With the conclusion of the most recent war between Israel and Hamas, the status quo is reemerging yet again to denote the calm on the contentious border. As many had predicted, the conflict did not, and as of yet has not, moved the peace process forward. Rather, both sides are settling in after the Egypt-brokered ceasefire and seem to be awaiting the next outburst of hostilities as they have countless times before. There is only one difference: this round of fighting has restructured the terms of engagement between Hamas and Israel, and the nature of the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic as a whole. No longer is Hamas an absolutely illegitimate actor on the international stage or in the Palestinian social sphere. Rather, it is quickly rising as a champion of the Palestinian cause and a natural ally of the many new Islamist forces in the region. Meanwhile, Fatah is swiftly losing influence as the most legitimate and competent Palestinian voice. Corruption within the Palestinian Authority and popular frustration with its inability to pursue Palestinian demands in a meaningful way have eroded its political capital and undoubtedly forced it back on its heels. Given these new dynamics and the greater changes taking place in the regional Middle East, Israel should reconsider its approach to Hamas, and reformulate its policy from one of isolation to greater engagement.
As the dust settles it is difficult to declare a victor from the most recent bout of fighting. Surely, Israel was able to reestablish a strong deterrent and showcase its new Iron Dome missile defense system—a performance noted by Hezbollah and Iran. Furthermore, Israel reaffirmed its relationship with the United States, and the government demonstrated its continued freedom of action in the changing landscape of the Middle East, or its capacity to act in its own national interest despite unfavorable regional circumstances. The Israelis too preserved their peace treaty with Egypt, and can be confident that Morsi isn’t as much of an ideologically designated Islamist threat as some assumed he was, but rather a pragmatic leader who values cordial relations with Israel for the interest of his country.
This being said, Hamas has emerged from the fray feeling more “at home” in the region. Ten Arab ministers visited the territory and offered their solidarity during the conflict, and Hamas showed that it has had no problem finding new friends, especially since it has worked to distance itself from its previous patrons—Syria and Iran. Missiles for the first time reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem—albeit unsuccessfully—and the ceasefire called for more talks between Hamas and Israel regarding an easing of the blockade on goods into Gaza. This shows a greater willingness on the Israeli side to recognize Hamas’s demands, and the greater leverage Hamas now holds to bring the Israelis to the table to advance its interests. Furthermore, on the domestic scene, Hamas has successfully vaulted itself onto the center stage of the Palestinian cause. With soaring poll numbers in the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas’s “resistance” has won favor with the Palestinian population. The more moderate and softer Palestinian Authority is now scrambling for a means to greater popularity, and even Mahmoud Abbas’s move to establish Palestinian non-member observer status at the United Nations in November largely flew under the radar as insignificant.
But most significantly, Hamas has further enhanced its staying power in the region. In this sense, the status quo favors Hamas. For every year Hamas remains in control of Gaza, the more powerful it grows, and for every conflict it survives in fighting Israel, the more popular and legitimate it becomes in the Palestinian political arena and on the international stage. And while I acknowledge the limitations of historical analogy, especially in this case, I also recognize that Hamas’s growing regional legitimacy runs in hand with its survival and continued presence—not entirely dissimilar from Israel’s early trajectory in the first decades of its statehood. Despite standing as the target of existentially threatening rhetoric and military campaigns at the hands of its Arab neighbors, Israel persevered in those early years, and has since cemented itself as a legitimate state actor in the Middle East, no matter how much its Arab neighbors might refuse to acknowledge it. This is not to say that the inception of Hamas can be viewed on equal terms to those of Israel, but rather to say that as time once stood on Israel’s side, so it now stands on Hamas’s.
Moreover, it is becoming clear that Israel can’t destroy Hamas militarily without any protracted or politically debilitating conflict. The difficulties Israel has faced in fighting like this can already be seen in the war in Lebanon against Hezbollah in 2006, in Operation Cast Lead in 2008, and have once again became clear in the latest round of fighting. Israel must navigate through an urban landscape if it wants to target Hamas directly, and risk civilian lives and greater destruction. And given the militant nature of the organization, Hamas is very much embedded within the population. Surely the balance of military capabilities asymmetrically favors Israel, but guns alone can’t destroy Hamas without leveling Gaza itself. Additionally, an extended war, invasion, and occupation of Gaza to root out Hamas would spell political doom for Israel. For one, there is no saying the Israeli population would favor such a move. And on the international stage, Israel certainly doesn’t presently possess much political capital, as there has been a “slackening” of support from regional and international players, especially if the recent United Nations vote for Palestinian non-member observer status and the outcry about Netanyahu’s countermove for more settlements are any indication. Surely Israel can’t be a slave to international opinion, but to completely ignore it would also be unwise. Furthermore, Israel must now think twice before launching any outstanding action, like an invasion given the changing strategic circumstances of the Middle East where, according to Robert Satloff, more Arab-Israeli interstate conflict might emerge. (I have also elaborated on the significance of these circumstances here.) Currently, then, trying to wipe out Hamas doesn’t seem like a viable option.
What’s more is that armed conflict with Hamas empowers Hamas. Hamas is now seen as a lightening rod for the Palestinian cause as Palestinians try to grapple with the disappointment of a frozen peace process. In juxtaposition to the perceived failure of the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank since the Oslo Accords to advance Palestinian aspirations—which stipulates a greater degree of cooperation and peaceful deliberation—Hamas offers the Palestinians a sense of action and hope for which they yearn. Regardless of ideological disparity, Hamas is perceived as doing something. As the International Crises Group so poignantly observes in its recent analysis of the conflict, “the Gaza fighting has brought to the West Bank a quasi-revolutionary spirit that has been absent since the second Intifada.” Certainly this is disconcerting for both Israel and Mahmoud Abbas, but it more significantly speaks volumes about the new role Hamas has assumed and the new influence it wields across the Palestinian population as it emerges from yet another bout with Israel. “Resistance” and “confrontation” are not just violent means, but also means for inspiration and further action in a time of inaction where no other options are presented. As Hamas continues to fight with Israel, and survives, it will not only reinforce its own presence in the Gaza, but also expand its reach to mobilize the Palestinian peoples against Israel. And then what?
Not only is armed conflict with Hamas counterproductive, but the Israeli and international policy of isolating it as a terrorist organization and blockading Gaza hasn’t worked either. Not only does it stifle the Gazan middle class—the empowerment of which would be essential for any reform movement in Gaza—and by extension empower the other extremists and Islamic radicals, but it also allows Hamas free-reign within its borders, and has enabled it to launch a power-grabbing campaign within Gaza since its rise in 2006. Yezid Sayigh wrote in 2010 in his analysis of the development of Hamas’s governance in Gaza that “whatever other policy options there may be for dealing with Hamas, the siege of Gaza has run its course: If anything, it helps Hamas consolidate itself as a ruling party and exercise increasingly effective government.” Furthermore, this “siege” has forced Hamas to establish a social services network within Gaza, which has further weaved it into the Palestinian fabric and entrenched it in the Gaza. Nathan Brown writes in another policy piece, “Hamas is so deeply entrenched in Gaza that it is difficult to imagine any fundamental change anytime soon.” In addition, the economic blockade has motivated the construction of a massive illicit tunnel network into Gaza, which has become a lifeline for Gaza—a lifeline which Hamas eagerly taxes and regulates as a lucrative source of revenue. Understandably, Israel is very concerned with the smuggling of goods and weapons through these tunnels, and it is within Egypt’s power to shut down these tunnels, but Israel’s policy of isolating Gaza has undeniably aided in the development of its extensive practice. Lastly, just as armed conflict with Israel reinforces Hamas’s cause in the Palestinian world, so does the continued economic and diplomatic isolation reinforce Hamas’s rhetoric of resistance against Israel, especially at a grassroots levels, as Gazans suffer from terrible poverty and are made to believe that Israel is the perpetrator of their grievances.
The current Israeli policy of isolation and perpetual conflict with Hamas thus seems strategically ineffective and shortsighted. To be fair, it is obvious that Israel does not want to perpetually fight with Hamas, and it is justified in defending its peoples when necessary. But now is the time for Israel to break the cycle, and prevent a return to a status quo that empowers Hamas. A dynamic Israeli policy wouldn’t sustain these conditions. Rather, it would challenge Hamas in a new fashion that doesn’t allow it to fall back upon its traditional strategy of resistance while allowing it to reap the benefits of the changes around it. Israel needs to repossess the initiative by adapting to the reality of the present circumstances, and force Hamas in turn to adapt to new terms of engagement defined by Israel.
But first, those who see Hamas’s Charter of 1988, which stipulates the destruction of Israel, as fundamentally precluding any degree of engagement with the organization, need to step beyond their ideological dogma and acknowledge the complexities of politics. More than anything, the call for Israel’s destruction and the refusal to acknowledge its existence needs to be seen more as a tool for pandering within the Palestinian domestic arena, as it relates to mainstream Palestinians as well as radical ones. One cannot see Hamas now as an isolated anomaly, but as a reflection of a Palestinian perception. In its early years Hamas was able to exploit its violent ideology to establish a presence for itself on the Palestinian scene. Since holding elected office, it has been forced to tone down its more radical views and moderate itself, as it must now appeal to a broader swath of opinion—one that is not so violent and threatening. Most Palestinians don’t want to destroy Israel. Violence, rather, is a way to stand up to Israel. Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader, has in fact expressed his desire for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and a long-term truce with Israel. He sees the PLO’s recognition of Israel in 1993 as a premature failure, as it has not delivered the Palestinians a state. In this way, refusing to recognize Israel cannot be seen as fundamentally ideological, but also as a matter of political posturing. Hamas still touts resistance against Israel because it can’t give away its most valuable card. Tareq Baconi argues in Foreign Affairs that “Hamas is a grassroots organization that derives its legitimacy directly from the people it seeks to represent. Given that Hamas was elected on a platform of safeguarding the right to resist Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and protecting Palestinian interests, any deviation from these goals will discredit it.” Baconi continues to argue that the problem for Hamas and the Palestinians at this point is not that Israel exists, but rather that a “Palestine” does not exist. Even Meshaal’s deputy, Mousa Abu Marzook is quoted as saying that the clause in Hamas’s charter calling for Israel’s destruction is a “false issue.” Meshaal might continue to call for the destruction of Israel in his speeches, but these calls cannot be taken entirely at face value. Bernadetta Berti concludes that the violently anti-Israel rhetoric in Meshaal’s recent speech just weeks ago in Gaza was deliberately employed to unify the internal dynamics of the organization behind Meshaal, and was thus more significant for Hamas’s organizational politics than for anything else. Nevertheless, Hamas will continue to harp these tunes until it sees progress for the Palestinians.
Furthermore, it is important to embrace practical realities and pragmatic policies rather than attempt to bridge ideological gaps. Surely ideology is important, but ideology is almost always sacrificed to some degree in the political process. Hamas cannot immediately be designated an exclusively ideological organization, but must rather be realistically recognized as a political actor with achievable goals, especially given its undeniable ascendance as a political authority. Ideology might color its goals, but it cannot be passed off as the endgame. As almost all political actors must do, Hamas must play within the rules of the game and moderate itself if it wants to survive as an influential Palestinian voice and a legitimate actor on the regional and international stage. It is forgotten that the Palestinian Liberation Organization had a clause in its 1964 charter calling for the destruction of Israel. Yet not only did the PLO officially recognize Israel in 1993, but it also reportedly struck that clause from its charter, although admittedly the nature of the vote and amendment is still shrouded in mystery. Needless to say, the significance of recognition and the effort to amend the charter cannot be denied. Violent resistance organizations can change over time.
Rolling back the policy of isolation, and adopting a policy of engagement with Hamas would then present Hamas with a challenging set of new circumstances—ones which would force it to act in a way that reveals its true intentions. By engaging Hamas peacefully, and thereby taking away its modus operandi and the one thing that buoys Hamas’s continued campaign of resistance and popularity—armed conflict, and violence— Israel can redefine the means by which Hamas is currently able to define “progress.” Hamas will be forced with a vital decision: to defy Israeli entreaties and continue with armed resistance, or to accept the olive branch. Surely the Palestinian public does not inherently want violence, but progress. If Hamas spurns Israel and chooses resistance over a route of peace which can lead to lasting progress, then it will conceivably be tagged as an ineffective vessel for Palestinian aspirations, and lose support, at which point Israel would not feel beholden to Hamas in any way. But if Hamas reciprocates, and engages in rapprochement with Israel, then a whole new era of the peace process may begin.
Rather then let Hamas build upon the benefits of the status quo, the failures of Israeli policy to dismantle it, and the changing power balances around it, Israel must force Hamas to moderate, and challenge Hamas’s status as a resistance group and all the new power it wields as a result. At the very least it will throw Hamas into an uncomfortable position. And at the very most it will open up an opportunity for Hamas to pursue a lasting diplomatic resolution. Engagement might include easing the blockade, encouraging reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, and establishing diplomatic channels with Hamas. Israeli intentions must be serious. And most importantly, Israel must refrain from playing into the “resistance” narrative by resorting to violence against Gaza. It cannot be forgotten that other radical Islamic groups work in Gaza as well, and they would surely provoke more violence. Israel must try to take the long and hard “high road,” and remember the value of avoiding capitulation on these terms. This kind of endurance can ruin an intransigent Hamas if it stands as an obstacle to peace, or fruitfully include it into the very peace process itself.The Palestinian public must be made to believe that violence from these fringe groups is not the way forward. They must be able to see action through diplomacy. This strategy wouldn’t be easy or popular, but it could potentially fundamentally reshape the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and open up new avenues for peace. Furthermore, regional figures like Mohammad Morsi in Egypt could very well accept these new developments with open arms, and encourage their evolution. In this way Israel can work with Egypt to nudge Hamas forward.
To clarify, this is not to say that I am not wary of Hamas’s cause, or cognizant of the lofty expectations and potential weaknesses of this proposal (for instance, the further marginalization of the Palestinian Authority). I too am suspicious of Hamas, and regard it cautiously. I consider that Hamas might very well exploit an opening presented its way, and in fact pursue the destruction of Israel. But I also realistically acknowledge that failed policies necessitate different approaches, and new circumstances require an adaptation of action. As Nathan Brown quipped about the Hamas and Israel, “if the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over while expecting different results, the current fighting certainly qualifies as madness.” Changing the course is indeed risky, but an Israeli change from isolation to engagement with Hamas would be a bold move, and could have seismic effects. Likewise, Israel would be in uncomfortably unknown territory if the Palestinians were to launch a massive coordinated movement of nonviolent resistance, à la Ghandi. This, however, is unlikely. Hence, what has been has not worked, and will continue to falter as we move forward. The peace process needs a reset. Hamas is here to stay, and so its time for Israel to include it as a piece of the puzzle, or at least try to. Hamas can evolve over time just as the PLO has, but only if it finds itself in agreeable conditions; and Israel has an opportunity to push the process towards these conditions. It must not only engage Hamas in times of war, but also in times of peace. So as we move into 2013, Israel cannot continue to ignore the reality of Hamas’s significance. It must intercede, and at least present Hamas with the opportunity to redefine “action” from violence to diplomacy. And above all else, Israel must do what it can to avoid sustaining the status quo well into the future: of more rockets, more missiles, and more war.