In 2005, as Israel dismantled its settlements and pulled out the army, Hamas covered the Gaza Strip in posters celebrating its “victory.” “Children’s Killer is Leaving,” some of these read, in awkward English. Such triumphalism has proven to be misplaced. Recent events have added to the ranks of “children’s killers”—with perpetrators this time drawn from within Palestinian ruling circles.
Ensconced in Ramallah, 82-year-old Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas embarked in April on an ongoing campaign to bring Hamas to its knees. Supporters view him as a secular nationalist determined to leave behind a Palestinian state as his lasting legacy. They say this can only happen if Gaza, which Abbas has labeled “an emirate of darkness” and recently toyed with proclaiming “a rebellious province,” can be returned to the fold so that a unified government is able to negotiate with Israel from a position of strength.
Abbas’s critics see him as a bitter and deluded autocrat driven by personal animus toward Hamas. The Islamist movement defeated him and his ruling Fatah party in a free and fair election in 2006. Backed by American money and weapons, and encouraged by Tel Aviv, Abbas then set out to annul the results, foment civil war, and eliminate his rivals by force. The attempted coup, described by Israeli journalist Tom Segev as “The Bay of Pigs in Gaza,” was crushed, leaving Hamas in complete control of the Strip.
Ever since, Abbas has brooded over this humiliation, biding his time to claw back power. He now sees a chance to act. During a joint news conference in May, he pandered to Trump: “I believe that we are capable under your leadership and your stewardship, your courageous stewardship and your wisdom, as well as your great negotiating ability, I believe, with the grace of God and with all of your effort…we can be partners, true partners to you to bring about a historic peace treaty.… Now, Mr. President, with you we have hope.” Abbas sought to gain favor with the White House as a man of strength prepared to take the fight to Hamas, a movement that remains fixed on the State Department’s list of “designated foreign terrorist organizations.”
Desperate conditions in Gaza appeared to offer ample opportunities to destabilize the regime. Over the course of a decade of suffocating blockade, periodic war, and declining quality of life, the situation for the Strip’s 2 million residents has never been worse. Squeezed from all sides and its coffers bare, Hamas could no longer rely on aid flows from regional donors like Qatar, which is itself now confronting an embargo by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with Bahrain and Egypt as junior partners. As it struggles to pick up the fiscal slack, Gaza’s Islamist government depends more and more on domestic income, generated in part by steep hikes in taxes and fees that place a further burden on a population already at the economic breaking point.