Why Abbas Is the Big Loser in Israel's Prison Raid

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Israel got its man, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas got egg on his face, and Hamas once again profited from the mistakes of its rivals — so goes the political scorecard from Tuesday's dramatic standoff at a Palestinian prison in Jericho. And while the confrontation ended with the Israeli forces who had surrounded the prison taking into custody a number of Palestinian prisoners, including Ahmed Saadat, currently wanted for the killing of Israel's then Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in 2001, its political reverberations may be felt for much longer.

The incident stemmed from the breakdown of a complex agreement forged between Israel, the U.S., Britain and the Palestinian Authority to help end a siege of Yasser Arafat's compound in January of 2002. Rather than hand over the wanted men to Israel, Arafat had agreed to imprison them at Jericho under U.S. and British supervision. More than four years later, not surprisingly, that agreement doesn' t carry the same weight. Hamas had lately spoken of freeing the men on the grounds that no Palestinian court had ever convicted them of any crime. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas had echoed that sentiment— perhaps to avoid being upstaged by the Islamist party due to take control of the PA government. Then earlier this week, in a move that Abbas only subsequently criticized today, the U.S. and Britain withdrew their monitors from the Jericho facility, citing concerns for their personal security after the Palestinian Authority had failed to respond to complaints about poor security arrangements at the prison. With the monitors out of the way, Israel feared that the wanted men might go free.

The confrontation highlighted the dilemma facing Abbas. By trying to preempt Hamas in the battle for Palestinian public opinion, he may have inadvertently violated an agreement that the PA made under Arafat, but which Hamas doesn't feel bound by and has already vowed to reassess.

Abbas' embarrassment at Jericho comes amid rising tension between Hamas and the president's Fatah party. Some rank-and-file activists of Fatah are looking to make life in government difficult for Hamas by using violence to provoke Israel, just as Hamas once did for Arafat and Abbas. And though Tuesday's raid is unlikely to spark violent retaliation from Hamas, which is focused on assuming the reins of power, the wave of kidnappings of foreigners in Gaza and the West Bank that followed the Jericho action today suggests the coming weeks may yet see an escalation of terror by rival factions.