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A closer look at Hamas

mero_head_textHamas Back Out of Its Box

Nicolas Pelham, 2 September 2010

Nicolas Pelham is The Economist’s Palestinian affairs correspondent and a former senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. He is based in Jerusalem.

For more on the national-religious camp, see Nicolas Pelham, “Israel’s Religious Right and the Peace Process,” Middle East Report Online, October 12, 2009.

For background on US involvement, see Mouin Rabbani and Chris Toensing, “The Continuity in Obama’s Change,” Middle East Report Online, January 27, 2009.

Every year or so the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas confounds the Western policymakers who have worked to deny it power since its electoral triumph in January 2006. If the goal of Western policy is to keep the Islamists out of sight, out of mind, then Hamas is like a jack-in-the-box, periodically jumping out of its confines to general surprise and consternation.

In June 2006, after Israel had led the international community in withholding the Islamist government’s revenues and killed its new police chief, Hamas dug a tunnel from Gaza into Israel and captured a soldier, Cpl. Gilad Shalit; in June 2007 it responded to Western efforts to bolster rival forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by overrunning their security bases in Gaza; in January 2008 it broke out of its quarantine by knocking down a seven-mile long wall Israel had built to separate Gaza from Egypt; in December 2008 it launched a rocket campaign designed to pressure Israel into lifting its punishing blockade of the coastal strip and precipitated the Gaza war. Each time, whether through military pummeling or political cajoling, the West and its regional allies have strained to wrestle Hamas back into its box.

On August 31, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to Washington for a White House dinner with Abbas, an event billed by the Obama administration as the launch of a renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Hamas gunmen shot dead four Jewish settlers near the isolated settlement of Beit Haggai in the West Bank’s southern Hebron hills. A second attack the following night near a settlement northeast of Ramallah underscored the point: Once again, the Islamist faction has forcibly reminded the international community that it can intrude upon the diplomatic sphere from which it is formally proscribed.

Business as Usual

The back-in-the box pattern held following Israel’s interdiction of the international aid flotilla sent to break the siege on Gaza in late May. After a seemingly botched and bloody commando raid, which killed nine passengers, Israel routed the flotilla to the port of Ashdod, redoubled its naval blockade and reestablished itself as Gaza’s gatekeeper.

To appease embarrassed allies and soothe inflamed global opinion, there have been some modifications to the strict embargo that Israel and Egypt have enforced on Gaza since 2006. Israel has publicly accepted the principle that it will allow all goods not on a black list into Gaza, rather than banning all items but those on a white list. The influx of goods has risen threefold since the flotilla raid, though it remains far short of the 500 trucks that entered each day prior to the closure. But Netanyahu has avoided succumbing to formal agreements of the type that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, hammered out with ex-Israeli premier Ariel Sharon on movement in and out of Gaza, declined European Union offers to post international monitors at the crossings, and preserved Israel’s prerogative to set its own terms. Israel’s black list or gray list of “dual-use” goods, already said to be 3,000 items long, continues to restrict the entry of raw materials vital for Gaza’s post-war reconstruction, except under the tutelage of international organizations, on the grounds that Hamas might appropriate the concrete to build bunkers.

On the evidence, many of these measures are designed more to tweak Hamas’ nose than to meet Gaza’s needs. The day after declaring the siege lifted, Israel lowered its drawbridge to allow in 1,100 gallons of oil, a commodity that already arrives in much ampler and cheaper quantities via Egypt and from which Hamas derives tax. It has lifted its ban, too, on gravel, threatening Gaza’s local production that Hamas also oversees. Insecticides, too, are now permitted, just as the Agriculture Ministry is encouraging farmers to grow organic. And while Gaza now has a glut of consumer goods, due to the multiple conduits of trade by tunnel and terminal, the prison walls enclosing Gaza stand tall. Exports are banned, stymieing a revival of Gaza’s manufacturing base, the naval blockade is as tight as ever and the population remains cut off from the rest of Palestine, and the access Israel undertook to provide in its 2005 agreement.

Hamas’s political isolation, which the flotilla sought to puncture, also continues to hold. With Netanyahu and Abbas in Washington, the West continues to spurn consultations with the Islamist movement — not least on peace talks with Israel, despite an undertaking from Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal to halt armed resistance in the event of a two-state settlement. Israel has barred access by sea. In the wake of Israel’s interception of the flotilla, Gaza had to make do the Arab League’s Egyptian secretary-general, Amr Moussa, whose visit on June 13 only emphasized Hamas’ ostracization. To the Islamists’ chagrin, he came with a large entourage of bodyguards and asked Hamas security personnel to stay away. He met Isma‘il Haniyya not in his office as the elected prime minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA) but in his home as a representative of one of Gaza’s many political factions. And though Egypt’s opening of the Rafah crossing into Gaza has assuaged anger among both Palestinians and Egyptians, the transit point remains closed to Hamas leaders. Egypt, too, has quietly shelved the EU’s offer to send its observers back to Rafah. Unimpeded by international monitors, doors that open can close. The sea change many expected in the wake of the flotilla episode therefore never happened.

Gaza First

But a strategy predicated on the belief that a few more humanitarian truckloads will make the problem of Gaza go away is as deeply flawed as the notion that Ramallah’s surfeit of new high-street cafés will be a sufficient sedative for the aspirants to a Palestinian state. Gaza is a political, not a humanitarian, problem.

Tellingly, the costs of putting the Islamist movement back in the box are spiraling. In 2006, when Hamas challenged the order of things, the Israeli military killed a few score Gazans; in 2010 to date, it has killed over a thousand. Israel successfully safeguarded its naval blockade, but only by easing the Egyptian and Israeli blockade on Hamas’ rule, and after leaking international political capital for the violence of its interception of the flotilla. With remarkable resiliency, Hamas has survived the straitjacket fastened to it by Israel, Western powers and their Arab allies, and growing in longevity and clout to emerge as a regional fixture.

It dug its way out of the siege with a labyrinth of tunnels that brought goods — from candy bars to concrete — into Gaza as quickly and almost as cheaply as Israel’s crossings, and with none of the bureaucracy required in maneuvering through the maze of Israeli, PA and Hamas border controls. It upgraded the electricity grid to power hundreds of hoists, and established a Tunnel Affairs Commission to regulate import growth. When Israel cut the fuel supply, relegating Gaza to the age of donkey travel, tunnels provided relief, first in sand-riddled plastic soda bottles at four times the pre-blockade cost, but soon via pipelines at a quarter of the price Israel charged. Car parts, engines and cars cut into three followed. Whole cars began arriving in 2009. So, too, did the raw materials for reconstruction that Israel had denied. Intermittent bombing by Israel and detonation by Egypt only prompted the burrowers to dig deeper and longer. The tunnels, not the terminals, became Gaza’s lungs.

Inside Gaza, Hamas used the rushed exit of foreign powers to consolidate its control.

Its security forces brutally eliminated organized opposition. PA ministries staffed with Hamas-friendly technocrats drew up ten-year programs to shift production and agriculture from servicing export markets to meeting internal needs and achieving self-sufficiency. And despite — if not because of — the departure of Palestine’s traditional donors, Gaza’s government has introduced the measures they long advocated, heavily pruning the government wage bill, enforcing tax collection, and introducing a new system of license payments and levies on fuel and cigarettes entering the tunnels.

Over time, internal stability coupled with the new trade routes triggered an economic rebirth of sorts. The tunnels absorbed about a fifth of the 100,000 workers who had once labored in Israel, and brought in the raw materials and spare parts for factories crippled by Israeli bombardments to restart production. Gaza’s large flour mill is producing two thirds of its pre-siege average of 6,000 tons per day. A plastics factory has even expanded its work force, thanks to inputs arriving from Egypt. The World Bank cites a rate of 29 percent unemployment in Gaza, significantly above the West Bank’s 19 percent. But the figure takes no account of the tunnel enterprise, Gaza’s largest private-sector employer, which the World Bank considers black-market activity despite Hamas’ efforts to formalize the supply lines.

Donor agency tales of doom also mask the signs of rejuvenation that abound. Bereft of Palestine’s traditional donors, Gaza’s government, too, is beginning to determine Gaza’s skyline itself. The masons at ‘Umayri mosque, the Holy Land’s oldest, have resumed a renovation project (first funded by Saudi Arabia under the late PA President Yasser Arafat’s rule) using materials imported through the tunnels. The beachfront resounds with the clang of cement mixers and scaffolding as builders lay steel joints for Gaza’s rising seaside hotels. The losers have been the international agencies, who are bound by their donor requirements to use only materials imported from Israel, merchants stubbornly reliant on their Israeli ties, and the mass of Gazans who have no share in the tunnel economy and are sinking ever deeper into poverty.

Ironically, many of the same people who previously advocated imposing the siege to harm Hamas now promote its relaxation to do the same. In his statement to the UN Security Council in June, the UN envoy for the Middle East peace process described the increased trade flows as “empowering moderation” against “an illicit economy…of smugglers and militants.” But so impoverished have many of Israel’s former trading partners in Gaza been by three years of biting siege that many will likely to have turn to the new bourgeoisie of tunnel traders to capitalize major reconstruction projects. To further control trade with Israel, Hamas officials require merchants to obtain prior approval for each consignment of imports arriving from Israel. If Israel’s siege strengthens Hamas by reinforcing the tunnel economy, so, too, will lifting the embargo.

West Bank Next?

A series of setbacks could lie ahead. Egypt has suspended construction of an underground steel wall at Rafah, after welders cut hundreds of perforations to allow trade to continue unfettered. It could yet flood the tunnels, though it would first have to overcome the reluctance of its security forces and Sinai’s troublesome Bedouin to let go of the lucrative underground trade. But fired by their relative success in restoring Gaza, Hamas leaders are looking further afield. For the first time in three years ideologues are again exploring scenarios for recovering the influence they lost in the West Bank. In 2007, following Hamas’ rout of his security forces in Gaza, Abbas dissolved the government of Haniyya and appointed Salam Fayyad in his stead. A relentless three-year campaign of measures then aimed at diluting the clout that propelled Hamas to win the 2006 elections in the West Bank as well as Gaza. Fayyad’s government has taken over scores of Hamas-run welfare institutions, detained hundreds of Hamas cadres and suspended the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian parliament that was intended to hold the Palestinian Authority executive to account.

After three years of hiding below the parapets, Hamas’s political leaders in the West Bank had looked to intra-Palestinian reconciliation to deliver a respite from the political onslaught. Their parliamentarians tiptoed back into mainstream politics by joining Fatah counterparts in negotiating a joint program for establishing a Palestinian state within the pre-June 1967 borders. To circumvent a ban on demonstrations, Hamas supporters joined weekly protests of “popular resistance,” Palestinian parlance for civil disobedience, against continued Israeli expropriation of West Bank land for settlement building.

But for Hamas leaders in Gaza, the rehabilitation appeared too slow, and its support of non- violence smacked dangerously of appeasement. In repeated interviews, Mahmoud Zahhar, the movement’s Gaza leader, claimed that a Hamas-led armed struggle had already pushed Israel back to the 1967 borders. While advocating a continued ceasefire in Gaza, he called for the resumption of the armed struggle in the West Bank. Few took him seriously. The consensus among observers was that the PA’s onslaught had whittled Hamas’ West Bank military wing down to a few dormant cells. Hamas parliamentarians assured interlocutors that the movement continued to uphold the tahdi’a, or calm, it had agreed upon with Israel in Cairo in March 2005. In return for a suspension of attacks on Israeli civilians in the West Bank as well as military operations inside Israel proper, diplomats say Israel halted assassinations of Hamas cadres in the West Bank.

Hamas’ decision to scuttle the calm with its August 31 killing of the four settlers, on the eve of the renewal of negotiations, left the Islamist movement’s political wisdom open to question. In forfeiting its five-year calm, Hamas risks not only the intensification of the two-pronged campaign against it in the West Bank, but also renewed strikes on the movement’s accumulating assets in Gaza. At least initially, Israel refrained from bombardment of Gaza, apparently to avoid shifting the spotlight back onto the absent chair on the opening day of negotiations. But in the West Bank, PA security forces reportedly carried out their largest roundup of the three-year campaign, detaining 250 suspected Hamas activists. It also threatened the political capital Hamas had garnered from its overtures internationally. And above all the attack appeared redundant: The Obama administration’s new peace process seemed set to sink of its own accord, without a Hamas torpedo.

But by its own reckoning, the attack has resurrected Hamas as a political player in the West Bank. In its attacks on settlers on two consecutive nights in different parts of the West Bank, Hamas demonstrated its reach despite a three-year, US-backed PA military campaign and exposed the fallacy of the PA’s claims to have established security control in the West Bank. “It’s not muqawama (resistance) against Israel,” says ‘Adnan Dumayri, a Fatah Revolutionary Council member and PA security force general. “It’s muqawama against Abbas.”  It also enabled the Islamists to catch seeping popular disaffection across the political spectrum toward a process of negotiations that appeared to Palestinians to be leading into a blind alley of continued Israeli control. Should Abbas fail to negotiate a halt to settlement growth, Hamas in its armed attacks against settlers would emerge from its three-year political wasteland to offer Palestinians an alternative.

In contrast to the international media, where the attack was roundly condemned, in Palestine the attack earned plaudits not only from Hamas’ core constituency, but also from a broad swathe of Fatah and secular activists, including some senior actors, disillusioned by 19 years of negotiations based on an ever flimsier framework. Unlike the Annapolis process or the “road map,” the twin Bush administration initiatives that the Obama administration chose to ditch, the current negotiations lack any terms of reference or agreed-upon script. Palestinians ask why Abbas agreed to meet Netanyahu given that none of the Arab targets required to turn proximity talks into direct ones were reached prior to the Obama administration’s announcement of the meeting. When American elder statesman George Mitchell presented the parties with 16 identical questions on the core issues requiring yes or no answers, Israel responded to each with a question of its own. In his August 31 press briefing before the White House meeting, Mitchell again declined to specify if Israel had agreed even to extend its (partially honored) settlement freeze past the September 26 expiration date.

Even the architects of the new process admit their concern that time is against them. Unveiling his plans for statehood within a year at a Ramallah press conference in late August, Fayyad warned that “every day that this conflict is not resolved there are more facts on the ground that make a two-state solution less likely.” Yet public incredulity is eroding confidence not only in a future peace deal, but also in the Palestinian leadership itself. The less Fayyad and Abbas deliver, the more tenuous their legitimacy, and the more Israel’s doubts about their reliability as neighbors become self-fulfilling. (Typifying the extent to which the leadership is removed from grassroots sentiment, the PA sponsored a groveling televised address from PLO chief negotiator Saeb Erekat to Israelis on the eve of the talks, in which he assumed Palestinian responsibility for the previous peace process failures. “Shalom to you in Israel. I know we have disappointed you,” he said. “I know that we have been unable to deliver peace for the last 19 years.”) Outside Abbas’ headquarters, Fatah activists derisively draw a distinction between the Fatah of the sulta, or regime, and that of Yasser Arafat. And away from Ramallah’s cafés, in the back streets of Jenin, which Fayyad’s proclaimed economic boom has yet to reach, talk of revolution and intifada is again in the air. Without something tangible to show for his continued pursuit of negotiations, due to resume in the rosy after-dinner glow in Washington, even the president’s advisers predict that Abbas and his political institution are finished.

Such doomsday scenarios may yet be premature. Western injections of aid, for now, prevent the ship from going under. But in the longer term, PA officials increasingly express doubts about the PA’s ability to win its beauty contest with Hamas. Negotiations aside, Fayyad’s much-hyped economic miracle appears patchy and, beyond Ramallah’s bubble of rising office blocks, sluggish. More pertinently, one year into his planned two-year preparation for a Palestinian state, Fayyad has hit a political ceiling. Unlike in Gaza, which has a menu of options due to its full internal control, the PA is just one of several competing authorities in the West Bank, lacking control over its borders, supply lines and even decision making.

To maintain stability, the president’s men have resorted to an increasingly oppressive hand. The PA’s security forces suppress not only Islamist unrest but general dissent — in late August disrupting a meeting called to protest the resumption of negotiations. Detainees emerge from prisons testifying to interrogators drilling through kneecaps. For all of Fayyad’s claims to have built institutions, in his bid to maintain power and prevent a vote of no confidence, he has neutered the most important, the Palestinian Legislative Council, Palestine’s prime expression of sovereignty. Local elections, designed to showcase the West Bank as the more democratic half of the Palestinian polity, were annulled after its main faction, Fatah, lost confidence in its ability to win, even though Hamas had declared a boycott

Hedging Bets

Hamas’ drive-by shootings galvanize not only Palestinians disillusioned by peace talks, but disaffected Israelis as well. Pressure on Netanyahu, which had been rising prior to the attack, crescendoed as settlers vowed to respond to the attack with a rash of settlement expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Though Abbas has declared such Israeli acts a red line that will prompt him to retire from the talks, Netanyahu is unlikely to jeopardize his support base. He remains bedeviled by the memory of his first term, when a hitherto supportive religious right ditched him after he bowed to US pressure by withdrawing from part of Hebron, and brought down his government. He might yet undertake a partial withdrawal from lands between Ramallah and Jericho, but substantive movement on a settlement withdrawal or a deal on Jerusalem appears fanciful. His political survival comes first, and the religious right, not Washington, is its guarantor.

Moreover, demographically, Israel is shifting further to the right. Far from shocking Israel into a reality check, the killing of nine civilians from Turkey, a purported ally, in international waters generated an outpouring of self-righteousness. Internationally isolated, Israeli Jews shared the feeling that “the whole world is against us,” and in a surge of patriotism redoubled their support for their government. According to a poll conducted a week after the Gaza flotilla incident, 78 percent of Israeli Jews backed Netanyahu’s policy. Support from Israel’s fastest-growing population sectors, the ultra-Orthodox and national-religious camps, topped 90 percent. The simultaneous news of vast natural gas finds off the coast only underscored these national-religious Jews’ sense of divine protection: They had lost one treasure at sea, gentile approval, and been blessed with another.

More trusting in God than Obama, Netanyahu’s government is not configured to sign let alone implement a two-state settlement. For all the external hopes that Kadima leader Tzipi Livni might join the ruling coalition, the prospects for a shake-up in Israel’s political map look at least an election away. Even then, without the emergence of a new, more left-leaning religious force, possibly led by the former ultra-Orthodox leader Aryeh Deri, the nationalist coalition looks set to retain power. Fearful of upsetting his national-religious base, Netanyahu — always alert to instances of Palestinian incitement — shied away from condemning Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual mentor of Shas, the coalition’s fourth largest party, who on the eve of the Washington parley called on God to kill Abbas and similarly evil Palestinians. Provided he retains the confidence of his nationalist camp, domestically Netanyahu looks secure.

Rather than risk disturbing his coalition’s fault lines, Netanyahu prefers to focus on conflict management, and not the conflict resolution that would most please the Americans. Locally, his prime concern is to ensure that neither Gaza nor the West Bank threaten Israel, and on that score, the August 31 shootings notwithstanding, Hamas’ track record in securing the territory it controls is as good as the PA’s. Though his ministers flinch at saying so, their preference for de facto over de jure arrangements (which would dispel their Greater Israel dreams) tallies more with the agenda of Hamas than that of Abbas. Only pressure from Washington has so far restrained Netanyahu from agreeing to a prisoner release that would win him kudos for recovering Cpl. Shalit, but drape Hamas with garlands for bringing home more Palestinian prisoners than has Abbas. Were it not for external factors, Netanyahu might have reasoned that economic peace stands a better chance of working in Gaza than in the West Bank. In the short term, the late summer shootouts set Israel and Hamas at loggerheads. Down the road, the interests of the rising new guard of religious nationalists in Israel and Palestine might yet converge.

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