Theater of Cruelty

Hamas is the perfect answer to Israel's strategy

Sometimes, one would wish that political metaphors were not so thin. For the result of the Palestinian elections last Wednesday was exactly the "political earthquake" that the world has summarized afterwards.


[Palestine] Over one week after, the worst shock has subsided. The international community has replaced condemnation and confusion with the search for a new strategy vis-à-vis Hamas. Respect for democratic elections has been one of the fig leaves. That Hamas must renounce terrorist acts and recognize Israel has been the unified and absolute demands.

But few have spoken highly about Hamas's perfect response to the Israeli strategy.

Political program

When considering different scenarios for the further conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, it is striking how the two parties complement each other, as two pieces in a puzzle no one dares to put.

Make a very unlikely hypothesis, namely that real peace negotiations will start. Then again, the demand will come for the Palestinians to give up all forms of terrorism, be it rocket attacks or suicide bombings.

No one is more suited to fulfill such a demand than the group that has most clearly and most systematically insisted on their right to armed resistance. With its rocky discipline and rigid command lines, Hamas has been the party that has best complied with the ceasefire over the past year. This must mean that there is a pragmatism in the party that allows for peaceful relations with Israel, in the sense that the weapons are silent at least.

Or, take another scenario, namely that Israel continues its unilateral line of disconnecting from the entire conflict. In that case, the Palestinians will need a government capable of administering the quasi-state that will be the result of the unilateral "peace". If there is anything Hamas has shown after the series of local electoral victories, it is that they control far more effectively than Fatah. The Palestinians' well-being is a domain that Hamas has exclusive rights to in this torn-down area.

Hamas has something Fatah lacks, namely a political program. In addition to health, education and social issues, the party will target the Palestinian economy and its labor market to the Arab countries. This means that they want an end to Israel's control over imports and exports.

It is a policy that both suits and does not suit the Israelis. Control of the Palestinian economy has been used by Israel to bring the other party to its knees. On the other hand, Israel has always wanted the Palestinians to move toward the Arab world, not least physically – by leaving biblical Judea and Samaria and wandering across the Jordan River. Which of these factors will count most for the Israelis remains to be seen. But the Israeli authorities are already under pressure to allow the Palestinians to trade freely with the rest of the world. It is therefore conceivable that Israel will not put obstacles in the way of such a development.

Secular collapse

There is a very banal explanation for why the Islamists ran away with the victory during the parliamentary elections. And that is that Hamas won because Fatah lost. The reason for the startling result lies as much in the other party's weakness as in its own strength.

Why has Fatah broken down so completely? The simple explanation lies in weak leadership, accelerating struggle for profit and resources, corruption and nepotism, as well as a clan-based social structure that has shaped the various factions within the security forces.

On a more general level, the collapse is due to a more general development throughout the Arab world, where secular ideologies such as Nazarism, Baathism and Pan-Arabism have collapsed in favor of religiously inspired movements. The secular regimes in most Arab states never managed to deliver a successful modernization, and were further weakened when the Soviet Union disappeared.

The PLO, with Fatah at its core, shared this secular and partly optimistic worldview. But the party had an advantage that others lacked: the Oslo process endowed Fatah with a potential to crown a long political battle with victory. Finally, the Palestinian state was to emerge, and it was the old exile leadership that was to deliver it, on the shoulders of the home front, that had driven an intifada against Israel.

The peace process covered rival tendencies in Fatah, and kept Hamas in check. But there was never any state. Fatah failed to wring concessions out of Israel, and was increasingly stigmatized. When hope died, the collapse of this secular party was a disaster just waiting for its rendezvous with history.

By not giving Yasser Arafat, and subsequently Mahmoud Abbas, some state of his own, Israel gave the opening to Hamas that the Islamists had been waiting for. It is therefore not right that the election result will end the peace process in the Middle East. The Hamas victory came as a result of this process already dead.

Tactical maneuver

For Israel, Hamas is not a bad card. Government power will probably neutralize part of the armed resistance, at least if Hamas manages to maintain its discipline and hierarchical decision-making structure. And if that does not happen, the Israelis will gain more legitimacy for their unilateral line. The rest of the world will fully understand that Israel cannot negotiate with the "terrorists" on the other side of the wall.

Israel may therefore be in a win-win situation, completely independent of rhetoric: they will either have fewer suicide bombers across the border, increased understanding of "the separate peace", or both. But that presupposes that the election does not generate civil war. And that in turn depends on whether the rest of the world is willing to cooperate with Hamas and continue to support the Palestinian state financially.

Both Israel, the EU and the USA are concerned with maintaining the greatest possible stability in this region. They will therefore hesitate to take measures that increase the chaos and the risk of collapse. The continuation of Mahmoud Abbas as president will make it easier for the major players to inject economic and political capital into Palestine in the future as well. Hamas has made it clear that it will hand over the entire foreign policy agenda to Abbas, including all forms of diplomatic relations. It is a tactical maneuver not to scare away the donor countries, but it also shows a pragmatism and a flexibility among the Islamists that the world will probably see more of in the future.

The greatest threat to a peaceful change of power does not come from outside, but from within. It is the Palestinian security forces with their 60.000 men and quantities of weapons that are holding the fate of Palestine in their hollow hand right now. If the political Fatah can cope with the defeat, it is not at all certain that the military Fatah can.

There is a lot at stake for the many factions that make up today's national army. They could lose money, prestige and influence if Hamas takes action to eliminate corruption. They can also lose their weapons and their status as security forces if the Islamists choose to focus on their own armed groups.

High effort

The political Fatah is, paradoxically, in a more favorable situation than feared. The miserable election result means that they can refuse to sit with Hamas in government without appearing as bad losers. From that position, they can await the further situation, in the hope that the Islamists will either have to make painful compromises or play themselves beyond the sidelines.

For Hamas itself, efforts are high, with the possibility of internal divisions along several lines of conflict: the military against the political, the exile leadership in Syria against the home front in Palestine.

The degree of division will depend on what concessions the Islamists are willing to grant.

It also depends on what Israel does. The Israelis will probably continue their unilateral line of separation and withdrawal, because this is what is serving the Israeli state right now.

It will mean a new feather in the cap for Hamas, which can already claim to have won the war in Gaza. But will they recognize Israel and renounce terrorism?

It has been a long time since the Islamists found out that they had an alternative to violence, namely to live with their neighbors in a permanent ceasefire. But they will hesitate to say it out loud. Just as the Israelis have never said out loud that the peace process on their part has been dead and buried for several years. n

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