How to Handle Hamas (3)

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.)

Cease-Fire Calculus

If Hamas cannot be uprooted, can it be calmed enough to not disrupt peace talks? Maybe-and the chance is worth pursuing. Although often depicted as fanatical, Hamas has shown itself to be pragmatic in practice, although rarely in rhetoric. It cuts deals with rivals, negotiates indirecdy with Israel via the Egyptians, and otherwise demonstrates that unlike, say, al Qaeda, it is capable of compromise. Indeed, al Qaeda often blasts Hamas for selling out. Hamas has at times declared and adhered to cease-fires lasting months, and some leaders have speculated that a truce lasting years is possible. And although Hamas has refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist, its leaders have also said they would accept the UN-demarcated 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian areas as a starting point for a Palestinian state. Perhaps the most important sign of pragmatism has been Hamas’ general adherence to its cease-fire after Operation Cast Lead.

To be sure, there are many reasons why Hamas might undermine peace talks. Progress on negotiations would elevate Abbas’ standing among Palestinians and threaten Hamas’ position. More important, it would weaken Hamas’ message that resistance is the path to victory. In the 1990s, support for Hamas rose and fell in inverse proportion to progress on the peace talks, and Abbas hopes that he can outdo Hamas by rebuilding Fatah’s political position at the negotiating table. Thus, if serious peace talks begin soon without Israel’s dealing with Hamas first, Hamas will have a political incentive to break the cease-fire-either directly or by granting groups such as the pij more leeway to attack Israel.

And even if Abbas and the peace process were taken out of the equation, formalizing a lasting cease-fire would be risky for Hamas. Doing so would damage Hamas’ credentials as a resistance organization. That, in turn, would jeopardize Hamas’ funding from Iran and weaken it relative to Abbas, since both would then be tarred with the brush of passivity. Pressure from al Qaeda-like jihadists, the pij, and Hamas’ own military wing make it hard for Hamas’ leaders to renounce violence, particularly openly.

Hamas would also risk alienating elements of the group outside Gaza. The organization has a major presence in the West Bank, where it did well in elections in 2005 and 2006, and much of its leadership and fundraising apparatus is based in Syria and other Arab and Western states. These facets of the organization, which are committed to violent resistance and focus on gaining power in all of historic Palestine, not just Gaza, would have to take a back seat while the emphasis is on Gaza.

All these concerns seemed insurmountable in the past. And although they remain serious, today there is hope that Hamas can be convinced to let the peace process move forward. Its biggest vulnerability stems from its biggest victory: its electoral win in 2006 and takeover of Gaza in 2007. Now that Hamas must govern and is responsible for the welfare of the Gazans, it can no longer simply be a resistance group, criticizing and undermining Abbas and other moderate Palestinian leaders, avoiding responsibility for tough decisions, and gleefully watching moderates get blamed when Israel retaliates for its acts of terrorism. Hamas learned this lesson during Operation Cast Lead, when Gazans criticized it for the devastation the idf inflicted on Gaza. The Gazan public is firmly opposed to renewing the rocket attacks. The siege has not weakened Hamas’ power, but it has forced the organization to become more realistic. Gazans are sick of empty slogans of resistance; giving them a better life will require Hamas to make compromises.

Although the siege of Gaza has weakened opposition to Hamas, it has also prevented Hamas from governing well and from proving to Palestinians in the West Bank and Arabs in general that Islamists can run a government. When Gaza came under Palestinian control in 1994, the poverty rate there was 16 percent, barely above that of the United States. In 2009, 70 percent of Gazans were living on less than $1 a day, according to the un. Mundane concerns about making ends meet dominate the local agenda. As an International Crisis Group report quoted one Palestinian aid worker, “People in Gaza are more concerned with Kami [the crossing point to Israel] than al-Quds [Jerusalem], with access to medical care than the Dome of the Rock.”

Iran, tunnel taxes, and Hamas’ fundraising apparatus allow the movement to survive, but they are not enough to make Gaza prosper. Hamas cannot pay for all of Gaza’s employees and projects. In the past, it spent money on sustaining its mosques, hospitals, personnel, and military. Now, however, it is responsible for all of Gaza-a much greater financial challenge. It is also difficult for Hamas to get currency into Gaza; it must smuggle it in from Egypt. Hamas is considering dramatic increases in taxes on cigarettes, gasoline, propane, and other basic commodities, which would dent its popularity. Even Hamas’ tunneling infrastructure is at risk now that Egypt-with U.S. help-has begun to crack down on the tunnels, building a barrier along its border with Gaza that extends over 20 meters underground.

Perhaps most damaging to Hamas was its failure to emerge from the 2008-9 Gaza war with the aura of victory that Hezbollah enjoyed after its 2006 war with Israel. Hamas’ military strategy was poor, as was its implementation. The Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar had warned soon before the war, “Just let them try to invade Gaza. Gaza will be their new Lebanon,” but Hamas found itself completely outmatched by the idf and Israel’s intelligence services. No Hamas terrorist cells attacked Israel from the West Bank or within Israel proper, and Israel did not lose one tank or one helicopter or suffer one kidnapping. Hamas’ rocket attacks tapered off as the conflict ended rather than growing in intensity, as Hezbollah’s had in 2006, which allowed Hezbollah to claim it was unbowed when the guns went silent.

Hamas’ political weakness outside Gaza also became evident during Operation Cast Lead. Hamas received no significant support from Arab states: most worried that the Islamist opposition in their own countries would get a boost from a Hamas victory. Even Hezbollah gave only rhetorical support, for fear of renewed conflict with Israel. In the West Bank, Abbas was successful in stopping pro-Hamas demonstrations, using the rebuilt Palestinian police and security services to suppress dissent.

Politically, Hamas is beset from all sides, and its leaders worry that they are losing ground. Fatah is always waiting in the wings, with Abbas salivating over any weakness on the part of Hamas. At the other end of the spectrum, the pij hopes it can gain support from disaffected Hamas members by claiming the mantle of Islamic resistance if Hamas moves toward a lasting cease-fire. The extreme Islamist position evokes considerable sympathy among Hamas’ rank and file, particularly in the armed wing. In August 2009, Abdel Latif Moussa, a preacher in Gaza whose ideology resembles Osama bin Laden’s, declared Gaza an Islamic emirate-a direct challenge to Hamas’ caution on this score. Hamas fighters swarmed his mosque, resulting in a shootout that left 28 people dead, including Moussa.

For now at least, Hamas can neither govern freely nor fight effectively, and so it risks losing out to moderates on one side and groups more extreme than itself on the other. Improving the economy in Gaza from abysmal to simply poor would be one victory. So would allowing some Gazans to escape the quarantine the international community has imposed. But to accomplish either of those things, Hamas will have to be willing to make the existing cease-fire more permanent. Doing so would remove the immediate risk of another devastating and embarrassing military operation. Talks with Israel and the rest of the international community, particularly Western officials, would also demonstrate that Hamas is the voice of the Palestinian people in Gaza, and greater legitimacy could bring more aid to Gaza from international organizations and Arab states that so far have shied away from Hamas under international pressure. And if Hamas then managed to govern successfully, it could hope to gain more political power down the road.

Deal or No Deal?

In order for Hamas to want the cease-fire to last, Israel and its allies must change the organization’s decision-making calculus-a process that will require both incentives and threats, political and military, and, above all, time.

One way to go about this would be for Israel to make a short-term concession on border crossings, allowing the regular flow of goods into Gaza with international, rather than Israeli, monitors manning the crossing points. Israeli intelligence would still watch what goes in and out to ensure that the international monitors did their job, but symbolically the switch would be important. In exchange, Hamas would commit to a lasting cease-fire and agree to stop all attacks from the territory under its control; in other words, it would no longer allow the pij to fight in its stead. Hamas would also close the tunnels and end its smuggling. To make the deal more politically palatable for both sides and remove another bone of contention between them, it should include a prisoner exchange that swaps Shalit for Palestinian prisoners. The deal would not require Hamas to officially recognize Israel or Israel to recognize Hamas (which Hamas does not want anyway).

Egypt would have to broker such an arrangement. Like Israel and the pa, Cairo does not want Hamas to succeed: Hamas emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Egypt’s main opposition force, and its success could have an impact in Egypt itself. At the same time, Cairo wants to separate itself from Gaza; it does not want crises there to further damage its credibility by making it look like an ally of Israel in oppressing Muslims.

Such a deal would allow Hamas to claim credit for improving the lives of Gazans, and it could use the resulting increase in the flow of goods to reward its supporters. Also, Hamas’ dealings with additional outside actors could widen the circle of those who tacidy recognize Hamas. For Israel, the regular rocket attacks would come to a complete halt and the threat of renewed attacks would diminish, allowing Israelis living near Gaza to resume their normal lives. Hamas’ rockets could rust. A cease-fire would also free up Israel diplomatically. If the problem of Hamas receded, Israel could take more risks in the West Bank and give Palestinians more control over security with less fear that this would lead to a Hamas takeover. Meanwhile, Abbas could negotiate with less fear that Hamas might undermine him. Internationally, a cease-fire would reduce, although hardly eliminate, some of the anger at Israel or at least take Gaza off the front pages.

The hope for Israel is that a long-term cease-fire would, over time, produce its own momentum. Peace would push Hamas to emphasize governance more, strengthen the group’s moderates, and discourage its leaders from attacking Israel. Hamas’ military capabilities might grow, but it would be reluctant to risk any economic improvements in Gaza in another round of fighting. Hamas could crack down on or neutralize groups such as the pij and the Salafi jihadists without risking its popular support. Hamas’ ties to Iran would diminish-an important fact for Israel if tension between Tehran and Jerusalem grew over Iran’s nuclear program-and indeed Tehran would be bitter that its stalking-horse had turned away from violence. Finally, a cease-fire that allowed goods to flow into Gaza would make it harder for Hamas to blame all of its constituents’ problems on Israel.

Hedging Against Failure

Formalizing the cease-fire with Hamas would raise the question of whether Israel and moderate Palestinians were simply postponing an inevitable fight and allowing the enemy to get stronger in the meantime. There is some validity to this concern. Certainly, the growth of Gaza’s economy and the increased flow of goods, such as concrete, that can have both civilian and military uses would help Hamas’ military. And Hamas has been taking advantage of the current lull in fighting to better arm and train its forces.

With border crossings open, however, Egypt and international monitors could more easily justify completely halting traffic through the tunnels than they can today, since the goods that would be smuggled would exclusively be contraband. Now, stopping the tunnel traffic is too politically sensitive: with both weapons and consumer goods being smuggled in, it would mean exposing Gazans to the risk of starvation. Privately, even Israelis and Egyptians recognize that some smuggling should be allowed. But if legal trade becomes possible, there will be no more excuse for smuggling. Whatever military advantages Hamas would gain from the freer flow of trade, moreover, would be small: Hamas smuggles so much through the tunnels today that the relative increase in imports that could have military uses would be less than most Israelis fear. In any event, Hamas would still be a pygmy to the Israeli giant.

Another risk of striking a deal with Hamas is that Palestinian moderates would rightly complain that Israel was rewarding violence: once again, their biggest rival would be benefiting from concessions from Israel without having to accept the political price of peace. And if Gaza’s economy improved, the contrast between living conditions there and living conditions in the West Bank would become less stark, which would hurt Abbas politically. Thus, in order to offset any political gains Hamas might make, the international community should encourage Fayyad’s efforts to provide law and order, reduce corruption, and otherwise start building a state in the West Bank. This would help make the pa a true rival to Hamas when it came to governance.

Fatah would also benefit politically because Hamas could no longer argue against rejecting violence and talking to Israel; however indirectly, it would be doing these things itself. At the same time, Abbas and Fayyad need the political legitimacy that would come with any success in peace negotiations with Israel. If the settlements grow and the talks stagnate, Hamas’ argument that what works is resistance, not negotiations, will only gain force. A deal would also place a heavy burden on the pa to outgovern its rival, which is not necessarily a bad thing. An ideal way to move forward would be by reconciling Hamas and Fatah. For Israel, reconciliation would mean that Abbas could cut a deal for all Palestinians and not have it rejected by Hamas. For now, however, that remains unlikely, and neither peace talks with Abbas nor a cease-fire in Gaza should wait for this.

The long-term success of a cease-fire is far from guaranteed. It will depend on the personalities, preferences, and political positions of Hamas’ leaders and on the vicissitudes of Israeli politics. The silver lining, however, is that even failure could have its benefits. Right now, Hamas gains from the perception that Israel and the international community seek to crush the Palestinians. Opening the crossings into Gaza would dispel this impression and place Hamas in a difficult spot politically: it would have to give up either on resistance or on governance.

If the rocket attacks from Gaza resumed or if credible evidence emerged that Hamas was dramatically increasing its military capabilities, Israel would have a strong case for resuming the siege or using force. The international community, therefore, must support not only the idea of formalizing the cease-fire but also Israel’s right to retaliate militarily in Gaza if, despite Israel’s concessions, Hamas resorted to violence. Such backing would both make success in convincing Hamas to adhere to the cease-fire more likely and give Israel a Plan B should the cease-fire collapse. Failure might also foster splits within Hamas. Currently, the group’s leaders disagree over how much to emphasize resistance over governance. Making the choice starker may not force Hamas to abandon resistance, but it could steer relative moderates away from the group.

Hamas is here to stay. Refusing to deal with it will only make the situation worse: Palestinian moderates will become weaker, and Hamas will grow stronger. If the Obama administration is to move its plans for peace forward, the challenge of Hamas has to be met first. At stake is not just the failure of the peace process but also the possibility of another war and of Israel occupying Gaza again.

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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