The proximity of renewed violence

Hamas’s patrons have an interest in diverting international attention from themselves.

hamas man 311 (photo credit: AP)
hamas man 311
(photo credit: AP)
For reasons both good and misunderstood, efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace are strongly associated with terrorism.
The resumption of peace talks, this time through US envoy George Mitchell, makes it imperative to appreciate the relationship between negotiations and violence in order to prevent a return to the bloody days.
One of the most commonly believed myths regarding the Oslo days is that Hamas opposed the process and consistently tried to torpedo it through the use of terrorism.
This understanding is largely unsupported by the historical data, which show that after early 1996, peace process activity was inversely correlated with Hamas attacks. It was only after the process collapsed in late 2000 that Hamas and its political rivals sought to outdo each other in terms of terrorist violence , leading to record numbers of both attacks and casualties.
The reasons for this are straightforward, if somewhat counterintuitive, given Hamas’s hard - line public statements and documented positions. However, the use of terrorism was and remains a matter of short- and long-term interests and incentives. In the 1990s Hamas had much to gain from the peace process at little cost. From its perspective, Israeli withdrawals from and redeployments in the West Bank and Gaza were highly desirable (if insufficient), and its leaders never had to betray either their principles or positions by deigning to sit down and negotiate with their Israeli rivals. Moreover, once Israel conditioned progress on the cessation of violence (after the then-unprecedented wave of attacks in February and March 1996), not only was Hamas terrorism disincentivized, but the nascent Palestinian Authority also had a stronger interest in keeping Hamas in check.
THE PALESTINIAN political terrain has shifted dramatically since 2000. The post- Oslo second intifada with its campaign of costly suicide attacks, Operation Defensive Shield during which the IDF redeployed into major West Bank cities, the disengagement from Gaza, the Hamas victory in the 2006 legislative elections, the kidnapping of Gilad Schalit, the Hamas seizure of power in Gaza in 2007, the rockets fired at the Negev, Operation Cast Lead and other developments have combined to change the various parties’ interests and goals.
For now, numerous factors, in addition to the separation barrier, are acting to keep Hamas’s bombers at home. First, as IDF commanders are quick to point out, is Israel’s deterrent threat, which was only partially actualized during Operation Cast Lead.
Hamas leaders have expressed their desire not to reengage with the IDF in Gaza anytime soon. Second, Israel’s and the PA security forces’ counterterrorism efforts continue apace and have led to the capture or death of important Hamas terrorists.
Third, recent public opinion polls show that a majority of Palestinians support a two-state solution (under difficult conditions); damaging the process that is supposed to lead to that outcome, unlikely though it may be, could backfire.
Fourth, Hamas continues to strive for international legitimacy. It is in this light that recent Russian demands for Hamas’s inclusion in the peace process should be seen. Even though the group itself has shown no inclination to engage in peace negotiations with or to recognize Israel, a reacceleration of terrorism could threaten Hamas’s already weak diplomatic standing. Finally, Hamas appears interested in securing the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Schalit, and is unlikely to jeopardize any deal in the offing.
The fragility of the current situation , combined with US President Barack Obama’s rather clumsy approach to the conflict so far, helps explain the hardening of Palestinian negotiating positions regarding settlements and Jerusalem.
Since Hamas is sitting on the sidelines, it has a freer hand to challenge PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s legitimacy and positions. The PA, therefore, is negotiating with Israel while warding off charges of abandoning Palestinian interests.
UNFORTUNATELY, AS the proximity talks begin, the Oslo myth could become current reality. Hamas’s Iranian and Syrian patrons have an interest in diverting international attention from their nuclear and other activities, and renewed terrorism could contribute toward that end.
More importantly, the everintensifying contest between isolated, Gazabased Hamas, and the West Bank-based, Westernwooed, tenuously legal PA government might express itself in Hamas efforts to deny the PA any diplomatic progress and to inflict harm on Israeli civilians and soldiers.
The former offers to undermine public support for the PA, while the latter can increase public support for Hamas. Thus, Hamas could gain politically in both relative and absolute terms. Making matters worse, the return of terrorism likely would fan the flames of the destructive competition among Palestinian factions that catalyzed the spike in attacks during the immediate post- Oslo period.
This is not to say that a Hamas return to suicide bombings is imminent. So far, as the recent quiet attests, Hamas’s arguments against renewing widespread terrorism appear to outweigh those for a return to such activity. It may also be the case that the dim prospects of success in the proximity talks (or even in direct talks) have convinced Hamas decision-makers that it is better to give the negotiations an opportunity to fail on their own. If they do not, efforts toward peace could once again prove bloody, and for many reasons that are difficult to control and to change.
The writer is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.