Focus on Hamas


Three pieces out today look at the relative merits of various strategies for dealing with Hamas, with most views seeming to conclude that the current strategy is failing dismally.

The Christian Science Monitor has an article by Gareth Evans, president of the International Crisis Group, entitled Punishing Hamas Has Backfired. The article follows the release last week of an ICG report entitled Ruling Palestine I: Gaza Under Hamas.

The policy of isolating Hamas and applying sanctions to Gaza has been a predictable failure. Violence to both Gazans and Israelis is rising. Economic conditions are ruinous, generating anger and despair. The credibility of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other pragmatic forces has been grievously damaged. The peace process is in tatters. Meanwhile, Hamas’s hold on the Gaza Strip, purportedly the principal target of the policy, has been strengthened.


The logic behind the policy was that by putting pressure on Hamas, they could prevent rocket launches into Israel. This would demonstrate to the Palestinian people that Hamas could not deliver and ought not be trusted. The hope was that the West Bank, buoyed by economic growth, a loosening of Israeli security measures, not to mention a revived peace process, would serve as an attractive countermodel. But the theory has not delivered on any of these counts.


By boycotting the security, judicial, and other government sectors, the Palestinian Authority turned an intended punitive measure into an unintentional gift, creating a vacuum that Hamas has filled. The absence of any international involvement has meant the absence of leverage. The closure of the crossings has caused the private sector to collapse, eroding ordinary citizens’ traditional coping mechanisms, increasing their dependence on those who govern, and weakening a constituency traditionally loyal to the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, the Economist has an article entitled Hamas’s Battle for Hearts and Minds, which echoes some of the points made by Evans.

After Hamas’s bloody takeover of the Gaza Strip last June left Mr Abbas in control of only the West Bank, the West and Israel talked about making the West Bank a shining example of what Gazans could aspire to—if they got rid of Hamas. But that scheme is failing. In the West Bank, Israel has done nothing to ease the maze of checkpoints and roadblocks that cripple the economy, and its talks with Mr Abbas on a Palestinian state are yielding no visible progress. A blockade it imposed on Gaza backfired in January when militants broke through Gaza’s southern wall bordering Egypt, briefly letting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians replenish their stores. The constant exchange of Palestinian rockets and Israeli air raids escalated a month ago into a battle that killed two Israeli troops and well over 100 Gazans, many of them children.

Finally, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has a forum report entitled The Hamas Dilemma: A Debate on Alternative Strategies, in which Robert Satloff and Robert Malley outline their perspectives on the situation. While Satloff defends the current strategy, arguing it should be given more time, and counsels against engagement with Hamas, Malley’s argument is closer to that expressed by Evans and the Economist. A full audio recording of the debate is also available.


An important contrast can be made between the internal PLO debate two decades ago and the debate inside Hamas today. The former debate (which may still not be fully settled) was between advocates of a phased plan to destroy Israel and advocates of a two-state solution. The Hamas debate, however, has no advocates of peace with Israel. Rather, it is between those who call for a tahdiya (brief lull in fighting) and those who favor a hudna (a longer-term armistice) — neither of which approximates peace with, or even recognition of, Israel. Therefore, it is difficult to fathom why Hamas should be required to meet less onerous conditions for engagement than the PLO faced twenty years ago. The bottom line is that those who advocate engagement must believe that Hamas is willing to be complicit in its own demise. This is folly.

The right course for policymakers begins with recognizing that peacemaking will take time. When progress does not appear swift and sure, it is only counterproductive to entertain new strategies. Instead, the United States should maintain confidence in the strategy it adopted after Hamas’s Gaza putsch: investing in the West Bank’s success and isolating the Hamas regime.


Any discussion of policy toward Hamas must begin with an admission that the current policy is a failure. Isolation has not compelled Hamas to accept the Quartet’s conditions, has not turned the people of Gaza against the group, has not strengthened Fatah, has not reduced anti-Israeli violence, and has not contributed to any visible progress in peace diplomacy. It has, however, further embittered the Palestinian people, in both Gaza and the West Bank. Israel cannot make peace with half of the Palestinian people and be at war with the other half. The theory that peace can be achieved more easily by dividing Hamas and Fatah has been proven wrong in practice. It is also clear that Hamas has a stronger grip on Gaza than ever before, and that it has the power to thwart any forward movement in diplomacy. Regardless of the fact that Hamas does not appear to have softened its strategic objectives vis-a-vis Israel, this practical reality cannot be wished away.


A wiser approach would be to give Abbas a central role in reaching any new arrangement with Hamas. But this requires Hamas’s assent, which would come at a price. Specifically, the United States would need to drop its objection to a power-sharing agreement between Fatah and Hamas as the basis for a new accord. This accord, achieved through Egyptian mediation, would open transit between Gaza and Egypt, give Abbas supporters a certain role in border control, and give Hamas an appropriate role in Palestinian national institutions.


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