The Palestinians are soon to see a reunification of their fractured political landscape. Hamas, the Islamist de facto government of the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, the venerable secular-nationalist party in control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), have agreed to end the mutual exclusion of their constituencies. Hamas will compete with Fatah for PA governance in a years time, and until then the two will govern cooperatively. Including in matters of security.
This causes a grave problem for Israel. Hamas is for the most part Israel’s enemy. The threat of violence against Israeli targets will be substantially increased as Hamas rebuilds its infrastructure in the West Bank, and as Fatah releases hundreds of Hamas prisoners. In the short term, it is likely Israel will need to scale back its cooperation with PA security forces and end intelligence sharing (though this has not yet happened). In the long term, Israel will need to prepare itself for a situation in which the Palestinian Authority includes hostile, rejectionist, or otherwise stubborn ‘spoiling’ elements in future peace negotiations. Some have looked to the growing power and danger of Hizbullah despite its inclusion in the Lebanese parliament, and pessimistically expect a similar lack of moderation from Hamas as it joins the PA.
This is why Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu and others in his government issued an ultimatum to Fatah: it’s either peace or reunification, unless Hamas makes some fundamental policy changes.
This is empty rhetoric, an attempt to avoid future participation in the peace process, or stupidity.
To suggest that Fatah must choose between peace with Israel or reconciliation with Hamas as though they are mutually exclusive is flawed. There can be no two-state settlement while the West Bank and Gaza are divided, and so a necessary precursor to peace is the reunification of the two territories. As Hamas is an entrenched organisation with strong social and political ties to much of the Palestinian constituency, it is likely to remain a significant player in Palestinian politics. This situation was inevitable, and we who desire lasting peace have no way around it.
The question is then ‘to what extent will Hamas’ inevitable presence in the PA negatively impact upon the peace process?’
I do not think that Hizbullah is a good analogy to Hamas, in answering this question. Hizbullah is a proxy of Iran. It was established by Iran and continues to take significant instruction from the regime of that state. It is also a domestic actor in Lebanese politics, and represents a local constituency, subject to the particular dynamics of the Lebanese context. Hamas, conversely, is an Iranian client. It currently relies upon Iranian support, but it is not an incarnation of Iranian interests. The extent to which Hamas continues to reply upon Iran will certainly be contingent upon what the latter can provide to the former, and is thus a matter of strategic consideration.
Hamas’ strategy has been to compete with Fatah for political power amongst the Palestinian people, and violence is only one means of competition. Much of its legitimacy rests upon its reputation as the less corrupt and more efficient of the two parties, and much of its legitimacy also rests upon its reputation as a committed armed actor fighting for Palestinian nationhood. There is substantial evidence to show that there is a reflexive relationship between the extent to which Hamas prefers diplomacy to violence and the opinions of the Palestinian population (e.g. see Shaul Mishaal and Avraham Sela in ‘The Palestinian Hamas’). Hamas is thus not going to renounce armed struggle until it becomes a strategic liability.
If the Palestinian population does not want violence, Hamas has two options. Either get them to want violence, or acquiesce to popular sentiment and avoid violence. Provocative acts of terrorism can accomplish for it the former, and so we may see an increase in violence over the short term. If Israeli responses to that violence radicalises the Palestinian people further, then Fatah will also begin using violence. But a policy of restraint and caution in the use of military force will cause this strategy to fail. Then Hamas is likely to prefer the diplomatic option, lest it suffer from decreasing support.
In brief, Israel and its supporters should do the following:
1. Accept that this reunification as a necessary step towards peace, and avoid specious comparisons to organisations like Hizbullah, which are essentially and contextually non-analogous
2. Think in terms of a long game, and never lose sight of the end goal of a less radical Hamas and a stronger Palestinian democratic culture, where political actors gain legitimacy by the provision of political goods, rather than nationalistic violence
3. Prepare for the costs of Hamas’ attempts to provoke a violent counterterrorist response, and try not to rise to the provocation in a way that leads to escalation, while remembering that Hamas is a strategic actor whose primary interests are domestic rather than foreign.
If we want a more moderate Hamas, we must wait and suffer.