A massive Israeli search and arrest operation in the occupied West Bank launched after the suspected abduction of three teenagers is sapping support for the Palestinian leadership, analysts say.
Israel blames Islamist movement Hamas for the kidnappings and has detained most of its West Bank leaders in its crackdown but a mounting backlash in Palestinian public opinion is undermining the authority of president Mahmud Abbas.
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Abbas has his base, scores of protesters took to the streets on Monday to demand an end to his leadership’s cooperation with the massive Israeli military operation which has claimed four Palestinian lives since June 12.
On Sunday night, angry youths torched a police station in the city, displaying growing anger at the search operation for the missing teenagers which has seen the army round up nearly 270 members of Hamas and lock down major city Hebron and other towns.
It has been Israel’s largest operation in the West Bank since the end of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2005.
Caricatures of Abbas have multiplied on social media forums, with many showing him in Israeli army uniform with captions deriding him as a “collaborator” and a “traitor”.
Some have even come from media linked to the president’s own Fatah party.
“It’s highly likely the Palestinian population’s reaction will be directed at the Palestinian Authority and its institutions, because it now looks incapable of protecting its own people,” said Samir Awad, a politics professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Awad said Israel might even be deliberately moving to “exploit the situation to delegitimise the Palestinian Authority.”
– Israel’s ‘strong message’ –
Naji Sharab, a political analyst at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, said stoking public resentment was Israel’s way of sending a “strong message” to the Palestinian leadership, after its April deal with Hamas under which a merged administration for the West Bank and Gaza was formed earlier this month for the first time in seven years.
“This is an operation with two goals,” he said.
“It aims to completely dismantle the infrastructure of Hamas, and also to send a strong message to the Palestinian Authority — that its role is purely one of security, not one of sovereignty.”
Abbas is not unaware of the damage being done to his poll ratings.
“What Israel is doing with its arrests and searches will take away the PA’s authority,” he told reporters on Saturday.
Senior Hamas politician Mussa Abu Marzuq said Israel’s aim in locking down swathes of the West Bank under Abbas’s administration was to “drain confidence in it in order to humiliate it.”
It was a deliberate attempt to “put an end to the national consensus government and Palestinian reconciliation,” Abu Marzuq wrote on his Facebook page.
Both the European Union and the United States expressed readiness to work with the new Palestinian government but Israel announced a boycott and has seized on the abduction of the three teenagers as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Abbas and its Islamist foe Hamas.
Abbas aides have acknowledged the damage done to Palestinian reconciliation efforts by the kidnappings.
“If it transpires that Hamas is indeed responsible for the abduction, this could deliver the coup de grace for reconciliation,” said former culture minister Ibrahim Abrash.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has said that “many indications point to Hamas’s involvement” but there has been no formal claim of responsibility and Hamas has described Israeli finger-pointing as “stupid”.
Walid al-Mudallal of Gaza’s Islamic University said that were Hamas to turn out to be responsible, it would make things “very difficult for Abbas”.
“He would have to announce a rejection of Palestinian reconciliation, because he would be under enormous Israeli and American pressure,” Mudallal said.