Did Mahmoud Abbas Just Foil a Hamas Coup?

Over the past several days, Israeli sources report that some 500 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad -- residents of the West Bank, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) -- have been arrested by PA security services.

An anonymous Hamas source acknowledged about 60 such detainees, including students and academics, to Agence France Presse. The Palestinian Ma’an News Agency quotes an anonymous PA security official as acknowledging 40 detainees, without further details. Ma’an alleged (without citing a source) that the arrests were possibly in response to the detention of Fatah official Mamun Suweidan by Hamas security forces in Gaza. PA security spokesman Adnan Dameiri claimed no political motivation for the arrests, and said simply that the detainees had broken the law.

Yet Israeli sources have claimed that this massive wave of arrests -- which began on Sunday -- was conducted on Mahmoud Abbas’ orders, and assert that a coup against Abbas orchestrated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad has been foiled.

The coup was supposed to begin with riots in the West Bank, beginning in the capital of Ramallah, and culminating in Abbas’ assassination and a complete takeover of the PA by the two terrorist groups which at present control the Gaza Strip.

What makes this likelihood an extremely sensitive matter in the PA-controlled territories is the eleven-month-old cooperation agreement between Hamas and the PA, concluded in April of last year.

This was originally supposed to pave the way for long-overdue elections to the Palestinian parliament. (Co-chairman of Ha-Machane ha-Tziyoni, Yitzchak Herzog, has promised to address the overdue elections if he becomes Israeli prime minister as a result of the general Israeli elections scheduled for March 17). The Palestinian elections, which had most recently been scheduled for last summer, were put on hold when the Gaza War erupted on July 8, 2014.

That crisis was caused by the kidnapping and murder of three teenage Israeli yeshiva students by Hamas members on June 12. An intensive search for the kidnap victims was mounted by Israeli security forces in Yehuda and Shomron. Numerous suspects were arrested, which sparked rioting in several Arab towns and villages and eventually a barrage of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza. This brought about the Israeli incursion and subsequent suspension of PA elections, which have never taken place.

Abbas is said to have ordered the PA operation, which is the largest against Hamas and Islamic Jihad which the PA has ever mounted in Yehuda and Shomron, on the basis of a presentation made by Major General Majid Faraj, chief of Palestinian security forces. He highlighted the plans supposedly in motion for the coup and assassination attempt.

Abbas is also believed to not trust his own security services, which may well have been infiltrated by operatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It is widely believed that for this reason he has, in recent months, spent very little time in Ramallah.

He has been dividing his time amongst various foreign capitals, principally in Europe (for instance, he opened a PA embassy in Stockholm when the recently elected Socialist government of Sweden recognised the PA as a “state” last month), and various Arab capitals, primarily Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, where his security as a guest and dignitary has been the responsibility of his hosts.

Last week, Israel called up some 10,000 reservists, officially to conduct a “snap exercise” in anti-rioting measures together with 3,000 regular soldiers on active duty. Pointedly, all of these reservists have been stationed in the Israeli-controlled areas of Yehuda and Shomron.

Anonymous Israeli sources -- though unconfirmed officially by either the Israelis or the PA -- have said that this call-up was in response to a request from Abbas to Israel, in case his security forces required backup.

In light of the above, it is interesting that on Wednesday, a joint operation by Israeli police and the Shin Bet in the Arab town of Jabalya resulted in the arrests of an undisclosed number of suspects believed to have ties to ISIS. Islamic Jihad, originally founded in Egypt in 1980 and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, later became a branch of al-Qaeda and has established relations with ISIS.

This would appear to be another indication of the inherent instability of the Arab regimes in the ever-bubbling cauldron of the Middle East.