Middle East Brief 41, March 2010
Sayigh is Professor of Middle East Studies at King’s College London and a Senior Fellow at the Crown Center from 2009-2010. Previously he was Assistant Director of Studies at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University (1994-2003), and headed the Middle East program of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London (1998-2003). In 1990-1994 he was an advisor to and negotiator for the Palestinian delegation to the peace talks with Israel, and since 1999 has provided policy and technical consultancy on the permanent status peace talks and on Palestinian reform.
Three years after taking control of Gaza, Hamas has established a stable and effective governing system despite a crushing siege and political challenges from Fatah and Salafist groups. In this brief Prof. Sayigh explores both the policies and the fortuitous circumstances that have enabled Hamas to consolidate its control over Gaza and to maintain its domestic legitimacy. The brief further elucidates the complex relationship between Hamas as an armed resistance movement and the government it supports, headed by Prime Minister Ismail Hanieh. Bringing to light the tension between the practical exigencies of governance and its core constituency’s Islamist and militant ideologies, Prof. Sayigh argues that Hamas has demonstrated its ability to innovate and survive. He concludes that the international sanctions policy has created a durable stand-off: Rather than spark mass discontent leading to the collapse of the Hanieh government, it enables Hamas to enhance its ruling party status.
Having toyed initially with the illusion that Fatah could spearhead a forceful takeover of Gaza, building on supposed mass discontent with Hamas, some quarters of the Israeli political and security establishment and its West Bank Palestinian counterpart now expect the Hanieh government to crumble under the weight of the continuous siege. However, it is highly doubtful that anybody else still believes that the relentless pressure of sanctions will move the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza to open opposition to Hamas rule and trigger its collapse from within.42 For that to happen, the siege would have to attain truly medievalproportions—cutting off all supply of food, water, and medicines—an option belied by the obvious acquiescence of all parties in the continued flow of civilian goods from Egypt into Gaza. That said, none of the main parties to the siege—the Government of Israel, the West Bank Palestinian Authority, the United States, the European Union, and Egypt—is likely to be the first to break the formal status quo.
This leaves Hamas in a strategic predicament. It gambles on time to impose a new political reality by means of its successful governance of Gaza, but any expectation that external actors will seek to lift the siege before Hamas undertakes unambiguously to end violence against Israel is no more realistic than the expectation that the siege will eventually force it to capitulate. ..