Who is behind bombing of Hamdallah convoy?

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, left, and security chief Majid Faraj arrive to a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new wastewater treatment plant after an explosion targeted their convoy, 13 March.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Despite a gun battle in Gaza on 22 March that Hamas says left a main suspect dead, uncertainty continues to cloud the bomb attack on the convoy of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah last week in Beit Hanoun.

Four people were killed in Thursday’s gun battle in Gaza when security forces tried to apprehend what Hamas called the prime suspect in the 13 March bombing. Two of the dead were security officers.

Ramallah, however, disputed the announcement. A spokesperson for Hamdallah’s government instead again accused the group of bearing “full criminal responsibility” for the assassination attempt.

“Once more, Hamas is going along the same path of … fabricating weak stories that make no sense,” the spokesperson, Youssef al-Mahmoud, said.

Hamas identified the suspect as Anas Abu Khousa, but did not say if he was affiliated with any political or militant faction.

PA leader Mahmoud Abbas had earlier this week laid the blame squarely on Hamas, rejecting an offer of an investigation.

Analysts are divided over who they think is behind it or whether indeed it was a serious assassination attempt on Hamdallah or the accompanying PA intelligence chief, Majid Faraj – sometimes touted as a successor to Abbas.

Most agree, however, that the attack – not far from the Israeli-controlled Erez checkpoint and minutes into a rare visit by senior West Bank PA officials to the Gaza Strip – has damaged currently stalled efforts to forge unity between Fatah and Hamas, the long-estranged main Palestinian political factions.

The Egyptian-sponsored efforts received much attention in October, when Fatah and Hamas signed a preliminary unity agreement in Cairo, but almost immediately ran into trouble.

Since then, and despite Hamas handing over security at crossings in and out of Gaza to PA forces, there has been no progress in forming a unity government that runs both the West Bank and Gaza. Gaza remains cut off from the outside world, and much needed supplies and materials to rebuild the battered coastal strip have failed to materialize.

A staged attack

Into this stalemate, a report said to have been prepared by PA intelligence under the direction of Faraj was leaked to media just 24 hours before the attack. The report, according to unnamed Fatah sources, warned Abbas against signing a unity agreement with Hamas under Egyptian sponsorship.

Cairo, the report is understood to have claimed according to these sources, is working in the interests of Muhammad Dahlan, an erstwhile Fatah security chief in Gaza now based in the United Arab Emirates, from where he draws significant support. Dahlan is a rival to Abbas for leadership of Fatah. Any Egyptian-mediated unity agreement would be a “trap” that would allow Dahlan back in at the expense of Abbas, the report warns according to these sources.

If accurate, the timing of the leak has led some to suggest that the attack in Gaza was staged to prevent any further progress in reconciliation negotiations.

“The PA stands accused,” said Abdel Satter Qassem, a professor of political science at An-Najah University in the West Bank. “Abbas is trying to avoid completing reconciliation as he knows that internal unity may pave the way for Dahlan to return. And if that happened it will be the end of Abbas.”

Moreover, there is a suggestion that Faraj rejected a Hamas offer to provide security for the latest visit to Gaza. Hamas has taken partial responsibility for failing to stop the attack, but according to Ahmad Abu Naji, an officer in the Hamas internal security service in Gaza, Faraj once before in November refused Hamas security on a visit to Gaza.

If he again refused a Hamas offer to provide security, Hamas cannot be held responsible, said Hussam al-Dajani, a politics lecturer at Ummah University in Gaza.

“If Faraj refused security like the first time, then Hamas is not responsible.”

Hamas’ responsibility

The fact that no one was killed in an explosion that wounded seven guards – though it has been reported that a second bomb failed to explode – has also prompted speculation that rather than an assassination attempt, the attack was meant more as a message.

Talal Okal, a political analyst and regular columnist for Al-Ayyam newspaper, argued that it would not have been hard to make sure of deadly force in such an attack.

“Whoever planted the bombs didn’t mean to kill Hamdallah and Faraj,” Okal told The Electronic Intifada.

However, Okal did not believe the attack was staged by Fatah either.

“This was a strong message to the PA that it is not welcome in Gaza, especially after the punitive measures imposed by Abbas on Gaza including decreasing salaries and retiring employees.”

Last April, the PA implemented sanctions on Gaza and slashed salaries of former public sector employees who had been paid to stay home rather than work for Hamas-run ministries in the wake of the 2007 fighting that saw Hamas oust Fatah from Gaza.

Some of these sanctions have since been lifted, but Okal suggested popular anger, including from inside Hamas, may have inspired the attack.

“Some angry elements in Hamas may be behind this, but it’s more likely to be an individual act,” Okal said.

Israeli meddling

The attack also came as the US is reportedly preparing its proposal to forge US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.”

According to some reports, the US proposal will see a severing of Gaza from the West Bank, temporary borders for a Palestinian entity – statehood is reportedly not mentioned – and a host of other proposals that, for Palestinians would be non-starters.

Keeping the West Bank and Gaza separate and hostile to each other would therefore be in the interest of Israel, who would seem to stand to gain from such a Trump proposal.

“This is targeting the national project, a Palestinian state, not just reconciliation,” said al-Dajani. As such, he suggested, Israel could also have been behind the attack, a view echoed by Omar Jaara, an Israel affairs professor at An-Najah.

“This attack reflects an Israeli vision of foiling reconciliation to deepen the separation between Gaza and West Bank to promote the American ‘deal of the century.’”

Hamza Abu Eltarabesh is a journalist from Gaza.