Israeli army braces for Arab Spring

Palestinians at a rally calling for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah last week

Palestinians at a rally calling for reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah last week

A renewed push towards unity between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, is causing concern in the Israeli military.

There were popular demonstrations last week in the West Bank and Gaza calling for the two factions to join forces, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that he was prepared to travel to the Strip, where he has not been for over four years, to negotiate with Hamas leaders.

President Abbas is still stung by the accusations two months ago that his representative had been willing to make major concessions to Israel in the peace talks three years ago, and is seeking to use the unity campaign to regain popularity.

The response from Gaza was noncommittal, with Hamas leaders saying that they would "discuss ways to accept the president in Gaza and act to the end the split".

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A major concern in Israel is over how authorities would deal with a mass-march out of the West Bank, which could grow out of the pro-unity demonstrations. One senior officer said: "It is almost inevitable that one of the organisations will piggyback on any demonstration and turn it violent."

The IDF Central Command has prepared contingency plans for such a case. "We are following social networks like Facebook very closely to detect any plans for mass-demonstrations," said one officer involved in the planning.

"We have briefed officers at every level so as not to allow the situation get out of hand if thousands of civilians try and march peacefully on IDF positions."

Not all the commanders are so confident, though. "If the Palestinians rise up like the Egyptians or the Tunisians," said one officer serving in the West Bank, "I don't think we really have any real solution for that."

In the past, Hamas leaders were more active in seeking unity in the hope that it would help confer international legitimacy on the movement and end its isolation in Gaza. But its more influential leaders now feel that in the wake of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, a better strategy is to gain popularity among the Palestinian public and, in doing so, usurp the PA, which is seen as being linked to the old Arab dictatorships.

Israel's leaders were quick though to respond critically. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked last week in an interview with Piers Morgan for CNN how the world could expect Israel to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority when it was seeking to unite with a movement committed to destroying Israel.

Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom claimed this week that the recent missile attacks from the Gaza Strip were meant by Hamas "to stop any possibility of dialogue among the Palestinians or to come to the intra-Palestinian negotiation in a far stronger position".

    Last updated: 12:56pm, March 24 2011