The June 12, 1970, edition of Life magazine featured a photograph of Palestinian children with AK-47s, with the caption, “the tiger cubs train in Jordan” who had “pride and unity.” Just over forty-four years later, on July 12, 2014, Hamas launched two rockets toward Jerusalem, which landed in Bethlehem and Hebron. It was the latest in a war that has not gone Hamas’s way; in which the organization’s goals have gone unnoticed, if it ever had any goals, and where it has been, so far, unable to muster support for the suffering of people in Gaza.
Hamas has done more harm to the Palestinian movement in the past two decades, than any opponent of the Palestinians could have done. It has sabotaged relations with a sympathetic media through muddled press conferences and moronic bombastic statements about “opening the gates of hell.” It has driven out international supporters, managed to decrease the support it did have among various “free Gaza” committees and “shot its bolt” in its various ill-conceived wars with Israel.
How did Hamas engineer such a defeat? As a religious Islamist movement it was never very palatable, yet it rode a wave of democratization in the Middle East whereby Islamist movements exploited democracy to weasel their way into government. In the 1990s it seemed to gain “street credibility” fighting against the Oslo Accords and speaking out against corruption. Sweeping student elections, it later won 41 percent of the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. A civil war between it and Fatah in Gaza, in the wake of Israel’s disengagement, brought it to power but left it isolated. It withered, as PA President Mahmoud Abbas built up his security forces in the West Bank, with the aid of US security assistance.
It gained a respite with the election of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt in 2012. But like Morsi, it over-reached and overestimated its military chances against Israel. It must have gained hope from Turkey’s Islamist government AK party and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s strong messages of support. But the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010 seems like a high point of Turkish resolve. Hamas’ other erstwhile friends in Iran and Hezbollah; although Shi’ite extremists, seemed like they might bolster the organization. The 2006 Lebanon War, which was roundly seen as a blunder for Israel, was a by-product of Hamas’ own kidnapping of Gilad Schalit that year. But Hezbollah and Iran were drawn into the Syrian quagmire and Hamas was left alone. The overthrow of Morsi by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in Egypt put another nail in the blockade around Gaza as Sisi sought to root out terror in Sinai. Pro-Gaza activists from the West were roughed up routinely in Egypt.
Whereas Hamas could once propagate stories about flour or electricity shortages in Gaza, the international media and activists began to shrug their shoulders. Another perennial sewage problem? In June of 2014 Reuters noted, “sewage at the beach, piles of garbage mar Gaza’s summer.” Various alarmist UN statements, such as a 2008 claim that the “blockage [by Israel and Egypt] is putting Gaza at risk of starvation” were met with a yawn. Hamas’ Gaza policy, with its need for international attention, has been marred particularly by the mass atrocities that have been taking place throughout the Middle East. Media outlets like the BBC caught on to the fact that images from Syria are routinely passed off as being from Gaza and there is less international outrage at Israel than in previous years as the European public is inured to suffering in the region.
This latest round of violence is indicative. Al-Jazeera cobbled together various world leaders’ reactions to the conflict. The usual suspects were there – but were markedly tepid in their criticism of Israel. The Arab League wanted a “meeting.” The Iranian foreign ministry asked that the Zionists not create a humanitarian catastrophe. Venezuela was the only one rising to the occasion: “The Bolivarian Government of Venezuela vigorously condemns the unfair and disproportionate military response by the illegal state of Israel against the heroic Palestinian people.” Although Arab media printed cartoons laced with anti-Semitism, the usual pro-Palestinian narrative was deminished. Al-Watan in Saudi Arabia said Hamas had a “bad relationship with the world.” Bakir Oweida at Al-Arabiya noted “the least that must be said is that Palestinian leaders from across the political spectrum...have committed political miscalculations that have forced the Palestinians...to endure more than they could cope with.”
Hamas perhaps thought that it could heat up the conflict in the wake of the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir against the backdrop of rioting by the Israeli-Arab community. It sent a crack team of “naval commandos” to raid Kibbutz Zikim, which lies next to Gaza. The commandos were picked off, one by one, by Israel as they came ashore. Hamas could have stopped then. It knew Israel was scoring a near perfect success rate in downing rockets over major metropolitan areas. But the organization has no other arrows in its quiver.
Its only consolation prize has come from the odd crowd of talking heads who are devotees of proportionalism; Robert Fisk in The Independent complaining that Israel’s “exchange rate of death” was 40-0; Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer claiming the Iron Dome missile shield was “unsportsmanlike” or the bizarro-world article by Peter Coy in Businessweek claiming “Iron Dome’s very success makes Israel look worse in the eyes of the world” because few Israelis were suffering.
It remains to be seen if Gaza will once again become a hot-button issue. The recent conflict did rouse Tony Blair, the Quartet Envoy, and he went to Cairo to claim that it was reaching a “crisis” and argued that Egypt should help end the violence. But Blair in Cairo does not an international response make, and it would appear that Hamas has badly overplayed its hand and perhaps buried Gazan hopes with it.