Hamas vs PLO: Anatomy of Anti-Israel Resistance
What stopped the fighting on the West Bank?
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
Since October 7, at least 273 people have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank region even though the Palestine Liberation Organization itself has been neither involved in nor supported Hamas’s attacks. Yet the West Bank continues to operate without an uprising. Whether Israeli attacks ultimately lead to an uprising is questionable, but it certainly is entirely imaginable.
In the historical roots of the conflict, and how Western powers contributed to it by essentially facilitating Jewish settlement on Palestinian lands, there were few if any substantial differences between the Hamas-led Gaza and the Palestine Liberation Authority-led West Bank. But political differences have evolved over time, and these differences are at the heart of why armed resistance is today confined to Gaza, although the West Bank Palestinians, too, continue to encounter Israeli violence in their everyday lives.
The differing response can be traced back many decades, but it came to light in 2007 when Hamas fought Fatah, one of the largest factions comprising the PLO, after Hamas defeated Fatah in the 2006 elections. Even though Hamas won a legitimate election, the West still saw it as a terrorist organization because of its anti-Israel stance – a framing that Arab states didn’t necessarily challenge. Today, Hamas’s view of Israel as an illegitimate state is what makes it different from the PLO.
PLO/Fatah doesn’t pursue this objective in the same manner as it did following the years after its 1964 creation. After briefly pursuing the possibilities of an independent state of Palestine and “de-ZioniZation” of the region, the PLO, backed by several Arab states, adopted a two-state solution as its primary goal in 1977, leading to the US-mediated 1993 Oslo Accords and the establishment of the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority (PA).
But because the Oslo Accords couldn’t resolve the Palestinian issue, frustration empowered other groups – especially Hamas – who were seeking liberation. While Hamas fought Israel on one front, it fought the PLO on the other, leading to the 2006 PA electoral defeat. These elections not only meant a significant political shift within Palestine but also brought into power Hamas as an organization that didn’t support the Oslo settlement. (It was only in 2017 that Hamas accepted the formation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, but without recognizing Israeli statehood).
The 2006 elections polarized Palestine along the lines that continue to remain relevant. Following the elections, Hamas and the PLO started negotiations, which broke down due to several disagreements, including the new government’s stance towards Israel. Whereas, in line with the Oslo Accords, the PLO supported a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Hamas rejected the idea, leading to violence and the ultimate takeover of Gaza from the hapless Palestine Authority by Hamas. This was followed by the 2008 Gaza War between Israel and Hamas, which, after almost three weeks, ended in a ceasefire.
The PLO’s absence from the current phase of the conflict can thus be attributed to its transformation from an organization seeking liberation through armed resistance in the 1960s and the 1970s to adopting negotiations as the preferred mechanism. In fact, instead of extending even verbal support, the PA tried to undermine – and delegitimize – Hamas when its leader recently said that Hamas doesn’t represent the people of Palestine because of its use of violence. “The president also stressed that the policies, programs, and decisions of the PLO represent the Palestinian people as their sole legitimate representative, and not the policies of any other organization,” says the statement. Of course, the PLO has been joined by states like the UAE and Bahrain – the signatories of the now infamous US-mediated Abraham Accords with Israel – condemning Hamas. Qatar, on the other hand, not only supports Hamas but also holds Israel “solely responsible” for the escalation.
Qatar and support for Hamas is a minority opinion already within the wider Muslim world, whereas PLO – and its strategy of negotiating for a Palestinian state – enjoys wider currency. For instance, when Arab leaders met in Riyadh in mid-November to “discuss” the Gaza war, they ended up reinforcing the PLO as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and further called “on the Palestinian factions and forces to unite under its umbrella.” Earlier in October, days after Hamas began its attacks, an emergency meeting of Arab ministers in Egypt reinforced “the importance of resuming the peace process and starting serious negotiations between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel”.
But this strategy of declaring the PLO the sole representative of the people of Palestine has been – and will once again be – counterproductive. As reports indicate, more than 80 percent of Palestinians consider the PA to be corrupt and unable to govern. A 2023 Arab Barometer survey showed that only 12 percent of Gazans would support Abbas if elections were held tomorrow. Although it doesn’t mean Hamas enjoys absolute popular support, it does show that extending support to extremely unpopular actors could contribute to popular frustration, which could lead to the war spilling over not only internally but also towards the Arab states themselves.
But, thinking externally, one of the reasons why the PA has been unable to protect the people living in the West Bank and offer any effective governance is that the political settlement with Israel does not force Israel to play its part. Its budgets have become thin due in part to Israel’s decision to withhold millions of dollars in tax revenues collected from Palestinians. This ability to withhold finances goes back to Israeli dominance, sustained by external actors, including the support it has recently found in the Arab world itself. It is contributing to making PA – the main custodian of the idea of a negotiated settlement with Israel – unpopular. 78 percent of Palestinians wanted Abbas to resign, according to a poll published in September by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. Some 58 percent said they supported an “armed struggle” to end the Israeli occupation, compared with 20 percent in favor of a negotiated settlement and 24 percent for “peaceful resistance.”
Due to this, the nature of resistance – and opposition – within Palestine is itself morphing into armed resistance against Israel in Gaza and political resistance against, and opposition to, the PA in the West Bank. The Arab world and the West both need to pay close attention to what the Palestinians think and are saying. Unless they can impose a total decimation of the Palestinians, a third Gaza war is not too far off.
See related story: Hamas Changes the Trajectory of Global Diplomacy