Hamas’s Chances

Nathan Thrall

The current war in Gaza was not one Israel or Hamas sought. But both had no doubt that a new confrontation would come. The 21 November 2012 ceasefire that ended an eight-day-long exchange of Gazan rocket fire and Israeli aerial bombardment was never implemented. It stipulated that all Palestinian factions in Gaza would stop hostilities against Israel, that Israel would end attacks against Gaza by land, sea and air – including the ‘targeting of individuals’ (assassinations, typically by drone-fired missile) – and that the closure of Gaza would essentially end as a result of Israel’s ‘opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements and targeting residents in border areas’. An additional clause noted that ‘other matters as may be requested shall be addressed,’ a reference to private commitments by Egypt and the US to help thwart weapons smuggling into Gaza, though Hamas has denied this interpretation of the clause.

During the three months that followed the ceasefire, Shin Bet recorded only a single attack: two mortar shells fired from Gaza in December 2012. Israeli officials were impressed. But they convinced themselves that the quiet on Gaza’s border was primarily the result of Israeli deterrence and Palestinian self-interest. Israel therefore saw little incentive in upholding its end of the deal. In the three months following the ceasefire, its forces made regular incursions into Gaza, strafed Palestinian farmers and those collecting scrap and rubble across the border, and fired at boats, preventing fishermen from accessing the majority of Gaza’s waters.

The end of the closure never came. Crossings were repeatedly shut. So-called buffer zones – agricultural lands that Gazan farmers couldn’t enter without being fired on – were reinstated. Imports declined, exports were blocked, and fewer Gazans were given exit permits to Israel and the West Bank.

Israel had committed to holding indirect negotiations with Hamas over the implementation of the ceasefire but repeatedly delayed them, at first because it wanted to see whether Hamas would stick to its side of the deal, then because Netanyahu couldn’t afford to make further concessions to Hamas in the weeks leading up to the January 2013 elections, and then because a new Israeli coalition was being formed and needed time to settle in. The talks never took place. The lesson for Hamas was clear. Even if an agreement was brokered by the US and Egypt, Israel could still fail to honour it.

Yet Hamas largely continued to maintain the ceasefire to Israel’s satisfaction. It set up a new police force tasked with arresting Palestinians who tried to launch rockets. In 2013, fewer were fired from Gaza than in any year since 2003, soon after the first primitive projectiles were shot across the border. Hamas needed time to rebuild its arsenal, fortify its defences and prepare for the next battle, when it would again seek an end to Gaza’s closure by force of arms. But it also hoped that Egypt would open itself to Gaza, thereby ending the years during which Egypt and Israel had tried to dump responsibility for the territory and its impoverished inhabitants on each other and making less important an easing of the closure by Israel.

In July 2013 the coup in Cairo led by General Sisi dashed Hamas’s hopes. His military regime blamed the ousted President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, its Palestinian offshoot, for all of Egypt’s woes. Both organisations were banned. Morsi was formally charged with conspiring with Hamas to destabilise the country. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and hundreds of Morsi’s supporters were sentenced to death. The Egyptian military used increasingly threatening rhetoric against Hamas, which feared that Egypt, Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority would take advantage of its weakness to launch a co-ordinated military campaign. Travel bans were imposed on Hamas officials. The number of Gazans allowed to cross to Egypt was reduced to a small fraction of what it had been before the coup. Nearly all of the hundreds of tunnels that had brought goods from Egypt to Gaza were closed. Hamas had used taxes levied on those goods to pay the salaries of more than 40,000 civil servants in Gaza.

Hamas’s former allies and primary supporters, Iran and Syria, would not help it unless it betrayed the Muslim Brotherhood by switching its support in the increasingly sectarian Syrian war to the Alawite Bashar al-Assad against what had become an overwhelmingly Sunni opposition. Hamas’s remaining allies had their own problems: Turkey was preoccupied with domestic turmoil; Qatar was under pressure from its neighbours to reduce its support for the Brotherhood, which the other Gulf monarchies perceive as their primary political threat. Saudi Arabia declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation; other Gulf states continued to repress it. In the West Bank, Hamas couldn’t wave a flag, hold a meeting, or give a speech without facing arrest by Israel or the Palestinian Authority’s security forces.

With pressure mounting and no strong ally to turn to, Gaza’s descent was quick. Though Israel reacted to Egypt’s closure of tunnels and the pedestrian crossing by slightly increasing its own supply of goods and exit permits, there was no change in its fundamental policy. Electricity shortages increased, with daily blackouts lasting between 12 and 18 hours a day. Those in need of treatment in Egyptian hospitals paid bribes as high as $3000 to cross the border when it was occasionally opened for a day. Shortages of fuel led to queues stretching several blocks at petrol stations, and fights broke out at the pumps. Garbage piled in the streets because the government couldn’t afford fuel for refuse lorries. In December sanitation plants shut down and sewage flowed through the streets. The water crisis worsened: more than 90 per cent of Gaza’s aquifer was now contaminated.

As it became clear that unrest in Egypt wouldn’t lead to Sisi being ousted or to the return of the Brotherhood, Hamas saw only four possible exits. The first was rapprochement with Iran at the unacceptable price of betraying the Brotherhood in Syria and weakening support for Hamas among Palestinians and the majority of Sunni Muslims everywhere. The second was to levy new taxes in Gaza, but these couldn’t make up for the loss in revenue from the tunnels, and would risk stirring up opposition to Hamas rule. The third was to launch rockets at Israel in the hope of obtaining a new ceasefire that would bring an improvement in conditions in Gaza. This prospect worried US officials: it would undermine the quiescent Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and disrupt the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that John Kerry had launched in the same month as Sisi’s coup. But Hamas felt too vulnerable, especially because of Sisi’s potential role in any new conflict between Gaza and Israel, to take this route. It was sure that the peace talks would fail on their own. The final option, which Hamas eventually chose, was to hand over responsibility for governing Gaza to appointees of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, despite having defeated it in the 2006 elections.

Hamas paid a high price, acceding to nearly all of Fatah’s demands. The new PA government didn’t contain a single Hamas member or ally, and its senior figures remained unchanged. Hamas agreed to allow the PA to move several thousand members of its security forces back to Gaza, and to place its guards at borders and crossings, with no reciprocal positions for Hamas in the West Bank security apparatus. Most important, the government said it would comply with the three conditions for Western aid long demanded by the US and its European allies: non-violence, adherence to past agreements and recognition of Israel. Though the agreement stipulated that the PA government refrain from politics, Abbas said it would pursue his political programme. Hamas barely protested.

The agreement was signed on 23 April, after Kerry’s peace talks had broken down; had the talks been making progress, the US would have done its best to block the move. But the Obama administration was disappointed in the positions Israel took during the talks, and publicly blamed it for its part in their failure. Frustration helped push the US to recognise the new Palestinian government despite Israel’s objections. But that was as far as the US was prepared to go. Behind the scenes, it was pressuring Abbas to avoid a true reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas sought the reactivation of the long dormant Palestinian legislative council as a check on the new government. But the legislature contains a majority of Hamas members and the US warned Abbas that it would cut financial and political support for the new government if the legislature met.

The reconciliation agreement was unpopular inside Hamas. From the grassroots to the second highest tier of leadership, its members believed the deal would cause enormous problems. Moussa Abu Marzouk, a senior leader in its political bureau, spent weeks in Gaza meeting Hamas cadres, listening to their concerns and trying to convince them of the deal’s wisdom. Militants worried that Fatah security personnel would try to avenge the deaths that resulted from the fighting between Hamas and Fatah of 2006 and 2007, and start a new civil war. Hamas officials wanted assurances that the PA wouldn’t extend its collaboration with Israel against Hamas from the West Bank into Gaza. Employees of the government, thousands of whom aren’t Hamas members, worried about being fired, demoted or not being paid. Others said Hamas had conceded everything with no assurance that Fatah would fulfil its obligations. Among the rationales for signing the agreement provided by Hamas leaders was that it would allow the movement to focus on its original mission, military resistance against Israel.

The fears of Hamas activists were confirmed after the government was formed. The terms of the agreement were not only unfavourable but unimplemented. The most basic conditions of the deal – payment of the government employees who run Gaza and an opening of the crossing with Egypt – were not fulfilled. For years Gazans had been told that the cause of their immiseration was Hamas rule. Now it was over, their conditions only got worse.

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On 12 June, ten days after the new government was formed, an unexpected event radically changed Hamas’s fortunes. Three Israeli students at yeshivas in the West Bank were kidnapped and murdered. When their bodies were found, a group of Israeli Jews abducted a 16-year-old Palestinian outside his East Jerusalem home, doused him in petrol, and burned him alive. Protests erupted among Palestinians in Jerusalem, the Negev and Galilee, while the West Bank remained relatively quiet. Israel blamed Hamas for the murders of the yeshiva students, though several Israeli security officials have said they believe that the perpetrators didn’t act on orders from above.

In its search for the suspected murderers, Israel carried out its largest West Bank campaign against Hamas since the Second Intifada, closing its offices and arresting hundreds of members at all levels. Hamas denied responsibility for the abductions and said Israel’s accusations were a pretext to launch a new offensive against it. Among those arrested were more than fifty of the 1027 security prisoners released in 2011 by Israel in exchange for the Hamas-held Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Hamas saw the arrests as another violation of the Shalit agreement, which had named conditions under which the released prisoners could be re-arrested and contained unfulfilled commitments by Israel to improve conditions and visitation rights for other Palestinian prisoners.

The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah worked closely with Israel to catch the militants, and had rarely been so discredited among its constituents, many of whom believe abducting Israelis has proved the only effective means of gaining the release of prisoners widely regarded as national heroes. In several West Bank cities, residents protested against the PA’s security co-operation with Israel. A former minister of religious affairs who is close to Abbas went with his bodyguards to al-Aqsa Mosque; worshippers assaulted them, and they had to be hospitalised. When an Abbas emissary was dispatched to visit the murdered Palestinian boy’s grieving family, he was shouted off the premises.

As protests spread through Israel and Jerusalem, militants in Gaza from non-Hamas factions began firing rockets and mortars in solidarity. Sensing Israel’s vulnerability and the Ramallah leadership’s weakness, Hamas leaders called for the protests to grow into a third intifada. When the rocket fire increased, they found themselves drawn into a new confrontation: they couldn’t be seen suppressing the rocket attacks while calling for a mass uprising. Israel’s retaliation culminated in the 6 July bombings that killed seven Hamas militants, the largest number of fatalities inflicted on the group in several months. The next day Hamas began taking responsibility for the rockets. Israel then announced Operation Protective Edge.

For Hamas, the choice wasn’t so much between peace and war as between slow strangulation and a war that had a chance, however slim, of loosening the squeeze. It sees itself in a battle for its survival. Its future in Gaza hangs on the outcome. Like Israel, it’s been careful to set rather limited aims, goals to which much of the international community is sympathetic. The primary objective is that Israel honour three past agreements: the Shalit prisoner exchange, including the release of the re-arrested prisoners; the November 2012 ceasefire, which calls for an end to Gaza’s closure; and the April 2014 reconciliation agreement, which would allow the Palestinian government to pay salaries in Gaza, staff its borders, receive much needed construction materials and open the pedestrian crossing with Egypt.

These are not unrealistic goals, and there are growing signs that Hamas stands a good chance of achieving some of them. Obama and Kerry have said they believe a ceasefire should be based on the November 2012 agreement. The US also changed its position on the payment of salaries, proposing in a draft framework for a ceasefire submitted to Israel on 25 July that funds be transferred to Gazan employees. Over the course of the war, Israel decided that it could solve its Gaza problem with help from the new government in Ramallah that it had formally boycotted. The Israeli defence minister said he hoped a ceasefire would place the new government’s security forces at Gaza’s border crossings. Netanyahu has begun to soften his tone towards Abbas. Near the end of the third week of fighting, Israel and the US quietly looked away as the Palestinian government made payments to all employees in Gaza for the first time. Israeli officials across the political spectrum have begun to admit privately that the previous policy towards Gaza was a mistake. All parties involved in mediating a ceasefire envision postwar arrangements that effectively strengthen the new Palestinian government and its role in Gaza – and by extension Gaza itself.

Achieving the release of the re-arrested prisoners will be much more difficult. But if the war drags on and a deeper ground incursion becomes more likely, Hamas’s chances of capturing an Israeli soldier will increase. It has made at least four tries so far and may have succeeded in two of them; Israel denies the first was successful and, as this piece went to press, was searching for the second missing soldier. Few things would do more to discredit the Ramallah leadership than a new prisoner exchange deal with Hamas, even if on a smaller scale than the Shalit agreement. When Hamas announced it had captured a soldier on 20 July, crowds rushed to the streets of Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank, setting off fireworks and passing out sweets, with new hope that their friends and relatives in Israeli prisons would soon be released.

Palestinian protests in solidarity with Gaza have spread. Hamas flags outnumbered those of Fatah at a recent protest in Nablus. The Ramallah leadership, not altogether convincingly, has adopted some of Hamas’s rhetoric, using the word ‘resistance’ and praising Hamas’s fight. Clashes have taken place in the West Bank and East Jerusalem nearly every night. On 24 July, during the Muslim holy night of Laylat al-Qadr, the Qalandiya checkpoint in northern Jerusalem was the site of the largest demonstration on the West Bank since the Second Intifada. Hamas knows it can’t defeat the Israeli military, but the Gaza war holds out the possibility of a distant but no less important prize: stirring up the West Bank, and undermining the Ramallah leadership and the programme of perpetual negotiation, accommodation and US dependency that it stands for.

For many Palestinians, Hamas has once again proved the comparative effectiveness of militancy. Tunnels, which have been central to its successes in the current fighting, have been the source of attacks against Israelis in Gaza since well before Israel’s 2005 withdrawal. Hamas points to a series of tunnel-based attacks, including a deadly December 2004 explosion underneath an Israeli army post in southern Gaza, that helped precipitate Israel’s pullout. Since the fighting in Gaza began this summer, Israel has not announced a single new settlement and has expressed willingness to make certain concessions to Palestinian demands – achievements the Ramallah leadership has not been able to match in years of negotiations. The outcome of the fight will help determine the future path of the Palestinian national movement.

The real barrier to a West Bank uprising has not been, as Hamas has claimed, Abbas’s collaboration with Israel. It has been social and political fragmentation, and the widespread Palestinian acquiescence that national liberation should come second to the largely apolitical and technocratic projects of state-building and economic development. These are far greater obstacles for Hamas. To the extent that the recent fighting has instilled pride in Palestinians who say they’d grown accustomed to feeling shame at the way their leaders grovel at American and Israeli feet, Hamas’s achievement has not been small.

But Hamas has also risked a great deal. It stands to lose everything if Israel reassesses its long-standing reliance on it as Gaza’s policeman, a strategy that has led it to keep Hamas strong enough in Gaza to exercise a near monopoly on the use of force. An irony of the recent weeks of ground combat is that Hamas’s strong showing has put its position in Gaza at risk. Israel may decide it has become too big a threat. Hamas has slowed the Israeli ground incursion and inflicted dozens of losses on Israeli troops, far more than most expected. Two weeks after the ground incursion began, the IDF hadn’t made it past the first line of densely populated urban housing. Thanks to the vast underground tunnel network leading not just into Israel but under Gaza, if Israel decides to enter the city centres, its casualties seem certain to increase. During Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09, Israel went far deeper into Gaza and lost only ten soldiers, four of them to friendly fire; today Israeli ground forces have lost more than sixty soldiers. Losses among Hamas militants so far appear to be manageable. For the first time in decades, Israel is defending itself against an army that has penetrated the 1967 borders, by means of tunnels and naval incursions. Hamas rockets produced in Gaza can now reach all of Israel’s largest cities, including Haifa, and it has rocket-equipped drones. It was able to shut down Israel’s main airport for two days. Israelis who live near Gaza have left their homes and are scared to go back since the IDF says that there are probably still tunnels it doesn’t know about. Rockets from Gaza kept Israelis returning to shelters day after day, demonstrating the IDF’s inability to deal with the threat. The war is estimated to have cost the country billions of dollars.

The greatest costs, of course, have been borne by Gaza’s civilians, who make up the vast majority of the more than 1600 lives lost by the time of the ceasefire announced and quickly broken on 1 August. The war has wiped out entire families, devastated neighbourhoods, destroyed homes, cut off all electricity and greatly limited access to water. It will take years for Gaza to recover, if indeed it ever does.

And it seems unlikely that Hamas will be ready for another fight anytime soon. So it has every incentive to try to achieve its core objectives now, especially an end to Gaza’s closure. Mediators are aiming to help the people of Gaza without appearing to hand Hamas a victory and Israel a defeat. At stake for Israel and Egypt is what a purported Hamas victory says about the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region. At stake for the Muslim Brotherhood’s allies, Qatar and Turkey, is the meaning of a defeat. The perceived symbolism of the conflict has helped prolong it.

The obvious solution is to let the new Palestinian government return to Gaza and reconstruct it. Israel can claim it is weakening Hamas by strengthening its enemies. Hamas can claim it won the recognition of the new government and a significant lifting of the blockade. This solution would of course have been available to Israel, the US, Egypt and the PA in the weeks and months before the war began, before so many lives were shattered.

1 August