The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Palestinian support for Hamas surges after its confrontation with Israel

Palestinian supporters of the Islamist group Hamas gather to celebrate the cease-fire with Israel in Hebron in the West Bank on May 21. (Hazem Bader/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

AL-AMARI REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — The tattered walls of this camp turned city for Palestinian refugees in the West Bank tell a story about the political loyalties of those who live here.

The smiling visage of a keffiyeh-clad Yasser Arafat. The yellow, ­rifle-bedecked flags of his movement. The names, etched in black, of those who died in its service.

For decades, al-Amari has been a stronghold of Fatah, the secular and nationalist party that emphasizes diplomacy as its answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in recent days, the tableau in the camp has shifted: Green flags mark the entrance and graffiti to match emblazons the walls with a single word: Hamas.

“They’ve given strength to the whole Palestinian cause,” said Mohammed Khadier, 16, as friends nodded in enthusiastic agreement. “We consider Hamas our leader now.”

For 11 days last month, Israel unleashed a punishing barrage on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, collapsing tunnels, exploding arsenals and killing fighters. But through it all, Hamas continued to arc more than 4,000 rockets into Israel, terrorizing residents of Tel Aviv and other cities.

That performance has earned Hamas newfound admiration among Palestinians not only in Gaza, which it governs, but also crucially in the West Bank, where Israel, the United States and archrival Fatah have long sought to ban the militant Islamist group from operating. Despite the ­prohibition, Palestinians waved Hamas flags and chanted the group’s slogans during demonstrations across the occupied territory last month — scenes that had no precedent in recent years.

The surge in Hamas’s popularity has been matched by the plummeting fortunes of the Palestinian Authority, whose president, Mahmoud Abbas, was widely panned — even among fellow Fatah members — for his limp response to Israeli attacks. The fighting, which erupted when Hamas began firing rockets into Israel and then escalated as the Israeli military took the opportunity to strike a vast inventory of targets across the Gaza Strip, left 232 Palestinians dead, including at least 65 children, officials said. A dozen people died in Israel, two of them children.

Politically, “the main loser is the Palestinian Authority. No question,” said Nader Said-
Foqahaa, director of the West Bank-based Arab World for Research and Development, which monitors Palestinian public opinion. Israel’s military might may have been concentrated on Gaza, but “all these attacks are really on Abbas.”

That dynamic threatens to further complicate the Biden administration’s attempts to re-engage the Palestinian Authority after four years in which it was all but ignored by the Trump administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah last month and committed to strengthening Abbas’s administration by providing aid money and reopening a consulate in Jerusalem in large part to handle Palestinian affairs. The United States has also said it intends to circumvent Hamas while supporting the reconstruction of Gaza.

Blinken’s visit was taken as a hopeful sign by beleaguered Palestinian negotiators that the Biden administration intends to make a serious push for diplomatic progress in the Middle East. Yet it comes amid grave doubts over whether the Palestinian Authority can truly represent the Palestinian cause and over whether a resurgent Hamas can continue to be sidelined.

The struggle between the ­Fatah-led Palestinian Authority — which governs parts of the West Bank — and Hamas has long been a barrier to any breakthroughs in resolving the broader Israeli-
Palestinian conflict.

Although Israel denies it, analysts say the country’s right-wing government has liked it that way and recognizes that conflict with Hamas can hobble the Palestinian Authority’s attempts at negotiation. That suits Israeli leaders who have long been hostile toward diplomatic efforts that would confront their country with hard choices and could yield a Palestinian state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes “that if Hamas represented the Palestinians, it would be much easier for Israel to say, ‘We are not dealing with terror,’ ” said Amos Yadlin, director of Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

[Israel’s Netanyahu fights to block opposition parties from taking power]

Even before the most recent round of fighting, Abbas was flailing. The 85-year-old heir to Arafat had pledged presidential and parliamentary elections this year for the first time since 2006, only to indefinitely postpone them in April. While the president blamed uncertainty over whether Israel would allow balloting in occupied East Jerusalem, few believed that explanation.

“Very simply, elections meant losing,” said Nasser al-Kidwa, a longtime senior Fatah official who broke with Abbas this year and had been challenging him in the vote.

Kidwa, who is a nephew of Arafat’s, said he had devoted his professional life to Fatah and the cause of a democratic Palestinian state. But he described the Palestinian Authority-governed West Bank as an autocracy in which there are few checks on Abbas’s power internally, even as the president remains beholden to Israel for his ultimate authority.

“Corrupt, ineffective, inept,” Kidwa said of the organization he long represented at the United Nations.

Kidwa said in an interview at his office in Ramallah that, especially after last month’s conflict, he could understand why Palestinians were looking elsewhere — particularly to Hamas — for solutions.

“It was a confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian people in which the P.A. and Fatah were absent,” Kidwa said. “So, we deserve it.”

Osama Qawasma, a spokesman for Fatah and an adviser to Abbas, acknowledged that Palestinians had wanted a tougher response to Israel during the conflict than the president felt he could provide. “The people are very angry toward Israel. They want more resistance,” he said.

But Abbas is bound by international agreements that Hamas is not, with a commitment to refrain from violence and to administer the parts of the West Bank under his control even amid an Israeli occupation that has spanned more than half a century. The balancing act has rarely been more delicate.

“An intifada can come any time,” Qawasma said. “The West Bank is in a very dangerous situation.”

[The truce quieted Israeli-Palestinian hostilities — but not the Jerusalem disputes that triggered them]

Israeli security forces are focused on the role Hamas could play in stirring unrest in the West Bank. The Israeli military said this week that security forces had apprehended a senior Hamas official, Sheikh Jamal Al Tawil, who “recently took an active part in organizing violent riots, incitement to violence and reestablishment of the Hamas headquarters in Ramallah.”

The growing ranks of Abbas detractors say he himself is responsible for instability in the West Bank by fueling the frustration of the roughly 2.5 million Palestinians living there.

“There is accumulated anger,” said Ayman Daraghmeh, a member of the now-dormant Palestinian Legislative Council. “The canceled elections. The iron fist. The corruption. It’s like the pressure cooker exploded.”

Daraghmeh was elected to the council in 2006 as part of Hamas’s slate of candidates. But a violent rift erupted a year later and has still not healed, despite numerous efforts at reconciliation. Fatah was effectively exiled from Gaza as Hamas imposed near-absolute rule, while Hamas was prevented from operating openly in the West Bank.

Daraghmeh said he has been imprisoned multiple times since then, and could be arrested merely for associating with Hamas. (He is, he noted pointedly, an independent.) But he said the group’s rise in the West Bank has been unmistakable.

“Hamas,” he said, “would win a free and fair election.”

Whether the group’s improved standing will be lasting remains unclear. There is little indication that Palestinians in the West Bank have suddenly embraced the group’s ideology, which remains religiously hard-line even as Hamas has softened some of its rhetoric, including by offering a tacit, if not overt, recognition of Israel’s existence, by accepting the idea of a Palestinian state along pre-1967 lines.

“We want a liberal state, a democratic state, an open-minded state,” said Qadura Fares, a senior Fatah member who leads an advocacy group for Palestinian political prisoners. “There’s no love for Hamas. But anyone who makes the Israelis afraid, he’s a hero for us.”

That was evident in al-Amari camp, on the outskirts of Ramallah. Khadier, the teen, proudly showed off the marks on his shoulder and ankle where he said he had been grazed by Israeli fire during last month’s demonstrations. His arm in a sling, he boasted of a muscle torn while hurling rocks at soldiers.

He verbally cast stones at his own government: Abbas, he said, was “a collaborator. A dog.”

At a nearby barbershop, the views among four men in their 20s were no less scathing. “We are Fatah,” said Waleed, 28. “But Fatah has disappeared.”

Like the others, Waleed spoke on the condition that his last name be withheld because, he said, he had served time in an Israeli prison — and feared going back. All said they were committed to confronting Israel’s occupation, and cheered Hamas’s willingness to do the same.

“Whatever Hamas says, they deliver,” said 23-year-old Khalil as the barber worked a straightedge razor down his skull. “It’s not only words. It’s also deeds.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Amos Yadlin. The article has been corrected.

Loveday Morris in Gaza City and Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem contributed to this report.