How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Palestinian politicians tend to view term limits as casual suggestions. This is especially true in the case of the two largest Palestinian parties: the nominally secular Fatah, which manages the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, and the Islamist terror group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Yet those two factions’ usual disdain for smooth political transitions seemed to wane in February, when Hamas elected a military commander, Yehya Sinwar, to serve as its next leader in Gaza, and the longtime apparatchik Mahmoud al-Aloul became Fatah’s first-ever vice president. The elevation of both men may signal a hard-line shift in Palestinian politics.
For Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the head of Fatah, the appointment of Aloul as party vice president was a stroke of tactical genius. Abbas’ allies and rivals have hounded him for years about the need to appoint a deputy and to begin planning for a stable transition, but Abbas, who is 81 years old and fears emboldening his challengers, has long refused to do so. Instead, the president has spent much of his time in office consolidating his grip on power and pushing aside his rivals, ensuring that they have remained too weak or unpopular to threaten him. When rumors swirled that Fatah was splintering ahead of a party conference last November, for example, Abbas barred the dissenters from attending the meeting and used the group’s internal elections to purge his rivals.
By naming the 66-year-old Aloul as Fatah’s vice president, Abbas has elevated a man who has the pedigree to eventually head the party but still lacks the influence to directly challenge his leadership. A longtime Fatah member and veteran of the party’s military wing, Aloul was responsible for the 1983 capture and ransom of six Israeli soldiers in Lebanon; in the 1990s, he served as a governor in the West Bank. Aloul is now Fatah’s head of mobilization—a role in which he manages the party’s grass-roots activities—and frequently organizes protests against Israel. He is reportedly close with Abbas, but largely unlike the president, he has at times praised armed “resistance”—a euphemism for terrorist attacks.
Aloul’s elevation means that he cannot be discounted in the race to replace Abbas. That has alienated two other leading candidates for the top job, Marwan Barghouti and Jibril Rajoub. Barghouti is serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli prison for orchestrating terror attacks during the second intifada (though he has remained politically active while in prison), and Rajoub is a veteran of the PA’s security services in the West Bank. Both are members of Fatah’s highest decision-making body, the Central Committee. After Aloul’s appointment, Barghouti’s wife publicly blasted Fatah leaders for not naming her husband Abbas’ number two. Rajoub was more conciliatory, quickly organizing an awkward photo opportunity with Aloul to demonstrate his consent. But once Abbas leaves office, the competition among the three men—and any other aspirants—could potentially turn violent.
The recent intrigue within Fatah was matched by its rivals’ secret internal elections in Gaza, the partial results of which were released in mid-February. If there is a leader who could take Hamas to an even more radical place, it is Sinwar. The 55-year-old is a veteran of Hamas’ military wing, the Qassam Brigades, and spent over 20 years in prison for coordinating terror activities. He was released in 2011 as one of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners whom Israel exchanged for Gilad Shalit, an Israel Defense Forces soldier who had been captured by Hamas. In the months after his release, Sinwar rose quickly within Hamas, securing a spot in 2012 as the representative of the group’s military wing in the Politburo. A hard-liner, he protested the terms of the prisoner swap that led to his freedom as too conciliatory and has reportedly killed more than a dozen Hamas militants for collaborating with Israel. He will replace Ismail Haniyeh as Hamas’ leader in Gaza; Haniyeh will likely replace Khaled Meshaal as the group’s overall chief.
For years, Hamas has been divided into multiple centers of power. The split between the group’s political and military wings has been exacerbated by the gaps between its leaders in Gaza and those in exile. Hamas’ political wing has typically enjoyed primacy, but in recent years, the Qassam Brigades have increasingly operated without the political wing’s consent. When military-wing members in the West Bank kidnapped three Israeli teenagers in 2014, for example, Meshaal at first denied Hamas’ involvement before admitting that he had simply not been told about the abductions in advance. Sinwar’s rise may signal that the full eclipse of the political wing by the military wing is under way.
The rise of Aloul and Sinwar has come at a potentially combustible moment.
Sinwar’s election will likely increase the potential for another clash between Hamas and Israel. Israeli military officials estimate that Gazans have no appetite for a new round of violence, but that doesn’t mean that Hamas isn’t thinking about another conflict. The group has replenished its arsenal to the levels it maintained before its 2014 war with Israel and now controls at least 15 tunnels into Israel. As the former representative of the military wing on the Politburo—the equivalent of the group’s secretary of defense—Sinwar was responsible for this posturing.
The rise of Aloul and Sinwar has come at a potentially combustible moment. Both Fatah and Hamas are in uncharted territory, thanks to the ascent of a new administration in the United States and the dimming prospects for fruitful peace negotiations. Abbas is in an especially tight bind. His pro-diplomacy government has become even more susceptible to criticisms of the peace process from rancorous Fatah members and Hamas officials such as Mahmoud al-Zahar, who recently called Abbas a “traitor” and accused him of “wasting our time and helping the Israelis expand settlements.” Without a diplomatic horizon in the West Bank or humanitarian improvements in Gaza, Fatah and Hamas have little to sell their people. Their more violent members may start to offer their own alternatives.