The Palestinian territories are once again on the brink of instability.
Rumors of President Mahmoud Abbas’ failing health suggest that the Palestinian Authority may soon be without a leader. Abbas, first elected in 2005, solidified his indefinite hold on the presidency in 2009 in order to prevent Hamas from gaining power in the West Bank. Recent reports about his health, however, have put in his reign in jeopardy. Concurrently, the Trump administration’s recently announced plans to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the United Nations’ aid organization for Palestinians, has worried many people about what a lack of access to relief services could mean. It has also left some wondering if the convergence of these problems could create a strategic opening for Hamas.
Abbas continues to conceal his health issues in order to maintain political power and control over the West Bank. Abbas, 83, is a long-time smoker with a long history of health issues ranging from prostate cancer to emergency heart surgery as recently as two years ago. Abbas was hospitalized in May 2018 for complications following an ear surgery. While Abbas’ spokespeople claim he is in good health, recent rumors allege that Abbas has reduced his work schedule to a mere two hours per day and has issues with his memory. To make matters worse, Abbas still refuses to name a successor or appoint a deputy. A recent public interest survey said that 62% of Palestinians want President Abbas to resign. Without any insight on his health or successor, Hamas could use his death or incapacitation to gain power in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, in preparation for its own Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, the Trump administration has decided to stop funding the UNRWA; as its largest donor, the United States provides approximately one-third of the UNRWA’s funding. The Trump administration objects to the UNRWA’s classification of refugees, which extends the title to all people of Palestinian descent despite their current citizenship or displacement status.
Many agree that slashing UNRWA’s budget would decrease Gazans access to social services, schools, and healthcare, worsening the already egregious humanitarian situation in Gaza. With 40% of the Palestinian population unemployed and 21% living below the poverty line, the majority of Gazans rely on humanitarian aid to survive. Making matters murkier, both Hamas and UNRWA currently operate a number of social services throughout Gaza. Without access to UNRWA-sponsored services, many Gazans must make the choice between turning to Hamas-sponsored services or losing access to education, health care, and food programs, as Hamas provides far fewer services than UNRWA. This could force some to partake in Hamas’ militant activities out of necessity, making resource desperation a major factor in Hamas’ membership. Hamas could use this opportunity to gain more supporters and potential recruits willing to commit violence, even if they do not subscribe to Hamas’ ideology.
An opening for Hamas in West Bank could prove catastrophic for Israeli security. Hamas routinely attacks Israel with rockets from Gaza, many of which are unsuccessful due in part to the lack of materials allowed into Gaza. If Hamas gained access to the West Bank, they would have a geographical strategic advantage and access to more materials, increasing the chance for more successful attacks.
Hamas also a poses a political problem to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The more moderate Palestinian Authority actively engages in negotiations with Israel, while Hamas seemingly undermines any hope of peace. Hamas’ charter explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel. Hamas has a history of using violent means to end negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are unable to stop Hamas’ violence, which forces Israel to question if negotiations actually have worth. Without the Palestinian Authority, Hamas would likely seek to end the conflict through violent means.
The possibility of Hamas experiencing a resurgence of power in the Palestinian territories presents a unique challenge to Israeli security and U.S. policy. If the United States decides to follow through with defunding the UNRWA in the wake of Abbas’ reported worsening health, it may have to contend with a stronger, more politically viable Hamas encroaching on the West Bank in the future.