What Does Hamas Do Now?

Finally, Hamas’s demands—in this case shared by most if not all Palestinians—for an easing of the blockade of Gaza have also not been met. The talks Cairo convened this week could ultimately result in a formula that is being widely discussed: that Egypt would open its Rafah crossing into Gaza for human and some commercial traffic, but with PA security forces, not Hamas, and international monitors on the Palestinian side of the border. Egypt closed the border except for humanitarian purposes after the ouster of former President Mohammad Morsi, when Cairo concluded that Hamas was, in effect, a hostile entity because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and activities along the border. Israel has indicated it could live with Rafah's opening, including through a statement that the crossing is an “Egyptian-Palestinian Authority matter.” Israel could also extend the rights of Gazans to fish off their own coast, and allow more material to be brought into Gaza, but probably with a much stricter regime of inspection and monitoring.

Such a development would be a double-edged sword for Hamas. On the one hand, their arch-rivals in the PA would gain a new security foothold in Gaza. On the other hand, Hamas could claim a relaxation of the blockade as a significant victory and another demonstration of the efficacy of armed resistance. Both Palestinian parties would have a plausible case to make. The PA could maintain that without its good relations with Egypt, security coordination with Israel, internationally respected security forces, and diplomatic standing, the Cairo negotiations would not have been possible. Hamas could counter that the PA has been asking for an easing of the blockade through diplomatic channels for years, but that it was only armed conflict that prompted anyone to seriously consider it. There is a good chance that such a development would be a political wash, with both parties taking relatively equal amounts of credit and blame for it, if it were to happen.

Hamas also faces the strong possibility of a return to the status quo ante, but perhaps with an even harsher blockade and strangulation by the Israelis. The political perils are enormous. The Gaza public, which may have rallied to Hamas’s cause during the actual fighting, could well start asking pointed questions about what so much devastation achieved. At present, Hamas has no answer. If Hamas negotiators do not get a tangible benefit either for the group itself or for the people of Gaza from the Cairo negotiations, the political damage could be considerable. From Hamas’s perspective, that could be mitigated if the PA also emerges from the talks discredited and marginalized. All of this will depend on the diplomatic and political fallout that develops, mainly in Cairo, in the coming weeks.

Hamas remains committed to armed struggle against Israel as its primary tactic. Right now, it almost certainly cannot sustain the public backlash in Gaza and the rest of the Arab world that would result if it resumes full-fledged hostilities now that it has ended the ceasefire. But, equally, it may not be able to live with a reality in which it paid such a high price for no achievement whatsoever. Given that nothing fundamental has changed in the structural relationship between Hamas and Israel, or in Hamas’s ideology and strategy, another round of violence with Israel ultimately may be inevitable.

There are already clear signs that Hamas is internally divided between those who want to lick their wounds, regroup, and try to find some kind of political advantage or at least avoid political catastrophe, versus those eager to return to the battlefield and determine what can be accomplished by more fighting. If Hamas does not emerge from the conflict with any kind of benefit that can be spun as a victory, no matter how hyperbolic and pyrrhic, internal pressure for an early resumption of hostilities in order to try to rectify the situation will mount. Yet any resumption of sustained, wide-scale hostilities with Israel—beyond some inevitable containable and brief flare-ups—in the near future would be a colossal political gamble by Hamas. There’s every danger that the Palestinian public in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Arab states as well, would consider it the last straw, particularly if Hamas once again did not succeed in producing anything resembling a victory. In short, it could be political suicide. But, given their desperate situation, Hamas may find such a drastic gamble irresistible.

The future of the organization depends entirely on the extent to which, in the long run, it can claim its strategy of armed struggle is more successful than the PA and PLO approach of negotiations. If there is no progress toward peace through diplomacy, Hamas will almost certainly find a ready audience for the line that, painful though it might be, their militant approach is the only one that offers Palestinians any hope of liberation.

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Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a weekly columnist with The National and NOW Media, and a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs in the American and Arab media.

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