Humbling Hamas

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.

The most acute problem facing Israeli officials today is how to end the daily Qassam rocket attacks intended to demoralize Israelis and to undermine the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 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 countermeasures 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 socioeconomic conditions of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, invading it, as many Israelis and some officials advocate, would 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 would 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 would play directly into Hamas' hands in other ways, too.

It would derail negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, 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—would be seen as heroes and martyrs for having fought the mighty Israeli army. Thus an invasion, regardless of its level of success, would attract new recruits for Hamas while deepening the resolve of its followers, fuelling their religious zeal to continue violent resistance at whatever cost. To be sure, an invasion would 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 Palestinian Authority 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 Palestinian Authority and by making it clear that any relief Palestinians in Gaza receive comes from, or is precipitated by, the government of President Mahmoud Abbas. One of the most important steps that Israel should take is to allow the  Palestinian Authority, along with European Union monitors on the Palestinian side, to control the six Gaza crossings (one to Egypt and five to Israel). I was told by a top Palestinian official that the Palestinian Authority 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  Palestinian Authority, under the leadership of Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, cares about their well-being, and so, for the consequent improvement in their daily lives, the Palestinian Authority and not Hamas will be credited. If Hamas does not allow the Palestinian Authority to control the crossings, the people will blame Hamas for the siege and their continued suffering.

Israel should further strengthen the Palestinian Authority 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 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 Palestinian Authority must also demonstrate that it is leaving no stone unturned to end the violence against Israel, especially from the al-Aqsa Brigade, which is affiliated with the  Palestinian Authority. In addition, to convince the Israeli public of its absolute commitment to peaceful coexistence, the Palestinian Authority 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.

Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He teaches courses on international negotiations and Middle East studies.

This article from the Middle East Times is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.