people fear that Hamas will succeed in embroiling the West Bank in another cycle of violence with one significant terrorist attack. But all of the Palestinians I spoke with remarked that they hope that the Palestinian Authority and Abbas especially would deal with the “inciters.” Yes, that’s how people in Ramallah see the broadcasts by Hamas’ Al-Aqsa and Al-Quds stations.
“[Hamas] shows on TV events that have no connection to reality,” said Dahud, who works for the Palestinian Ministry of Communication. “It’s a mashup of parts of photos and old clips that were taken from the second intifada. They’re trying to mislead the public.”
According to him, there are some who do believe Hamas’ propaganda, but the general opinion in the West Bank is that even if both the political and the military branches of the Hamas movement tried very hard, they could not re-create the days of the second intifada, when Izz Ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades was considered its leader.
Moreover, he said that the Palestinian public in the West Bank, including those who voted for Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council election, has discovered over the years that the Hamas movement does not fulfill its promises to voters in the West Bank, and that it brought disaster to Gaza and established a tyrannical regime there.
“[Hamas] destroyed the peace agreement with Israel for political rather than national reasons,” another Ramallah resident told Al-Monitor. “They did not think of the good of the people, only about themselves. Where did they bring us and themselves? There’s no peace with Israel and there’s not even hope. They destroyed everything, and now they’re looking for a way to survive.”
Following the bus attack, Hamas activists distributed a poster with the photo of attacker Abd al-Hamid Abu Srour from Beit Jallah in the West Bank. But unlike in Hamas' old martyr posters, Abu Srour, 19, isn’t holding a weapon. He’s not wearing a military uniform or black clothes, and has no a kaffiyeh around his neck. His outward appearance shows no Muslim religious symbol to tie him to a religious resistance movement.
Hamas is at a crossroads. It seems that the movement's activists in Bethlehem tried to walk a fine line — they boasted that a local man carried out the bus attack, but they didn’t take responsibility for the attack, as was customary for terrorist attacks carried out by the group in the past. This is evidence for the dilemmas facing Hamas.
Some in Ramallah believe that Hamas' infrastructure in Bethlehem claimed Abu Srour's actions out of embarrassment and frustration.
“Terrified chickens,” some in Ramallah call Hamas activists. The way they see it, Hamas today is a beaten movement that maintains quiet on the border and stops anyone who tries to fire a Qassam rocket at Israel, but still brags over its media outlets as if the intifada were at its height.
“That’s how terrified chickens behave,” Ramallah resident Ibrahim said emphatically, and all the patrons of the restaurant roared with laughter.
“Hamas is like a bound tiger,” said Ihab, a Nablus resident on a visit to Ramallah. He also argues that Hamas wants to see an intifada in the West Bank, but wants it to happen without its leadership. According to him, Hamas fears not only Israel but also the Palestinian security services, which have arrested many Hamas activists in recent months.
When we crossed the Qalandia checkpoint, the driver stopped and bid me farewell. “If you need anything else, we’re here,” she added.
On the way to my car on the other side of the checkpoint, I wondered if it’s Israeli society that has become more extreme, as opposed to Palestinian society, which has become more moderate. Is it Abbas' temperament that inspires moderation in Palestinian society, compared to the Israeli government’s right-wing policies? It’s a fact that most West Bank residents haven’t joined the intifada. The sense is that most of them are trying and even succeeding in calming the atmosphere despite the wide frustration and hopelessness.