Report / Middle East & North Africa 5 minutes

Dealing With Hamas

The escalating cycle of Israeli-Palestinian military confrontation since September 2000, the breakdown in mutual trust and continued suicide bombings by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) – the most recent on 14 January 2004 – have returned the problem of how to deal with Hamas to the centre of the Israeli-Palestinian political and diplomatic equation.

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Executive Summary

The escalating cycle of Israeli-Palestinian military confrontation since September 2000, the breakdown in mutual trust and continued suicide bombings by the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) – the most recent on 14 January 2004 – have returned the problem of how to deal with Hamas to the centre of the Israeli-Palestinian political and diplomatic equation.

For many Israeli and U.S., and some Palestinian, officials, confrontation is the only acceptable answer. Hamas opposes Israel’s existence. Its ideology and actions contradict the very concept of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence and seek to escalate the conflict. It has repeatedly committed horrendous acts of terrorism against civilians and sabotaged progress towards a political settlement. The argument is that a meaningful ceasefire, let alone durable peace, is impossible without defeating Hamas militarily.

Yet Israel’s policy of harsh military and punitive economic measures has significantly increased Hamas’s influence in the occupied territories, advancing its goal of dominating the Palestinian political scene. Conditioning political progress on the immediate dismantling of Hamas’s military infrastructure – in effect demanding an improbable Palestinian civil war in exchange for more tolerable occupation conditions – has given Hamas a veto over political progress. Isolating Yasir Arafat and weakening the Palestinian Authority (PA) have reduced the ability, and arguably the incentive, that either may have to contain the Islamists. Killing Hamas’s leaders and militants, while perhaps temporarily dissuading it from large scale terror operations, has not reduced the numbers of Palestinians ready to undertake such attacks in the hope of advancing their cause.

Deciding how best to deal with Hamas requires understanding its nature and role on the Palestinian scene, where Islamism has been an integral and expanding part of the political landscape for at least half a century. Sometimes primarily social and reformist, at other times violent and highly politicised, Islamism is an increasingly popular mixture of both, making Hamas today an ever more serious rival to Fatah and the nationalist Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

The reasons for its strength are varied, including clear ideology, simple agenda, cultivation of a popular base, effective social welfare network, Islamic credentials and ability to hurt Israel. Its stature among Palestinians also derives from PA failures as a proto-state to protect its people’s well being and as a political actor to promote its self-determination. Throughout the Oslo process, Hamas has bet on PA inability to deliver and, so far, it appears to have wagered successfully. It has also been tactically flexible. Unlike most radical Palestinian groups, secular or Islamist, it is sensitive to public opinion, skilful at reading popular moods and acting in ways that are basically congruent – or at least not inconsistent – with them.

For these reasons, a strategy based on military action alone, however attractive it remains to all those appalled by Hamas’s record of violence, is unlikely to meet the security and ideological challenge the Islamist movement presents. The task is to devise, if possible, a workable alternative.

The best and surest course would be to mobilise real pressure on Hamas to join the mainstream by closing down its military wing, or risk becoming increasingly vulnerable and irrelevant. ICG has repeatedly argued for replacing the incremental, step-by-step strategy of the Roadmap with an ‘endgame’ strategy involving forceful international presentation – led by the U.S. – of a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian settlement blueprint.[fn]See ICG Middle East Reports N°2, Middle East Endgame I: Getting To A Comprehensive Arab-Israeli Peace Settlement and N°3, Middle East Endgame II: How A Comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian Peace Settlement Would Look; 16 July 2002, available at See also now the Geneva Accord negotiated by teams of Israelis and Palestinians under the leadership of Yossi Beilin and Yaser Abed Rabbo, announced 1 December 2003: Footnote  That would help mobilise Palestinian constituencies while isolating rejectionists and empowering the PA to act against them.

For now, unfortunately, such a strategy does not appear on the horizon. Instead, U.S. policy has been reduced to the oft-repeated position that no progress will be made unless and until the Palestinian leadership takes decisive steps to end the violence.

But waiting for a “reliable Palestinian partner” to emerge is a recipe for paralysis, or worse: only a credible political process can produce an effective Palestinian leadership, not the other way around. The results of current policy are manifest: the Palestinian Authority’s power has eroded. The traditionally dominant Fatah is fragmented organisationally and geographically. And Hamas has only become stronger and more popular.

In this context, there would appear to be no realistic choice but to try to prevent an escalating spiral of violence and stem the disintegration of authority on the Palestinian side by bringing Hamas into the equation – by pursuing simultaneously a negotiated ceasefire (involving the PA, the Islamist movement and Israel, backed by credible regional and international guarantees and a monitoring mechanism) and a new internal Palestinian political consensus (involving the mainstream secular movement, its Islamist rival and other Palestinian factions).

Full dismantling of Hamas’s military capacity appears out of reach in the absence of a comprehensive peace, but the movement will need to provide early evidence that its adherence to the ceasefire is more than a recuperation tactic and represents a strategic decision to become a non-violent political player.

Although Hamas publicly defines its priorities by the conflict with Israel, it has an important domestic agenda, and during recent ceasefire talks it demanded political stature more commensurate with its popular backing. If Hamas takes all necessary steps to end violence, the option of giving it a formal political role should be pursued by levelling the Palestinian political field through elections or other power-sharing arrangements so it could pursue social and political agendas peacefully as an Islamist party in a pluralistic polity.

An assessment shared by many former and current Israeli security officials is that only a national authority viewed as legitimate by the broad majority of Palestinians will be capable of dealing with the challenge dissenting Palestinians pose to prospects of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Given the PA’s weakening and Fatah’s fragmentation, reaching a Palestinian consensus that eschews further violence and clearly accepts the principles inherent in a viable two-state solution may no longer be possible without including the growing Islamist constituency of which Hamas has become the principal representative.

All that said, even if the recommendations made below are accepted, any respite almost inevitably will be short-lived and Hamas’s power will only grow, unless the ceasefire is rapidly followed by the kind of intensive, comprehensive peace strategy ICG has constantly argued for. Palestinians need to be convinced that they are moving rapidly toward an acceptable political solution in order to marginalise those intent on armed confrontation and to empower those willing to block them.

Amman/Brussels, 26 January 2004

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