When Weapons Don't Work
Eighteen months ago, on this very website, I made, “A Modest Proposal”: Israel should alter the terms of engagement with Hamas in Gaza. I argued that the dynamic of the Israel-Hamas relationship would only continue to perpetuate the tragic status quo, and that Hamas would continue to survive, and even thrive, as long as it had reason to take up arms against Israel in violent resistance. From Israel’s standpoint, to continually fight Hamas militarily would only continue to play into Hamas’ hand and empower the very organization that has become a major thorn in the side of both Israeli security and the Palestinian peace process. Therefore, engaging with Hamas diplomatically and economically would throw the organization off its feet and remove war as its modus operandi. It would force Hamas to represent the Palestinian people through policy rather than continuously fight the Israeli state with rockets and war.
I acknowledge that this argument is not foolproof and that it poses many challenges, but I also know this: Gaza may be in ruins, but the current conflict between Israel and Hamas has once again helped Hamas back on its feet.
As reports suggest, despite Palestinian condemnation of Hamas’ rule of Gaza and its style of warfare (which has very obviously endangered the lives of innocent civilians) many Palestinians now praise it for one very simple reason: Hamas is doing something for the Palestinian cause in a time when there seems to be little other opportunity for progress.
With the recent failure of peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the stagnation of the Palestinian unity government formed earlier this summer, and the continuous creep of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian people have had little reason to feel optimistic that their circumstances will improve going forward.
Concurrently, before the rise of the recent hostilities, Hamas had been pushed to a point of desperation, severely weakened both locally and regionally. With the rise of the anti-Hamas al-Sisi in Egypt, the recent recoil of political adventurism from pro-Hamas Qatar and Turkey, and the rise of other militant groups in the Gaza strip, like Islamic Jihad, Hamas needed to do something to ensure its own political survival. It had nothing to lose.
With the confluence of these factors, from Hamas’ perspective, the time for war was ripe. And since its outbreak, the escalation has led to its boon. Not only is it the subject of global reporting and international diplomacy, but it is once more relevant in the hearts of Palestinians. Not because it is a militant organization and not because it is at war with Israel, but rather because in a time of inaction it is doing something—no matter how self-serving that “something” might be—to break the perpetuation of a status quo that will continue to make peace less and less achievable and more and more fantastical.
For Hamas, then, war is the way, and it will continue to fight this war until it can extract the concessions it has demanded: an easing of the Israeli blockade and economic sanctions on the Gaza Strip. As long as it fights for concessions—ones that are necessary to enhance the quality of life in Gaza—it will continue to be a darling in Palestinian hearts and it will continue to strengthen its renaissance in international politics. And without any alternative means of improving the lives of Palestinians in Gaza, Hamas will continue to fight Israel this time, the next time, and the time after that. And in the absence of any other option, the Palestinian people will continue to support Hamas this time, the next time, and the time after that.
And therein lies the key to this mess. Israeli policy has failed vis-à-vis Gaza. To date, Israel has adopted an ineffective middle ground. It has engaged Gaza in frequent wars, but it has not worked to address the underlying issue that perpetuates them: the unenviable plight of Palestinians in Gaza. For as long as Israel tries to strangle the Gaza Strip economically and weaken Hamas, Palestinians will continue to support the violent attempts of Hamas and other militant organizations to do something to loosen that stranglehold.
In these circumstances, Hamas is destined to remain relevant, threaten Israeli security, and undercut the more moderate Fatah Palestinian political party. Hamas’ popularity may wane between wars, but it will always bounce back as long as Palestinians believe they have no other means to boost their lot. Israel’s policy has thus been inconsistent. What’s more, it has been self-defeating. If Israel wants to remove the threat of Hamas, it must remove the reasons for its continued Palestinian support.
Israeli must therefore align its policies. It must either destroy the militants in Gaza outright, or it must work with Hamas diplomatically to improve conditions on the ground. If Israel adopts the former, it will have to engage in an extremely costly campaign and it will still have to address the very same conditions that have given rise to extremists and militants in Gaza and around the world: economic hardship and lack of opportunity. But if it adopts the latter, and offers an alternative means to improving the Palestinian situation in Gaza, Israel might be able to convince the Palestinian people of one very simple fact: war is not the only way, and Hamas does not have to fight Israel in order to do something for the Palestinian cause.