How to effectively sanction Hamas

Comprehensive economic sanctions can backfire; they tend to consolidate regimes, as in Rhodesia, Iraq.

haniyeh finger 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
haniyeh finger 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Since 2006, following Hamas's rise to power in the Gaza Strip, Israel has applied sanctions - with de facto Egyptian approval) - against the territory. These include stricter border control, withholding public funds from institutions run by Hamas, limiting the import of various foods items such as beef, produce and pasta and restricting the import of dual-use items - i.e. fertilizers that can double as explosives, steel pipes that are used to build Kassam rockets and concrete that can be hijacked for bunkers and sub-border tunnels. The international discussion has been focused solely on whether Israel should continue applying these sanctions. However, it would be better to ask a slightly different question: What sanctions should be applied and what can they achieve? It is very unlikely that sanctions will cause the Hamas government to fall. Historically, embargoes have either failed to catalyze change, or were extremely slow in bringing it. In the best-case scenarios, sanctions have been helpful as part of a wider strategy. The pariah state of Rhodesia survived, despite full United Nation sanctions, for 15 years. Britain had believed that even minor sanctions would cause the racist regime's downfall in "a matter of weeks rather than months." Yet ultimately, eight years of bloody guerilla warfare and a global economic crisis were probably more influential in forcing Rhodesia's hand. YET EVEN South Africa, often applauded as a successful case of sanctions, is, in fact, a more complicated case. Sanctions had a limited economic effect; the 1986 sanctions imposed by the European Community were the last in a long series of international sanctions since the 1970s. A homegrown anti-Apartheid movement had been active for years and South Africa had been fighting lengthy and unpopular border wars since 1975. But, as Philip I Levy noted in his 1999 essay, negotiations with the African National Congress and regime change took place only after the Soviet Union collapsed. In other words, change became possible only after the communist threat posed to South Africa had vanished. This was 15 years after the first mandatory arms embargo had been put into effect and more than a decade since the disinvestment movement had gained momentum. South Africa was a major exporter of expensive goods - metals, diamonds, etc. - and therefore much more vulnerable to economic sanctions than the aid-dependent Gaza Strip, which exports mainly agricultural products. Perhaps Gaza is better compared to Iraq, where Saddam Hussein managed to rule for a decade, despite sanctions, until the coalition forces literally removed him from power. Comprehensive economic sanctions can backfire; they tend to consolidate regimes. While some theories hold that sanctions cause citizens to rally around the flag, economist David Rowe, in his book Manipulating the Market, suggests a very different mechanism: sanctions give the regime total control over the distribution of goods, making the population more dependent on it and thus less likely to resist. The population cannot ruffle feathers if it wishes to eat, while Hamas can sell whatever international aid it receives. In other words, had Marie Antoinette controlled the supply of cakes in France, she could have galvanized the population to fight for her cause - and the French revolution would have waited for another opportunity. Hamas's habitual looting of aid and food demonstrates that this is indeed the case in Gaza. IT IS obvious that embargoes of food and basic goods are counter-productive. The people of Gaza may or may not view Hamas as the culprit, but in any case, it is unlikely that the lack of pasta or fresh meat will goad them to overthrow their government. Furthermore, such embargoes reflect very poorly on Israel and evoke negative public opinion worldwide. They serve no purpose and thus should be lifted. The case for dual-use materials is, sadly, not so clear-cut. A simple solution would be to place responsibility for Gaza construction in the hands of international observers, until either Hamas's policies or the regime itself become relics of the past. However, the tainted record of UNRWA workers' alleged involvement in terror indicates that this logical solution is somewhat unrealistic - especially if Hamas continues to confiscate various materials by force. Unless Israel's limited approval to deliver 300 tons of concrete for UN-supervised projects happens to be successful, the sanctions must remain in place until either a method is invented for constructing homes without dual-use materials or Israel becomes willing to take the calculated risk of supplying Hamas with building materials for bunkers and rockets. An arms embargo, needless to say, is an obvious necessity. However, this does imply that Israel must control the borders of the Gaza Strip, lending credence to the claim that Israel is still occupying Gaza. Of course, according to this logic, the Royal Navy's blockade on Germany during WWI was occupation, and the mandatory UN sanctions on Iraq were also occupations. And this is without discussing Egypt's role in "occupying" Gaza and shifting the blame to Israel. Of course, Israel may eventually feel that this is a risk worth taking and close its borders with Gaza, ceasing to control its airspace and sea while fully opening Gaza's border with Egypt. This is, in effect, declaring Gaza "none of our business" and giving Hamas free rein. But that won't transform the current situation into "occupation," and isn't a very likely scenario. As long as Hamas plans to smuggle Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped in 2006, out of the Gaza Strip, Israeli public opinion would be unsupportive of any moves that grant Hamas more freedom. SO, WHAT sanctions can be applied against Hamas? Apart from controlling the border and an arms embargo, the most effective way to apply pressure on Hamas is not to indirectly pressure them via their population, but rather pressure Hamas itself, as part of a wider strategy. The international community must act, if it is interested in the welfare of Gaza's residents and curbing radical Islam. To begin with, the Hamas leaders should be prevented from traveling abroad and being officially received - including the leadership based outside Gaza. Hamas leaders, like other politicians, enjoy traveling, and rightly so - they coordinate activities such as pleading for aid and waging propaganda campaigns. In 2008-2009 alone, Hamas leaders traveled to Syria, Iran, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. This list, of course, does not include meetings conducted in Gaza or Damascus - Jimmy Carter has met with Hamas in both locales. This habit must end. Hamas, despite its uncompromising anti-Israel rhetoric, is determined to achieve political recognition. Preventing its leaders from traveling abroad and meeting with diplomats and dignitaries will affect their ability to rule - more so than denying the civilian population food and goods. In addition, any organization affiliated with Hamas should be ignored, and economic sanctions applied against individuals and businesses connected to Hamas. A legal campaign can be waged - there is no reason that an invidious legal complaint can prevent Israeli military personnel from visiting particular European countries but not the Hamas leadership, supporters and financiers. Will this dissolve Hamas's obstinacy? Hopefully, but not certainly. Both Zimbabwe and Myanmar have survived government-targeted sanctions. But hopefully by focusing the sanctions and blame where they belong - on Hamas - while keeping civilians uninvolved, this will succeed. Sanctions may not catalyze change as effectively as we would like, but this neither renders them unnecessary nor suggests we should embargo lock, stock and barrel. The writer is a military historian and associate fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center. This article was originally published by the Adelson Institute