How to Handle Hamas (2)

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 Isolation of Gaza

Israel, Egypt, and the international community have put Gaza under siege to isolate and weaken Hamas. Israel has sealed off Gaza from the sea, and the crossing points into it from Israel and Egypt have usually been closed to normal traffic. Humanitarian aid goes in, but there is a long list of prohibited goods. Ironically, however, Israel’s humanitarian concerns have prevented it from truly pressuring the Gazan people. Israel has tried to coerce Hamas without causing mass starvation, an approach that Israeli officials have described as “no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.” Although Israeli policies are pushing Gaza closer to the brink, the threat of even more misery simply is not credible.

This is small comfort to Gazans, however. Aid agencies now put Gaza’s poverty rate at 80 percent, and most Gazans survive on un handouts and aid from Hamas’ patrons, such as Iran. The World Health Organization reported at the beginning of this year that hospitals are unable to deliver quality health care; their doctors, unable to receive training. Disease and malnutrition are spreading, and schools are deteriorating. Gazans, who for decades took menial jobs in Israel, lost access to the Israeli labor market after violence flared during the second intifada. Subsequent border closures and the collapse of aid and investment have further decreased employment.

The world lays the blame for this humanitarian catastrophe at Israel’s feet. After un Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Gaza in March 2010, for example, he declared Israeli policy “wrong,” contending that it was causing “unacceptable suffering.” Still, except during Operation Cast Lead, the siege received only limited attention until recently.

The spotlight focused again on Gaza on May 31, 2010, when Israeli commandos stormed the Mavì Marmara, a civilian Turkish ship trying to break the blockade, and killed nine activists. Turkish leaders, already at odds with their once close ally over Operation Cast Lead, denounced the raid, demanded an apology, and took reprisals, including the decision to close Turkish airspace to Israeli aircraft. British Prime Minister David Cameron said the raid was «completely unacceptable,” and Obama administration officials called for “a new approach to Gaza.” Soon, the botched raid became a broader fiasco for Israel. It put global attention back on the siege of Gaza. Israel’s restrictions of innocuous items, such as cilantro and jam, came under increased scrutiny. Worse, Hamas started to look like it was the victim of Israeli cruelty and violence.

To appease critics after the Mavi Marmara bungling, Israel declared that it would focus on military- related goods only and promised to make it easier for Gazans to seek medical care outside the Gaza Strip. But it maintained a ban on “dual-use” items, which could include goods ranging from electronics to construction materials, depending on how the term is interpreted. Egypt, for its part, opened the Rafah crossing to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza and to admit into Egypt Gazans seeking medical care. But Cairo remains eager to avoid helping Hamas unless forced to by public opinion and, significantly, is continuing work on a wall along and under its border with Gaza. Easing Egypt’s and Israel’s siege would lessen Gazans’ misery somewhat and help Hamas politically, but the Gaza Strip still has a long way to go before it is not a basket case.

Help for Hamas

The siege has failed on another level: it has not weakened Hamas, which has by now crushed or outflanked its political rivals. Today, Hamas has an unquestioned-and, in the eyes of most Gazans, largely legitimate-monopoly on the use of force in the Gaza Strip, and its political clout among Palestinians has grown at the expense of Fatah. Hamas bases its claim to power on its victory in the 2006 elections, when it ran largely on a platform that stressed Fatah’s corruption and failure to deliver either services on the ground or sovereignty at the negotiating table. Younger Palestinians, in particular, are disillusioned with Fatah: they prefer the new brand of political Islam to old-fashioned Arab nationalism. Meanwhile, the plunge in trade and investment in Gaza has hurt the small Gazan middle class and others who might otherwise have had the resources to stand up to Hamas.

The siege has also increased the importance of the social services that Hamas provides. After it took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas revamped the police and security forces, cutting them from 50,000 members (on paper, at least) under Fatah to smaller, more efficient forces of just over 10,000, which then cracked down on crime and gangs. No longer did groups openly carry weapons or steal with impunity. People paid their taxes and electric bills, and in return the authorities picked up garbage and put criminals in jail. Gaza-neglected under Egyptian and then Israeli control, and misgoverned by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and his successors-finally has a real government.

Despite the siege, Hamas is growing stronger militarily. Its rockets are getting more powerful and are reaching farther. Until 2008, the rocket attacks hit only the relatively unpopulated areas near Gaza, such as Sderot. Over time, however, Hamas tripled the range of the rockets; today, they can reach large nearby cities, such as Ashqelon and Beersheba-and possibly even Tel Aviv. And it is developing indigenous rocket systems that have an even longer range and a larger payload. Through illicit tunnels linking the Gaza Strip to Egypt, Hamas smuggles out hundreds of young men for advanced training in Lebanon and Iran. Its fighters are becoming more formidable.

Hamas has also found a way to benefit economically from the blockade by taxing the tunnel trade, even creating a “tunnels authority.” Yezid Sayigh of King’s College London has estimated that Hamas earned up to $200 million from tunnel taxes in 2009.The tunnels also employ over 40,000 people, creating an important business constituency for Hamas.

And thanks to Israel’s blockade and military strikes against Gaza, Hamas has found it easier to raise money from Iran, which gives Hamas tens of millions of dollars a year as part of its struggle against Israel and to score points with ordinary Sunni Arabs who admire Hamas. Hamas is also beginning to look beyond pariahs such as Iran for backing. Khaled Mashaal, the group’s so-called external leader, met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Damascus in May. And together with Turkish President Abdullah Gul, they called for including Hamas in peace talks. The Mavì Marmara raid has accelerated Hamas’ escape from diplomatic isolation, with more and more countries casting Hamas as the victim.

The siege is also dragging down U.S. policy toward the Muslim world. The suffering of Gazans-broadcast constantly on al Jazeera-acts as a radicalizing force from Morocco to Indonesia. Terrorists in the United States itself, such as Major Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter, and Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, cite Gaza to justify their actions. And as many Muslims see it, U.S. support for Israel’s siege proves that the United States is anti-Palestinian. Although the Obama administration successfully pressed Israel to ease the blockade, the remaining restrictions and the general sense that the United States continues to be Israel’s strongest ally have meant that this perception endures.

This perception would become stronger if a new military operation on the scale of Operation Cast Lead occurred-an ever-present risk. In part, this risk is random: the rockets that land in Sderot usually kill no one, but there is always a chance that one could kill children or harm enough adults that the Israeli government would feel political pressure to escalate the conflict. An even bigger problem for Israel is that the current cease-fire is now based on short-term deterrence rather than a long-term deal. Hamas has stopped attacking Israel not because it has agreed to a broader political arrangement but because the benefits outweigh the costs for now. The deterrence equation could easily be disrupted if, say, more arms went to Hamas or if politics in Israel or Gaza changed. In other words, the siege is failing even on its own terms: Hamas has become stronger politically and militarily.

The Limits of Force

Some Israelis believe that the alternative to the siege is to confront Hamas head-on, removing it from power and forcing it underground. But that strategy would lead Israel into a quagmire. Conquering Gaza would be a relatively easy task for the idf, but it would almost certainly result in far more Israeli casualties than the 13 who died during Operation Cast Lead. The Palestinians lost over 1,000 Hamas fighters and civilians in Operation Cast Lead, and they, too, would probably lose far more. In Operation Cast Lead, Israel penetrated only partway into the Gaza Strip and did not stay and occupy the territory. If the idf were to remove Hamas from power, however, it would have to stay for months to dismantle Hamas’ infrastructure there: the hospitals, mosques, and social services that Hamas has been putting in place for decades. And it would not be cheap, since Israel would have to bear the financial burden of deploying thousands of troops to Gaza.

Diplomatically, occupying Gaza again would hurt Israel’s relations with the United States, the international community, and Palestinians in the West Bank. Israel would inevitably make mistakes and kill innocent Gazans, making negotiations even more difficult. Hamas, meanwhile, would try to make the long-term price of any occupation too high for Israel to sustain. In Gaza itself, the organization could attack Israeli soldiers with snipers, improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs, and ambushes, and in the West Bank it could use its operatives to strike Israel. All this would take a bloody toll on the Israeli military.

Another big political loser would be Abbas. When Israel invaded Gaza in December 2008, the credibility of both Abbas and Fayyad suffered; they called for a cease-fire rather than for the kind of violent opposition that Palestinian leaders had been extolling for years. At the time, many Palestinians believed, and correctly so, that Abbas was rooting for Israel and against his fellow Palestinians because he sought to gain a political advantage over Hamas. Public opinion polls taken before the war showed that the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, would lose a presidential race against Abbas; polls taken after the war showed Haniyeh winning. Renewing the peace process with Abbas will be impossible if the idf and Hamas are shooting at each other in Gaza. Abbas would not want to be seen as supporting the Israeli takeover, and he openly rejected such an option during Operation Cast Lead. But even if Abbas kept a low profile, Hamas would still see him as complicit and try to undermine his position in the West Bank.

Another problem is that Israel would lack staying power. Israel left Gaza in 2005 in the hopes of never returning, and it does not have the stomach for another grinding occupation. On the other hand, seizing Gaza again only to withdraw again would simply allow Hamas to retake power once more, because Hamas’ moderate rivals in the Gaza Strip are too weak to take over. A new occupation is not the answer, and despite bluster to the contrary, most Israelis realize this.

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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