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Talks resume as Hamas rebuilds popularity and weapons

Shuttle diplomacy amid a Hamas buildup in the West Bank leaves Israel wary.

Members of Hamas' security forces take part in a military parade in Gaza City, Apr. 19, 2010. (Ismail Zaydah/Reuters)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority were set to resume this week, as United States Mideast envoy George Mitchell prepared for yet another round of shuttle diplomacy intended to revive a peace process long eclipsed by mistrust.

But that hasn't stopped preparations for more fighting.

Hamas is steadily rebuilding its power in the West Bank, stockpiling weapons and material underground, biding its time for a renewal of the conflict with its Fatah rivals.

Palestinian security officials have been telling me this for some time, and they are frankly filled with fear and foreboding. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas mentioned it again in an interview with the Arabic newspaper al-Sharq al-Awsat during the week, accusing Hamas of smuggling weapons to the West Bank.

The Hamas buildup is one of the reasons Abbas has allowed his independent prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, to stay in his job so long, despite the popularity Fayyad is accruing at the expense of Abbas’s Fatah. Fayyad has managed to reform the Palestinian security forces, persuading the U.S. to give tens of millions of dollars in security aid.

Without those reforms, the Palestinian security forces would either fold in minutes if faced with a Hamas uprising in the West Bank, or would even join Hamas to save themselves.

So it’s significant that after 10 days in which Abbas repeatedly berated Fayyad’s plan to declare a Palestinian state in 2011 — which would convince the world that if Fayyad could create a state, Fatah might’ve become irrelevant and therefore not worth the cash it siphons away — the president also highlighted the urgency of Fayyad’s most important achievement. (He first talked about it in an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper in January, when he said he had “verified information” that Hamas planned to take over the West Bank by force.)

Of course, U.S. and European security advisers to the Palestinian security forces don’t claim to have made much of their new charges. If Hamas is able to recreate its West Bank network, the Palestinian security forces will hold up their advance for only about a week, they estimate. 

That’s not bad, given that two years ago the Palestinian security forces were good for nothing much at all. A week might also buy time for a cease-fire, which might in turn preclude an Israeli invasion of the West Bank — it’s unimaginable that the Israelis would allow the West Bank to come under Hamas control.