Palestinian militants of the Islamist movement Hamas' military wing Al-Qassam Brigades.
(photo credit: SAID KHATIB / AFP)
The Hamas movement was born in 1987 as part of an internal Palestinian response to a sense by some that the Palestinian national movement headed by Yasser Arafat was going to make unacceptable concessions on Palestinian rights.
Inspired by the rise of political Islam in other parts of the Middle East and backed ideologically and financially by the Muslim Brotherhood movement on the Sunni side and Iran on the Shi’ite side, Hamas deepened its support within the Palestinian people. Starting years before, under license from the Israeli military government in Gaza, Hamas’s founders established a network of social welfare and educational systems around the local mosques that endeared the movement’s leaders to the people.
Hamas was and is a Palestinian national movement; it is not a pan-Islamic movement seeking a caliphate across the globe. Hamas is a radical ideological movement that is deeply anti-Israel. Hamas seeks to liberate Palestine from the Zionists and for Palestine to be a state based on Islam. Hamas’s appeal to the Palestinian public emerged and grew from a sense of it being more pure in its nationalism and in its defense of Palestine. Hamas was and is against Oslo because they believed and still believe that negotiating with Israel from a position of weakness, after giving up the armed struggle and the right to resist with all forms of resistance ends up with serving Israel’s interests to continue the occupation and to expand settlements in all parts of the land of Palestine. In the eyes of Hamas, Oslo was a failure and Yasser Arafat and then Mahmoud Abbas collaborated with Israel in a master plan that rewarded the few with billions of dollars at the expense of the many, who lost their country, their land and their national pride.
In the view of Hamas, Israel understands only the language of force and even then Israel will violate every agreement made and must be constantly reminded that Hamas is willing to send its people to die at any given time for the sake of Palestine, Islam, Jerusalem and Allah. Pillar of Defense, as Israel calls it, the war of the summer of 2014, lasted 51 days and extracted a painful price from Israel and a more painful price from Gaza. Israel was convinced that it had reset its deterrence, something that Hamas laughs at every day. Hamas ended the war after 51 days because they believed that there was a chance, with Egyptian support, that Israel would implement the agreements made that would effectively end the siege on Gaza.
Hamas continued to build its strength with more advanced rockets, tunnels and other military capabilities. Hamas has never believed that it can defeat Israel militarily, but Hamas knows that it can extract pain from Israel, as it has done over the past eight months with balloons and kites and weekly demonstrations on the border. More than 240 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed over those months and there is no shortage of hundreds of more willing to pay the same price. The “March of Return” has not really been about the actual return of Palestinian refugees to homes that are now inside of the State of Israel (which they truly believe is their right). Even though the notion of return is very strong in the Palestinian identity, the March of Return has been about ending the siege on Gaza. It is not about $90 million from Qatar to pay salaries; it is about putting an end to the totally unacceptable cage that Gaza has become over the past 10 years. Israel should not be so naïve to believe that Hamas will agree to a cease-fire for some dollars while Gaza remains closed to the world.
Israel continues to act with the belief that it can deter Hamas and the two million people in Gaza with a continual show of massive military force. That will not happen, as I said repeatedly in the media in 2014. Hamas’s elite fighting units are composed mostly of the sons and brothers and fathers of Shahids – martyrs in the Hamas language – who have been promised revenge and a death of honor, a death for the homeland and for Allah. You cannot deter people who are completely prepared to die.
This is the case for the Hamas leaders as well. They are not afraid to die for their beliefs. Perhaps they would prefer to live and have their children live as well, but they do not live in fear of Israeli missiles and snipers. Israel continues to believe that Hamas can be bought with dollars. Israel continues to believe that Hamas shoots rockets at Israel because they cannot afford to pay the salaries of the government people in Gaza or their military people. This is detached from reality.
Hamas has been promised by Israel for years that in exchange for quiet, in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, and two Israel citizens who are believed to be alive, Israel will allow massive investments in Gaza to take place in the fields of water, energy, sewage, the economy. Hamas believes Israel just about as much as Israel believes Hamas. Promises and propositions have been made before many times, neither side has kept them.
Israel’s strategy vis-à-vis Gaza for more than 10 years now, is to leave a weakened Hamas in power with Gaza always on the verge of humanitarian crisis. Israel under Netanyahu has been very satisfied with the split between Ramallah and Gaza and with Hamas in power in Gaza and a divided Palestinian political house. The Netanyahu mantra that there is no partner and no one to negotiate with removed all pressure from Israel to launch a genuine peace initiative. Israel continues to do whatever it wants in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has cooperated with Israel in mowing the heads of Hamas in the West Bank, enabling it to stay in power. The false hope of most Palestinians of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, or between Ramallah and Gaza has been kept alive while Hamas refuses to give up power to Abbas, and Abbas refuses to give up power by going back to the people and enabling new elections.
Once again, Israel has been negotiating with Hamas to bypass Abbas, now enlisting Qatar to help, but neither side is genuine in those negotiations. Hamas will not include the return of the bodies of the two soldiers in the cease-fire deal; Israel won’t really end the siege and neither side will seriously remove its military options. At the same time, Israel will not negotiate with Abbas and honestly declare its intention to enable a Palestinian state to be established. Gaza will not be a separate Palestinian state as long as the Palestinian people have a say in the matter.
There are strategic solutions for Gaza, but those solutions are not separate from the strategic solutions for the West Bank. Those strategic choices that have to be made by both peoples and their leaders cannot ignore the reality of the existence of two peoples, just about equal in size between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That will not change.
If Israel truly wants a strategic solution for Gaza, it means negotiating the end of the occupation in the West Bank also, allowing Palestine to be a state with two branches and a connection between them. Palestinians, in the West Bank and Gaza will have to agree to new elections that will determine the future of their people and their land. Those elections have a chance of a positive outcome if there is some positive horizon for Palestinian to see. Otherwise, with each round of warfare, Hamas and the idea of Hamas grows stronger in the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people for standing up to mighty Israel and demonstrating a heroic willingness to die for the cause.
The author is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and her neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.
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