Can ISIS bring Hamas and Israel to the negotiating table?

This scenario is not a fantasy.

A MEMBER of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MEMBER of ISIS waves the group’s flag in Raqqa
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Imagine a scenario where the leader of Hamas shakes the hand of the Israeli prime minister, and renounces the use of terrorism and violence to liberate historic Palestine. Hamas recognizes Israel’s right to exist, and in return for swearing to stop the terrorism, Israel recognizes Hamas as the legitimate government of the Gaza Strip, and as part of a united Palestinian government.
This scenario is not a fantasy.
It is the case of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization reaching an understanding, despite a long history of violence, terrorism and non-recognition.
By signing the Oslo Accords in 1993, each party assured the other recognition of its legitimacy and right to exist.
Because Israel’s relationship with the PLO was transformed in such a way, why is it unthinkable for the same to repeat with Hamas? Hamas is surely not Israel’s biggest threat. The Iranian nuclear project, hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah missiles, and Iranian bases in Syria’s Golan, when put together, amount to a threat to Israel’s existence.
And with a combination of Islamic State (ISIS) moving its resources, weapons and fighters to the Sinai Peninsula, and the security and economic situation in Gaza continuing to deteriorate, Hamas could soon become an outdated version of what it once was, potentially being replaced in Gaza by a group like ISIS.
Secular, nationalist and diplomatically tied to the Arab League, the PLO carried out deadly terrorist attacks against Israel. From its bases in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied territories, they organized massacres and plane hijackings, often killing scores of Israeli civilians.
For years, Israel’s position on the PLO was that it was not to be negotiated with, not to be recognized and not to be legitimized internationally.
Over the next few decades, the PLO had become all of these things. Israel signed the Oslo Accords in 1993 with the PLO, following the First Intifada, from which Hamas was born, as a new, more radical force on the ground, which threatened the PLO’s monopoly on influence in the occupied territories. In line with the agreement, the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and renounced the use of violence. In exchange, Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Subsequently, the PLO changed its strategy of liberating Palestine, as outlined it the Palestinian National Covenant, from armed struggle to negotiation and diplomacy.
Today, it has become legitimized internationally, enjoying recognition and diplomatic relations with over 100 states and observer status at the United Nations.
THE OSLO Accords attempted to create a new Palestinian government, the Palestinian Authority. The PA was designed to be a new and reformed government, distant from the PLO’s militant past. However, Yasser Arafat held on to the PLO by a thread, by becoming the president of the new PA while remaining the chairman of the PLO, thus maintaining the legitimacy of the PLO. Both positions were succeeded to by Mahmoud Abbas, who is the current chairman and president.
The PLO, despite its history of terrorism and militancy, has been interwoven into the new Palestinian government.
A government to which Israel has offered multiple proposals for Palestinian sovereignty.
Hamas in Gaza today is threatened by the rise of ISIS, as the group continues to grow and increase in power and influence in the Sinai and Gaza Strip. The Islamic State in Sinai, or Walayat Sinai, is the strongest branch remaining of ISIS. Many of its members are battle hardened from combat in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and its ranks consist of many al-Qaida and Hamas defectors.
The group recently declared war against Hamas in a video published online.
In the video, showing the execution of a Hamas fighter, the ISIS fighter encouraged followers of the group to attack Hamas. “Never surrender to them. Use explosives, silenced pistols and sticky bombs. Bomb their courts and their security locations, for these are the pillars of tyranny that prop up its throne,” were the words of an Islamic terrorist organization against another.
ISIS blames Hamas for failing to prevent US President Donald Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, and worse, failing in its major objective of replacing Israel with an Islamic state.
Hamas has long been battling to retain its monopoly on power, violence and ideology in Gaza. Groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees and other Salafist and jihadist groups aligned with or inspired by al-Qaida and ISIS have become serious threats to its regime. Hamas has struggled to crack down on these groups, arresting and torturing fighters sympathetic to ISIS. In a new trend, Hamas has even prevented these groups from firing rockets at Israel, and punished them for doing so, desperately trying to avoid another war, which would surely mark the end of its regime.
By doing this, Hamas is allowing groups like ISIS to exploit people’s suffering from poor economic conditions and the narrative of Hamas repressing Islamist groups in Gaza which it disagrees with.
Unemployment is at 46%, there is no opportunity, or hope. Gaza’s economy has been crippled by the Israeli and Egyptian embargo, political disputes with the PA, and 10 years of Hamas rule, in all its corruption and brutality, in addition to three devastating wars with Israel. The reconciliation agreement with Fatah is losing the Gazan Finance Ministry $14.5 million in taxes from border crossings, and resolution with the PA further alienates Hamas from its supporters.
THE AVERAGE citizen in Gaza is lucky to get up to four hours of electricity a day. A 2017 UN report concluded that Gaza would indeed be unlivable, according to its standards, by 2020. De-funding the UN agency that oversees the welfare of Palestinian refugees (a move which the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the defense establishment and the Shin Bet [Israeli Security Agency] oppose) would only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
This would help actors like ISIS gain more of a foothold in Gaza, exploiting the people’s contempt for Hamas, potentially destabilizing the Gaza Strip.
The security situation in Gaza has been deteriorating for years, and Hamas must take the initiative to improve life for Gazans, while keeping down radical Islamist groups which threaten the security of the region and Hamas’ authority. Hamas must take the initiative to improve life for Gazans, or face insurrection inspired by the Salafist and jihadist groups which threaten its power, including the Islamic State. Forty-five percent of the population in Gaza is under the age of 14, and if steps are not taken by Hamas to immediately improve the situation for Gazan residents, the frustrations and anger at Hamas of that generation will be subject to exploitation by the rising Islamist group, the Islamic State in Sinai.
Hamas has chosen to crack down on these jihadist groups. It would instead be in its best interest to reach some sort of ideological understanding with them, and not play into their narrative that Hamas is acting as Israel’s enforcer of occupation, just as Hamas and its supporters see the PA.
Not only can ISIS argue that Hamas is a servant of Israel, it can point to the group’s warm ties with Iran, its chief supplier of arms and funds. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has called Yahya Sinwar and other top Hamas officials “nothing but glorified salesmen for the Shi’ites,” showing no real care or compassion for the people of Gaza and only serving the interests of Tehran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Iran is also the chief financier and aid supplier of ISIS’s biggest adversaries in the Syrian an Iraqi theaters, the Assad regime and Hezbollah.
Both of which are described by ISIS as butchers of Sunni Muslims. Hamas’s continued relationship with Iran could be a point of weakness in its fight against the influence of ISIS.
ISIS and its supporters in Gaza now see Hamas as Hamas saw the PLO 30 years ago, during the First Intifada: corrupt, ineffective and most importantly, not Islamic enough. Hamas has drifted from the true path of Islam, and its secularism and corruption are exactly what made the PLO give up its ambitions to liberate Palestine.
In ISIS’s eyes, Hamas is no less heretical than the PA.
This message, reinforced by Hamas crackdowns on Islamist groups, which are perceived as protecting Israel, is only working against Hamas’ interests and in the favor of the extremists like ISIS.
With this, Hamas remains in a difficult position. It must continue to hold power in Gaza by improving the living conditions of Gazans, crack down on dissenters sympathetic to ISIS without appearing to be serving the interests of Israel or he PA, all the while avoiding another war with Israel. As Islamic State in Sinai continues to grow, allowing for further allocation of resources in Gaza, this will become much more difficult. The current situation in Gaza leaves room for ISIS to gain influence and support among the population, frustrated with and distrustful of Hamas.
Its increasing influence will push Hamas toward the arms of Israel, to maintain whatever credibility it may still have. This will only further alienate the group from the Gazan population which it has tormented for a decade.
Mutual recognition and the renouncement of Palestinian terrorism would have been unthinkable in the ‘60s or ‘70s. However, by 1993, the PLO became the group with which Israel negotiated, and recognized as the representative of the Palestinian people.
Ten years after the 2007 military takeover of Gaza, Israel sees Hamas as it saw the PLO in the past. However, if Hamas does not do anything to improve conditions in Gaza, or more effectively combat the increasing influence of ISIS, it will find itself disregarded by Gazans and replaced by an even more radical group. In the next 30 years, it could be the rise of ISIS in Gaza which brings Hamas and Israel to the negotiating table.
The author is a student at Western Michigan University studying international and comparative politics, and Arabic.
He specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, with a special focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.