Coming to terms with Hamas

This week's briefing: Is peace more remote now that Hamas has survived Israel’s assault on Gaza?

Having survived Israel’s assault on Gaza, Hamas may now be poised to exert even greater influence over Palestinians’ future. Is Middle East peace more remote than ever?

What is Hamas?

It’s a militant Palestinian group—and it appears to be growing stronger despite, or perhaps because of, the recent Israeli assault. “Hamas” is an Arabic acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”—it also means “zeal”—a name that encompasses the organization’s multifaceted role as a political party, militia, terrorist band, social service organization, and Islamic religious movement. In 2006, after the U.S. pressured Palestinians to hold elections, Hamas handily defeated its main rival, Fatah, in Gaza. The hostility between the groups later erupted into a brief civil war, which ended when Hamas drove Fatah out of Gaza in June 2007 and assumed total control there. The Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah, remains in charge of the West Bank, where Hamas also has some support. Subterfuge between the two factions, including kidnappings and killings, continues to this day.

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What is the source of Hamas’ strength?

A potent combination of nationalist and religious fervor, coupled with more prosaic considerations—such as competence. Unlike Fatah, which has a reputation for corruption and bungling, many Palestinians deem Hamas to be honest and effective. Even before it assumed power, Hamas had established hospitals, schools, and mosques, and delivered social services throughout Gaza. An outgrowth of the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hamas embraces fundamentalist Islam and calls for Islamic control of “every inch of Palestine”—including all of Israel. Fatah, the party of deceased Palestine Liberation Organization founder Yassir Arafat, is more secular and moderate, and recognizes Israel’s right to exist.

What is Hamas’ record vis-à-vis Israel?

Bloody. Hamas dispatched its first suicide bomber into Israel in 1993 and has been responsible for numerous terrorist attacks since, including suicide bombings on buses that killed dozens and a rain of occasionally deadly rockets on southern Israel. The U.S. officially classifies Hamas as a terrorist organization. But Hamas is not a monolith, and Israel and its allies have hoped that less militant leaders might one day take the helm.

Who leads Hamas now?

It’s hard to tell, in part due to Israel’s repeated success at assassinating Hamas leaders. Founded in 1987 by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who was killed by Israel in 2004, Hamas’ leadership today is split between Gaza and Damascus, Syria. In Gaza, the group lost two top leaders during Israel’s recent bombardment. Perhaps the most senior Hamas official in Gaza today is Ismail Haniyeh, who became prime minister of the Palestinian Authority in 2006, after Hamas’ election victory, but was expelled from the government in 2007. Still, Haniyeh, who has also been targeted by Israel for assassination, continues to assert authority. Hamas also receives direction from its headquarters in Syria, where Hamas leader Khaled Meshal (who reportedly survived a dose of poison from Israeli agents in 1997) lives in exile.

What’s the Syrian connection?

In addition to playing host to Hamas headquarters, Syria provides political and logistical support to Hamas. But Hamas leaders in Damascus have often voiced more extremist positions than those in Gaza, who have to contend with the realities of governing a narrow strip of land holding 1.5 million mostly impoverished Palestinians. Nor is Syria Hamas’ only foreign patron. Saudi Arabia has been Hamas’ greatest financial benefactor, while Iran, which regards Hamas as a useful proxy, is said to be a prime supplier of arms to Gaza. Guns and rockets have been smuggled into Gaza from Egypt via underground tunnels; destroying those tunnels was one of the stated goals of Israel’s assault.

Why else did Israel attack Hamas?

Deterrence. In 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon in pursuit of another Iranian-backed Islamic militant group, Hezbollah, which had provoked Israel with rocket fire and kidnappings. While many viewed Israel’s invasion of Lebanon as a strategic mistake, provocations from Hezbollah did decline in the invasion’s wake. Israel may have concluded that a blistering attack on Hamas might deter future rocket and terrorist attacks from Gaza, as well.

Did it accomplish that goal?

In the short term, at least. Hamas was no match militarily for Israel, which for three weeks bombarded it from land, sea, and air. Hamas has now declared a cease-fire, as has Israel. Meanwhile, some diplomats are pressing Hamas and Fatah to form a unity government, the goal being to bring Hamas to the negotiating table and enable the Palestinians to speak with one voice when dealing with Israel. Hamas has occasionally suggested it would be open to a long-term “truce” with Israel, in lieu of official recognition. But Israel will not negotiate until Hamas renounces its call for Israel’s destruction. And before any negotiations could begin, Hamas and Fatah would have to put aside their mutual enmity.

Is Hamas ready to compromise?

It doesn’t seem likely. The Israeli assault on Gaza appears to have enhanced Hamas’ stature in the region, while doing damage among Palestinians to the standing of Fatah, which offered Hamas no assistance during the siege. While Hamas was no doubt weakened militarily, it emerged from the rubble still firmly in control of Gaza. “Hamas feels it has come out unbroken and popular among Palestinians and Arabs,” says Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki. Indeed, many analysts agree that Hamas is politically stronger today than it was before the bombardment began.

Gaza in the aftermath

Poor and dilapidated before the recent fighting, Gaza is now in shambles. Israeli bombs inflicted an estimated $2 billion in damage on Gaza’s 139 square miles, and many police stations, office buildings, and government structures were destroyed. Some 1,300 Palestinians died and tens of thousands more were made homeless. The United Nations is seeking to raise emergency aid for Gaza, but no one is eager to allow reconstruction funds to flow through Hamas, out of concern that doing so would bolster the group’s standing among Palestinians even more. But given the political realities in Gaza, there may be little choice. That does not bode well for future peace prospects. Speaking recently amid the rubble of what had been Gaza’s five-story parliament building, Hamas official Ismail Radwan said the repair of Gaza was only a short-term goal. After that, he said, “the liberation of Palestine, from the river to the sea, God willing, will be achieved.”

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