Hamas and Israel: Strange Bedfellows

Israel had no choice but to cut this deal with Hamas, which has made itself an indispensable player, thanks both to its military wing and to its victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of January 2006.

On June 19, Israel and the Islamist political/militia group Hamas began an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire after months of dithering. The terms (not officially revealed) apparently provide that Hamas will cease launching rockets at Israel from Gaza, Israel will not attack Gaza, and Israel will increase the supplies allowed into the enclave. It is limited to Gaza, does not include the West Bank, and is supposed to last six months.

Although a few rockets have since been launched by non-Hamas factions, and Israel retaliated by temporarily reimposing the blockade, two weeks into the ceasefire, as this is written, it seems that a stabilization has occurred. Among other things, Hamas has made clear it will move against any Palestinian group attempting to disrupt the peace.

Paradoxically, this ceasefire (tahdiya, or "calming" in Arabic), which was met by much skepticism, may actually have a better chance of survival than did failed previous agreements hailed by shouts of joy and quotations from Koran and Bible. We should not write off this latest attempt, despite the gloomy prognostications that accompanied it.

First, there is no other option. Both sides are convinced that the other only understands the language of force. And both may be right. Thus, there are few illusions regarding the beginning of an era of peace and friendship.

Second, both are credible when it comes to use of force. Israel and Hamas are terrified of being considered weak, and so invariably react violently when attacked. Although Israel is by any measure immensely stronger, destruction of the other side is concededly impossible for either. Thus, even though there is no "monitor," both know that violations on their side will be met by a quick, effective, and probably deadly response. And thus it has been to date.

Third, both sides needed the ceasefire. Gaza had been blockaded by Israel for a year, and while Gazans were not exactly starving, only their most basic needs were being met. Ingress and egress were virtually impossible, while Israeli air and land raids in retaliation for Qassam attacks were frequent. Most Israelis suffered far less (except for those civilians whose lives were snuffed out or whose property was destroyed by rockets), but Israel's inability to end the rocket attacks embarrassed the government and infuriated its citizens.

Finally, they both rightly feared the ominous consequences of continued fighting. In spite of their notorious inaccuracy, a Qassam rocket was bound to hit an Israeli school or hospital sooner or later, killing a number of Israelis. Israel would feel it had no option but to retaliate, probably with a partial or full-scale invasion of Gaza. Dozens of Israeli soldiers would likely be killed along with hundreds of Palestinians. And then what? Israel would be occupying Gaza again. Been there, done that.

Both sides correctly see the ceasefire as an embarrassment for Israel, a country whose government strenuously resisted any dealings with Hamas. Nevertheless, Israel had no choice but to cut this deal with Hamas, which has made itself an indispensable player, thanks both to its military wing and to its victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of January 2006. Hamas now threatens to eclipse Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority (P.A.) with whom Israel is attempting to negotiate a permanent peace in the so-called "Annapolis process," about which pessimism likewise abounds.

Assuming that Annapolis does not produce an agreement by early 2009 (and even if it does), dealing with Hamas could well become unavoidable for both the P.A. and Israel if it succeeds both in maintaining the ceasefire and its standing among Palestinians. This ceasefire period thus serves as an important test for both parties: If a peace agreement cannot be reached and implemented between the P.A. and Israel, Israel and Hamas, along with the P.A., may have to devise a long-term coexistence agreement—an agreement that may not be peace, but would effectively prevent war. This might resemble the U.S.-U.S.S.R. cold war of the last century, seemingly not a desirable outcome, except when compared to the alternative: a perpetual guerrilla war of bombings, revenge attacks, and terror.

Thus, the ceasefire is politically important because it recognizes the inescapable reality of Hamas' presence in current Israeli-Palestinian relations. Hamas is unlikely to change its religiously based ideology, but has nevertheless sent strong signals that it recognizes the need to coexist with Israel. If Annapolis does not succeed in settling the conflict through empowerment of the P.A., non-violent coexistence with Hamas may be a reality as early as next year. It is not a joyful vision, but it could work for both parties' self-interest, as well as that of the many other countries that devoutly wish this conflict off the front pages. The new American and Palestinian presidents, and the probable new Israeli prime minister, would thus have to come to terms with a very different political environment.

Paul Scham is an Adjunct Scholar at the Middle East Institute and coeditor of the book Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue. Assertions and opinions in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.