How to Handle Hamas (1)

By Daniel Byman
Foreign Affairs. New York: Sep/Oct 2010. Vol. 89, Iss. 5; pg. 45

(Daniel Byman is a Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the forthcoming book A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism.)

The Perils of Ignoring Gaza’s Leadership

The biggest obstacle to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is not the Palestinians’ demand that Jewish settlements in the West Bank be dismantled, the barrier separating much of the West Bank from Israel, or the recent rightward shift of the Israeli body politic. It is the emergence of Hamas as the de facto government of the Gaza Strip, where 1.5 million Palestinians reside.

Hamas has regularly attacked Israel with rockets from Gaza or allowed others to do so. It poses a strong and growing political threat to the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which is led by President Mahmoud Abbas and his technocratic prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and which governs the West Bank and used to run Gaza, too. Whereas pa leaders see negotiations with Israel and institution building as the best way to ultimately gain statehood, Hamas seeks to undermine the peace process. Many Hamas members have not reconciled themselves to the Jewish state’s existence. Hamas’ leaders also fear that Hamas would reap none of the benefits of a peace deal and that in the event of one, the pa would score political points at their expense. Hamas has shown repeatedly that it can bring talks to a painful end by castigating moderate Palestinians and turning to violence.

Despite Hamas’ centrality to Israeli security and Palestinian politics, Washington still clings to the policy that the Bush administration established after Hamas beat more moderate Fatah candidates in elections in Gaza in 2006. The United States and other members of the international community withdrew development aid from Gaza, tacitly supporting Israel’s shutdown of the Gaza Strip, and refused to work directly with Hamas. Their hope was to force Hamas’ collapse and bring Fatah back to power. But isolation has failed, and today Hamas is far stronger than when it first took power. The Obama administration, more by default than by design, has continued these efforts to isolate and weaken Hamas, opposing talks with the group and condoning Israeli military raids.

Israeli policy also remains stuck in the past. Regular rocket barrages from Gaza mean that Israel cannot simply forget about the area or Hamas. Israel has kept Gaza under siege and has sometimes used considerable force. Although the Gaza war of December 2008 and January 2009 (which Israelis call Operation Cast Lead) did damage Hamas’ credibility, and even though Hamas has since reduced its rocket attacks, the long-term sustainability of such an aggressive approach is questionable. Still, Israel and the international community have not developed a new strategy in response to Hamas’ consolidation of power.

Some prominent Israelis, such as Efraim Halevy, the former director of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, and Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, have called for negotiating with Hamas. Other Israelis, who fear that the group will never abandon its goal of destroying Israel, think the Israeli military should retake Gaza before Hamas gets any stronger; they argue that postponing the day of reckoning will cost Israel dearly in the future. But with neither option being palatable at this time, Israel continues to rely on economic pressure and military operations to preempt terrorist attacks from Gaza, kill the people there who launch rockets into Israel, and retaliate for Hamas’ provocations.

Although shunning Hamas may seem morally appropriate and politically safe, that policy will undermine Israel’s peace talks with Abbas and other Palestinian moderates. An alternative approach is necessary. Hamas could, perhaps, be convinced not to undermine progress on a peace deal. To accomplish this, Israel and the international community would have to exploit Hamas’ vulnerabilities, particularly its performance in governing Gaza, with a mix of coercion and concessions, including a further easing of the siege of Gaza. At the same time, they should support the state-building efforts of Fayyad and restart the peace process with Abbas in order to reduce the risk that Hamas will win the struggle for power among the Palestinians. Moreover, because the effort to transform Hamas into a responsible government could fail, the international community must be prepared to support a more aggressive military response by Israel if Hamas does not change.

The Eve of Disruption

Peace talks can begin with Hamas on the sidelines, but they cannot finish if Hamas refuses to play ball. Hamas has proved that it has the means to threaten Israel and disrupt peace talks. Rocket and mortar strikes are the most obvious method. According to Israeli government statistics, in 2005, Hamas and other Palestinian groups launched around 850 rockets and mortars at Israel from Gaza. By 2008, the figure had climbed past 2,000. The death toll from these attacks was low, but the psychological effect has been considerable. Hamas uses Qassam rockets, which have unpredictable trajectories and so fall on soldiers and civilians alike. One 2007 study found that 28 percent of the adults and between 72 percent and 94 percent of the children in Sderot, the Israeli town most frequently hit by rockets, suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder.

In addition to the rocket attacks, Hamas and other militant groups shoot at Israeli soldiers and agricultural workers near the Gaza border. From 2000, when the second intifada broke out, through 2009, there were over 5,000 such attacks from Gaza. The vast majority occurred before Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but Israel still suffered more than 70 attacks in each of the three years that followed. A particularly difficult problem has been Hamas’ use of improvised explosive devices near the security barrier. These bombs are powerful enough to endanger Israeli soldiers patrolling the Israeli side but can only be dismantled from the Gaza side.

Attacks by Hamas plummeted following Operation Cast Lead, a tough, sometimes brutal three-week campaign against Gaza carried out by Israel in December 2008 and January 2009; it ended with a cease-fire on both sides. After March 2009, no month ofthat year saw more than 25 rocket and mortar attacks-a far cry from the violence of 2008. There were only four shootings in 2009. So far, 2010 has seen a comparatively low number of rockets flying from Gaza-few, if any, of which were launched by Hamas itself.

But few attacks is not the same as no attacks. The Israelis still fear that Hamas, which is building its capabilities, could easily step up the violence if it chose to do so. For the Israelis, engaging in peace talks premised on giving up territory is difficult when their country is under attack; they justifiably feel the need to hit back. The Israelis also worry that Hamas or another Palestinian group would launch rockets from any territory that Israel surrendered in the West Bank, just as they did from Gaza after Israel withdrew its forces in 2005.

For moderate Palestinian officials seeking peace, the challenge goes beyond Israeli fears. Israel and the international community, of course, recognize that Abbas does not control Hamas. But if violence again flared up, the Israelis would question the value of peace talks with moderates if they cannot end the violence. Israel does not respond to every attack, but when it does it often hits back hard, killing Hamas leaders and, inadvertently but regularly, civilians, too. Moderate Palestinian officials would find it impossible to gain popular support for negotiations while Palestinian civilians were dying at the hands of Israelis. So even when its attacks do no damage, Hamas walks away triumphant, whereas both Israeli and Palestinian moderates are discredited.

Hamas is also capable of kidnapping personnel from the Israel Defense Forces or other Israelis: a rare but game-changing event. The most dramatic incident was the June 2006 abduction of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Israeli society rallied behind Shalit’s family, and the idf invaded Gaza in an operation that killed over 400 Palestinians and failed to secure Shalit’s release. The kidnapping also helped convince then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in July 2006. In circumstances like these, negotiations are almost impossible.

Further complicating the picture is Hamas’ ability to undermine peace talks without using violence itself. Gaza is home to various other terrorist groups, from Fatah rejectionists to Salafi jihadist organizations, none remotely as strong as Hamas but all itching to attack Israel. Hamas can allow these groups to operate and then claim impotence or ignorance. It can also stymie negotiations politically. Hamas lambasted Abbas for meeting with Israeli officials and for not demanding that the UN endorse the findings of the Goldstone report, which criticized Israel’s conduct of Operation Cast Lead. Hamas uses such attacks to “prove” to Palestinians that Abbas is selling out the Palestinian cause. Such charges make it harder for Abbas to consider making any concessions to Israel, particularly the type that involve no immediate quid pro quos from Israel or, worse, that mean swallowing rebuffs or tolerating continued settlement building.

For now, Hamas does not have to do much to scuttle peace talks: disagreements over settlements and other disputes have left the Israelis and the pa unable to get anything going beyond indirect talks brokered by Washington. Both sides view these talks with considerable skepticism. But should negotiations move forward, as the Obama administration is urging, Hamas is likely to play the spoiler. Progress on negotiations with Israel would make the Palestinian moderates look good and pose a threat to Hamas’ standing among Palestinians by reducing the appeal of its ideological hostility toward Israel.

Skeptics might contend that peace talks have often occurred without Hamas’ participation. Since the second intifada, Washington has tried to move the ball forward from time to time, but any resulting talks made so little progress that Hamas did not perceive them as a serious threat. When talks were near fruition in the mid1990s, however, Hamas-much weaker then-struck. In 1996, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (pij) launched a series of suicide bombings against Israel. These not only killed over 60 Israelis but also shattered the prospects of Prime Minister Shimon Peres and his pro-peace bloc in upcoming elections, paving the way for the triumph of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was far more skeptical of negotiations. Terror has worked for Hamas, and it might be tempted to use the tactic again.

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis

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