Sunday, November 4, 2012

Hamas: Poised for Power and Peace?

When Hamas garnered a majority in the Palestinian Authority's (PA) 2006 parliamentary elections, its victory didn't enjoy the sort of dual apprehension and excitement that the Muslim Brotherhood did when the latter ascended to Egypt's leadership following Mubarak's fall. Hamas' rise, backed by popular support in Gaza with some appeal in the West Bank, was perceived by the governments of the United States, Europe and especially Israel, as nothing short of a terrorist organization gaining popular legitimacy. The election results prompted Hamas and Fatah to fight for consolidation of power in Gaza, but only after an attempt to form a national unity government fell though. Israel's response to the elections first included economic sanctions followed by a full-scale invasion of the Strip in 2008/2009, using rockets fired into Israel as a pretext. Despite incurring disproportionate casualties compared to Israel and crippling economic sanctions, Gaza has remained under Hamas control, to Israel's amazement and dismay. These developments, coupled with the momentum of the Arab uprisings, shifting regional alliances in response to the carnage in Syria and President Obama's hopeless pursuit of a 'liberal peace' that leaves no room for Hamas in the negotiations, have thrust Hamas forward as a force not easily marginalized and one that which must be acknowledged.

Political cartoon from Your Democracy

In Gaza, popular support for Hamas has waned in recent years. The momentum it had leading up to the 2006 elections was blunted by failed reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah, the two dominant parties in the PA. And although Hamas has renounced violence in its political agenda, deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions and marginalization in the peace process have on occasion led Hamas to rescind their peaceful pledge. The majority of violence against Israel from Gaza, however, does not originate from Hamas but from militant Islamist groups hoping to exploit tensions for their own ideological gain. For example, just this summer violence resumed between Israel and Gaza despite an overall successful cease-fire agreement. Militant groups, such as the Islamic Jihad, operate in Gaza and are often cited as those responsible for the violence, not Hamas. It would be intuitive to think that since Hamas enjoys control over Gaza, it is responsible for monitoring the cease-fire within its jurisdiction. This becomes less true, however, when one considers the desperation and squalor that Gazans experience as a result of an imposed humanitarian disaster that includes the destruction of Gaza's critical infrastructure by Israeli forces. Trade restrictions have crippled the Gazan economy, driving up unemployment and poverty while virtually eliminating the private sector. Currently, the majority of Gaza's population is completely reliant on humanitarian assistance and live in constant fear. Such living conditions radicalize the population, creating widespread sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people in Gaza. Some would interpret this as tacitly accepting violence against Israel. This paradigm is self-reinforcing and exacerbated by Israeli assassinations, bombing of infrastructure, trade sanctions and blockade.

Despite the enormous obstacles, there is room for hope. For one, Hamas has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian conflict, enraging its longtime allies in Damascus. This, coupled with deteriorating security conditions along the Gazan-Egyptian border, have prompted Hamas to relocate its 'outside' leadership from Damascus to Cairo in a dual effort to shift its regional alliance and to maintain security, both positive developments. Resumption of relations between Egypt and Hamas comes as a welcome end to Hamas' diplomatic isolation, especially considering Egypt's strategic importance to the United States. Before the Arab uprisings, the US-backed authoritarian regime in Egypt was advised, with the allure of arms sales, to sever ties with Hamas and to close its border with Gaza. Since the uprisings, we've seen a reversal in Egyptian policy largely attributed to the fact that Hamas is an offshoot (and was formed by members) of the Muslim Brotherhood. And in response to the uprisings, stability has become everyone's top priority, which will have to include Hamas' cooperation and therefore its engagement.

As evidenced by Hamas' refrain from supporting the Asad regime, realignment with Egypt and mostly successful cease-fire with Israel, Hamas has proved to be a dynamic organization. It has shown time and time again that when the political opportunity presents itself, Hamas rises to the occasion. Taking advantage of cease-fire deals with Israel and improving (and severing) diplomatic relations, however, comes with a political price. Since Hamas' performance in the 2006 parliamentary elections, it has disavowed violence in its political agenda. In turn, Hamas' militant factions have broken with their parent organization, rejecting the possibility of peace with Israel. These developments have made it particularly hard for Hamas to consolidate power and monitor cease-fire agreements and have given Israel the pretext for further military operations in Gaza. A long-term cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas will need to call for intelligence coordination between the two parties. Israel will also need to abandon the idea that the radical Islamic groups that operate in Gaza and the Sinai are not monolithic but in fact have different ideological, political and strategic agendas. This can be done, and the current political climate reinforces this potential.

An unexpected determinant in Hamas' influence in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will be President Obama's reelection. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu's rapport soured in 2010-11 after peace efforts collapsed. Obama's negotiations with Netanyahu failed for many reasons, chief of which were the precedents the terms of the agreement would set and the resulting race to get the diplomatic upper-hand. Not surprisingly, Netanyahu courted Governor Romney on his trip to Israel and has lobbied hard to appeal to American Jewish voters for support, to Obama's displeasure. The two have butted heads since the beginning, but the tables have turned now that President Obama has been reelected. Because of his rocky history with Netanyahu and his antics, and with the hope that Obama has learned from his failures, the latter will now have the diplomatic ante to ratchet up the pressure on his Israeli counterpart. This will ultimately lead to less promises for Israel, which will force Netanyahu to reevaluate his concessions. If Hamas can signal to both parties at the right time, it may find an unexpected diplomatic opening. Including Hamas in some sort of peace agreement or (more likely) cease-fire could give Hamas' decisions more influence in the PA or at least sprout the possibility that despite its designation as a terrorist organization, Hamas can be a party to negotiations even if it isn't considered the 'sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.'

Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (C-R) walks alongside Gaza's Hamas 
prime minister Ismail Haniyeh (C-L) during a welcome ceremony at the Rafah 
border crossing with Egypt on October 23, 2012 in the Gaza Strip. 

Although Hamas' new posture has resuscitated internal divisions over the appropriate direction for the organization and its stance toward a unity agreement with Fatah, the Arab uprisings have put wind in Hamas' sails. Regional alliances are shifting away from a Western-brokered status quo in favor of popular sentiment, leading Hamas to recalibrate its approach to Palestinian reconciliation with regard to the West Bank. Indeed, Hamas also enjoys political and economic support from the Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who, on his recent trip to Gaza, pledged $400 million for infrastructural projects while also pushing for Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. Even Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan plans to visit Gaza soon. Thus, there is a political and diplomatic opening coming to the fore, and it will be up to pragmatic policymakers to embrace the changes in the Middle East with an eye toward Hamas' inclusion.

(For anyone who is interested, the International Crisis Group has an excellent report outlining the challenges and opportunities Hamas faces since the Arab uprisings in 2011)

(Updated 11-6-12 to provide clarity in the introductory paragraph and to include the implications of Obama's reelection on Hamas' political engagements in the Middle East. I've included an extra paragraph of analysis on an American-led peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians.)

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