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Diminishing Hamas

Alon Ben-Meir - February 18, 2008

The most acute problem facing Israeli officials today is how to end the daily Kassam rocket attacks intended to demoralize Israelis and to undermine the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israel insists–rightfully–that Hamas, as the self-proclaimed authority in Gaza, is to blame and must suffer the consequences. The question is what to do so that Hamas is weakened rather than strengthened by the Israeli punitive counter measures while progress continues in the peace negotiations.

The current Israeli strategy of targeted killings–preemption to foil an imminent attack, coupled with an economic squeeze–has produced limited if not counterproductive results. Although Hamas' leaders and fighters are on the run and the Palestinian people are in dire straits, Hamas and its surrogates still manage to resist the Israelis and galvanize the masses against Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The Israelis, meanwhile, are unhappy with their army's inability to stop the rocket attacks, and those suffering the brunt of them in Sderot are demanding an immediate solution that ends the constant threat and the accompanying psychological anguish. Although Israel is working on an air defense system to intercept short-range rockets, it is perhaps more than a year away from deployment. The current situation remains untenable because it portrays Israel as weak and indecisive before an inferior foe, which has led to the call for invading Gaza.

Considering the despicable socio-economic conditions of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, invading it, as many Israelis and some officials advocate, will not provide a long-term solution. The majority of Palestinians in Gaza have very little left to lose, and they blame Israel for their miserable existence. Given such circumstances, other than causing heavy Israeli and Palestinian casualties, an invasion will simply cause Palestinians and Arabs to rally round an embattled Hamas, making the re-occupation of Gaza by Israel, however short it is, a bloody and most costly venture for the Israelis. An invasion will play directly into Hamas' hands in other ways, too. It will derail negotiations with the PA, provoke international condemnation, create a humanitarian crisis, and leave Israel with having to find a dignified exit without any assurances that the rocket attacks will stop even before the last Israeli soldier leaves. Moreover, Hamas' fighters–alive or dead–will be seen as heroes and martyrs for having fought the mighty Israeli army. Thus the invasion, regardless of its level of success, will attract new recruits for Hamas while deepening the resolve of its followers, fueling their religious zeal to continue violent resistance at whatever cost. To be sure, an invasion will weaken Hamas militarily for a time, but it cannot eradicate it as a mass movement.

This leaves Israel with one valid option, which will take longer to implement but lead to the diminution of Hamas in the eyes of its followers and change the Palestinian political dynamic in favor of the PA in Gaza and the West Bank. The basic premise is for Israel to increasingly alienate the Palestinians living under Hamas' rule from the organization's leaders, whose policies of violent resistance have already brought more suffering than relief. This will happen not when Israel kills every Hamas member it finds but when Hamas' ideology is discredited and its strategy of violent resistance has failed, and finally, when its leadership realizes that only moderation will give the organization a legitimate political role.

With the split between Hamas and Fatah, Israel is in a much better position to alienate Hamas' followers by working closely with the PA and by making it clear that any relief Palestinians in Gaza receive comes from, or is precipitated by, the Abbas government. One of the most important steps that Israel should take is to allow the PA, along with EU monitors on the Palestinian side, to control the six crossings (one to Egypt and five to Israel). I was told by a top Palestinian official that the PA has 600 men from the Palestinian Guard ready to assume control. Opening the borders would give the population of Gaza a clear sign that the PA, under the leadership of Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, cares about their well-being, and so, for the consequent improvement in their daily lives, the PA and not Hamas will be credited. If Hamas does not allow the PA to control the crossings, the people will blame Hamas for the siege and their continued suffering.

Israel should further strengthen the PA by implementing the first steps of the Road Map: 1) Freezing expansion of existing settlements, especially those not slated to be incorporated to Israel proper by an agreement with the Palestinians, 2) dismantling illegal outposts to demonstrate Israel is committed to ending the occupation, 3) removing checkpoints not essential to Israel's security to ease the life of many Palestinians, facilitate reconstruction, and end unnecessary humiliation, 4) releasing more prisoners, an extremely sensitive issue for all Palestinians and 5) reopening national institutions in Jerusalem. These practical measures will strengthen the moderates under Mr. Abbas while weakening Hamas for failing to deliver the same goods. Surely, some of the measures will pose security risks for Israel, but then, these must be weighed against the advantages they could generate over time. That said, the PA must also demonstrate that it is leaving no stone unturned to end the violence against Israel, especially from the Al-Aksa Brigade, which is affiliated with the PA. In addition, to convince the Israeli public of its absolute commitment to peaceful coexistence, the PA must also stop all public incitements by the media, in schools, and the mosques.

Obviously no perfect recipe exists, not if we consider the nature of Hamas as a grass-roots movement and the political and social environment in which it exists. But Israel should not fall into Hamas' trap and allow the Israeli public's inflamed emotions to overrun a well reasoned and carefully executed course of action.

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