December 30, 2008


Has Israel Revived Hamas? (Daoud Kuttab, December 30, 2008, Washington Post)

For two years, the Islamic Resistance Movement (known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas) has been losing support internally and externally. This wasn't the case in the days after the party came to power democratically in early 2006; despite being unjustly ostracized by the international community for its anti-Israeli stance, Hamas enjoyed the backing of Palestinians and other Arabs. Having won a decisive parliamentary majority on an anti-corruption platform promising change and reform, Hamas worked hard to govern better than had Fatah, its rival and predecessor. [...]

The lack of international support since the 2006 elections, followed by this rebuff to Gaza's only Arab neighbor, Egypt, compounded the deterioration of Hamas's internal support. By November, the survey showed, only 16.6 percent of Palestinians supported Hamas, compared with nearly 40 percent favoring Fatah. The decline in support for Hamas has been steady: A year earlier, the same pollster showed that Hamas's support was at 19.7 percent; in August 2007, it was at 21.6 percent; in March 2007, it was at 25.2 percent; and in September 2006, backing for the Islamists stood at 29.7 percent.

That's why, as the six-month cease-fire with Israel came to an end, Hamas calculated -- it seems correctly -- that it had nothing to gain by continuing the truce; if it had, its credentials as a resistance movement would have been no different from those of Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah. Unable to secure an open border and an end to the Israeli siege, while refusing to share or give up power to Abbas, Hamas could have had no route to renewed public favor.

For different reasons, Hamas and Israel both gave up on the cease-fire, preferring instead to climb over corpses to reach their political goals. One side wants to resuscitate its public support by appearing to be a heroic resister, while the other, on the eve of elections, wants to show toughness to a public unhappy with the nuisance of the Qassam rockets.

Palestine Divided (Middle East Briefing N°25, 17 December 2008 , International Crisis Group)
The irony is that the division between the West Bank and Gaza is hardening just as a growing number of international actors acknowledge that without Palestinian unity a genuine peace process, let alone a genuine peace, is unattainable. Changing the dynamics that have convinced both Fatah and Hamas that time is on their side and compromise against their interests will be daunting. At a minimum, it will require both a change in the regional landscape (through U.S. engagement with Syria and Iran) and a clear signal from the U.S. and European Union (EU) that, this time around, they would judge a Palestinian unity arrangement on its conduct rather than automatically torpedo it. Ultimately, the responsibility to put their affairs in order must fall on Palestinian shoulders. But the division of the national movement, which came about at least in part because of what outsiders did, will not be undone without outsiders’ help.

At bottom, the two movements seek fundamentally different outcomes from the process. For Fatah, it is potentially a means of reversing Hamas’s Gaza takeover; at a minimum a method to legitimise extension of Mahmoud Abbas’s presidency; and, in the event of failure, a way to assign blame to the Islamist movement. Hamas, by contrast, is looking to gain recognition and legitimacy, pry open the PLO and lessen pressure against the movement in the West Bank. Loath to concede control of Gaza, it is resolutely opposed to doing so without a guaranteed strategic quid pro quo.

The gap between the two movements has increased over time. What was possible two years or even one year ago has become far more difficult today. In January 2006 President Abbas evinced some flexibility. That quality is now in significantly shorter supply. Fatah’s humiliating defeat in Gaza and Hamas’s bloody tactics have hardened the president’s and Fatah’s stance; moreover, despite slower than hoped for progress in the West Bank and inconclusive political negotiations with Israel, the president and his colleagues believe their situation is improving. They are convinced that they are gaining politically in the West Bank; the newly trained and better equipped security forces are establishing order and waging a wholesale crackdown on Hamas; Israel has loosened some restrictions; and there are signs of economic growth. Abbas enjoys strong regional and international backing, and he hopes U.S. engagement will intensify with the incoming administration.

The cost-benefit analysis is clear: reconciliation could mean the end of Fatah’s administrative and security monopoly in the West Bank and de facto hegemony over the PLO, while partnership with Hamas might jeopardise negotiations with Israel, international backing and financial support to the PA. In exchange for all this, the movement would gain little more than shared control over Gaza, where Ramallah’s influence had shrunk even before the takeover.

For now, Hamas, too, sees time as its ally and reconciliation as a trap. Islamist leaders who, during the 2006 parliamentary elections, had wagered on the political process and sought integration into the Palestinian Authority (PA) are losing influence. Then, the movement’s goals were the ability to govern and a measure of international recognition. With Gaza firmly in hand, Hamas’s price for inclusion in the political system has risen. The Gaza model – withstanding the siege, maintaining core ideological principles and achieving a ceasefire with Israel – may not be all that Hamas desires, but it is as successful as it need be. Gazans are suffering from an acute economic and social crisis, but the Islamic movement is internally secure, new elites more dependent on the movement are emerging, and basic government functions appear sustainable.

From the outset sceptical about Abbas’s negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Hamas leaders are persuaded chances for a diplomatic breakthrough will be dealt an even greater setback if, as expected, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu forms the next Israeli government. In the West Bank, they are persuaded that cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces is viewed by a growing number of Palestinians as tantamount to collaboration with the occupier. Finally, as they see it, Abbas’s domestic legitimacy will be crucially undermined when his presidential term expires on 9 January 2009. To a growing portion of Hamas’s political leadership, together with the movement’s increasingly influential military wing, reconciliation looks like a ploy designed to deprive them of control over Gaza without commensurate gain.

The Israeli/US strategy of sanctioning Palestinians for electing Hamas and trying to keep Gaza and the West Bank divided has been a success, provided that those were the ends as well as the means. Likewise, if all Hamas wanted to achieve was a divided Palestine and the enmity of the world in order to demonstrate its "resistance" bona fides then it would have to be considered successful. Indeed, given the way all of the parties have behaved over the past three years--Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections--the current war ought not be seen as a failure of Israeli/Palestinian policy but as its quintessence. Of course, once you recognize that all sides are pursuing the infamous "cycle of violence" as the end of their policy the lunacy of all concerned becomes obvious.

However much visceral pleasure there is to be derived in exchanging reprisals and denying each other peaceful mutually-recognized statehood, it is apparent that this sado-masochistic waltz does more harm to the Israelis and Palestinians than it can possibly be worth. So only three other options remain:

(1) Palestinians could demand and Israelis could accede to a single state solution. The current demographics--much disputed--appear to indicate that this would produce an electorate that's roughly 60% Jewish and 40% Arab, trending towards 50-50, where it might settle as Palestinian fertility rates decline. But it does not seem likely that any Palestinian party would be willing to accept Jewish governance nor any Jewish party accept the risk of eventual Arab domination.

(2) One side or the other could either exterminate entirely or conquer and impose apartheid on the other. The Palestinians are too weak to achieve this and the Jews lack the Will. So while this is a pleasant enough daydream for some, it just isn't a political reality.

(3) Or, we could all cut to the chase and move rapidly towards where this is all destined to end up--where we would, in fact, be but for Ariel Sharon's incapacity. US, Israeli and world pressure could be brought to bear on Fatah to accept the verdict of the Palestinian electorate even when it returns Islamist parties to office. Upon the completion of such an election the US and Israel--and whatever allies--could recognize the unified state of Palestine as an independent nation. The resultant state need not be a pal nor a recipient of aid money, but ought, at a minimum, not be subject to economic interference. This will not magically turn Palestine into a peace-loving, capitalist democracy, but it is absurd to expect Palestine to behave like a responsible state until it is at least a coherent nation.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 30, 2008 9:09 AM
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