West Bank arrests won’t eliminate Hamas

The arrest campaigns against Hamas in the West Bank have resulted in a leadership vacuum, but nothing the Islamist movement cannot overcome.

al-monitor Israeli soldiers detain a Palestinian during clashes at a protest against the Jewish settlement of Ofra, in the West Bank village of Silwad, near Ramallah, Sept. 12, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman.
Ahmad Melhem

Ahmad Melhem


Topics covered

west bank, resistance, prisoners, palestinian authority, palestine, israel, hamas, arrested

Sep 29, 2014

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Since early June, Hamas has been subject to waves of arrest by the Israeli army in the West Bank, targeting the movement’s most prominent leaders. This resulted in a vacuum in Hamas’ leadership and a brief lack of communication with the public before Saed Abu Baha was appointed as the movement’s spokesman in the West Bank at the beginning of the Gaza war.

After three Israeli teen settlers went missing in Hebron in June, the occupation forces launched an arrest campaign targeting 2,000 Palestinians, most of whom were Hamas members, according to statistics acquired by Al-Monitor from the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society.

These arrests targeted the first leading ranks in Hamas, represented by members of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), university professors, social figures and former prisoners who were released following the Wafa al-Ahrar deal in 2011.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society’s statistics, 26 deputies from the movement have been arrested since the beginning of June, five of whom were later released. The rest joined 11 deputies who were previously detained in Israeli prisons, nine of whom are Hamas members.

Abu Baha told Al-Monitor that the Israeli occupation has been targeting the movement since its establishment in an attempt to clear out the Palestinian scene. The most notable operations were the deportation to Marj al-Zohour, south of Lebanon in 1992, the arrest campaign of 1996 and another arrest campaign after the movement won the PLC elections in 2006.

Although Hamas is still heavily present in the Palestinian street, the arrest of its leaders had an adverse effect on the movement, especially on the internal organizational level.

Walid al-Moudallal, a writer specializing in Islamic affairs and movements, told Al-Monitor over the phone that Hamas has in the past experienced the absence of its first- and sometimes second-rank leaders, which briefly affected the movement, but it was never of long-term consequence.

A professor of journalism at Birzeit University, Nashat al-Aktash, spoke to Al-Monitor about the effects of the Hamas leaders’ arrests on the organization’s structure and its power in the West Bank. “Is there an organization for Hamas in the West Bank? This is a tough question. According to my knowledge, the organization was dismissed after 2007. There is no real organization for the movement in the West Bank and I believe it does not exist at all,” Aktash said.

Hamas leader and member of the PLC Samira Halayqa told Al-Monitor, “In the absence of the movement’s leaders, the work, which is ongoing, can be done on an individual level. This is proof that Hamas is rooted and its work is effective, even if on a small scale, which refutes [assertions] that it no longer exists in the West Bank.”

Abu Baha acknowledged that the movement’s organizational structure has been hindered by the arrests. The proof is that after the 2007 division, the Palestinian Authority (PA) began a campaign against Hamas, which disrupted its communication with the public. The student blocs boycotted the university elections and the scene was cleared of leaders, which weakened its mobilization. But it did not wipe out the movement’s presence.

“The targeting of the movement by the PA aims at oppressing freedom and terrorizing people, by monitoring one’s workplace and threatening them, which scares the movement’s supporters. This strategy affected certain high-ranking members who [momentarily] disappeared from the street to ease the [people’s] anger,” Abu Baha continued.

Halayqa also sought to minimize the damage the arrest campaigns have had on Hamas. “The impact made by these arrests is not as major as some would like to promote. In fact, Hamas launches major protests in the streets after every campaign against the movement, which proves that Hamas was not eliminated from the West Bank. The movement is deep-rooted since it is based on faith, education, preparation, planning and obedience.”

Moudallah argued, however, that Hamas operations are hurt by the arrests. “Arresting Hamas’ leaders affects the system’s structure, but not to the point of killing the movement.”

“The absence of veteran leaders could pave the way for young people, who are still ardent and inexperienced, to assume some positions, which would lead to confict with political leaders. As a result, the cadres might be unable to mobilize the people as they become more concerned with secondary issues such as political arrests, changing priorities and ways of retaliation, among others. This would affect the movement in general.”

Abu Baha recounted how he became the spokesman for Hamas as an example of younger generations taking higher roles in Hamas in the West Bank due to the absence of senior leadership. “I was not known to the public or media. However, I suddenly became known to everyone when I took up the position of the spokesman for the movement. Many of the movement’s leaders are behind bars, and there was a need for someone to lead the people in the street and organize events during the aggression. Thus, second- and third-rank cadres have been hired, in the framework of the organizational work,” he said.

Israeli forces did not only arrest political figures, but also tracked down the movement’s academic and social elites. “The absence of qualified cadres in the streets would affect the movement’s mobilization, as these people are able to influence and channel public opinion,” Moudallal said.

The Islamic Bloc, Hamas’ student wing in the West Bank universities, is the most targeted by arrests. The bloc’s coordinator at Birzeit University, Mootassem Amiriya, told Al-Monitor that “all the bloc’s cadres and leaders are constantly threatened with arrests either on the part of the occupation army or the PA.”

“Arresting leaders from the Islamic Bloc is affecting us because we are a syndicate inside the university, which operates and makes decisions independently from the Hamas movement. However, arresting the movement’s leaders affects us to a much lesser extent, as what matters for us is the presence of a prominent leader that could provide us with support,” he added.

Throughout its history, Hamas has witnessed the emergence of new leadership each time it has been targeted.

“The Hamas movement was subjected to an assassination campaign, which led to the death of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz Ali Abdul Majid al-Rantisi and Ismail Abu Shanab. The movement also created leaders such as Mushir al-Masri and Sami Abu Zuhri, who address the public,” Abu Baha said.

“Arresting Hamas’ leaders is not a severe blow to the movement, which has survived the absence of its leaders in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip [in the past],” Moudallal said. “This did not break Hamas, but in many cases has led to the emergence of young, efficient leaders in leading positions.”

As Hamas is approaching its 27th birthday on Oct. 14, it has proven resilient despite all the blows it has received. And although it has been admittedly hurt by the arrest campaigns, eliminating it entirely from the West Bank seems an unobtainable ambition of its foes.

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