Israel decimated Hamas; now it's time to bring it back to life

After three weeks of intense fighting, Israel has inflicted withering and effective punishment on Hamas: Its military and terrorist capacity has been crippled, and it has been exposed as incapable of protecting the lives of the citizens whose destinies it claims to safeguard. Keeping in line with Israel’s (and America’s) refusal to recognize the terrorist group as a legitimate political entity, now would seem to be the ideal time to deal Hamas the final blow and permanently destroy them. But looking at both broader regional dynamics and internal Palestinian considerations, Israel, the United States, and Egypt should use the victory to work with Hamas and try to bring it, under certain conditions, into the political fold.

Hamas’s miscalculation was enormous. They believed they could lob scores of missiles, rockets, and mortar shells into Israel and bring the Jewish state to its knees--forcing it to ease a blockade that Jerusalem had mounted around the Gaza Strip. The price Hamas has paid for its mistakes and its arrogance has been colossal, by any yardstick. Gaza was subjected to the might of the Israel Defense Forces as never before. In the first minutes of the war, hundreds of targets were hit with unprecedented precision. Following that initial strike, hundreds of sorties were flown, thousands of targets attacked, and great quantities of military materiel destroyed. Armor, infantry, and engineering units engaged in frontal attacks around the clock, while the navy bombarded land targets from the sea.

But perhaps more damaging, in the long run, for Hamas is the political and strategic isolation it suffered at the hands both of its bitter foes in the Muslim world and its erstwhile allies. The first, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, openly turned their back on them, shortly after suffering public and offensive ridicule in Hamas media; the others, like Syria and Iran, confined themselves to castigating Israel whilst simultaneously begging for a ceasefire. No one lifted a real finger to defend Hamas. Even Hassan Nasrallah, the fiery leader of Hezbollah who harangued Israel almost daily and exhorted Hamas to fight on against impossible odds, rushed to deny responsibility for a handful of ineffective rockets fired from Lebanese territory into Israel.

Above all, the Palestinian government essentially abandoned Hamas during the Israeli operation. Uttering pious hopes and prayers for an end to the fighting, the PA mounted a limp-wristed attempt to muster the support of the Arab League, to no avail. Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen then retreated to New York to the UN Security Council, accusing Israel of committing genocide and begging for a ceasefire call. That was the sum total of the PA performance as a million and a half of its citizens were under constant fire. They sat back and did nothing at all, silently applauding Israel’s campaign against their bitter Palestinian political and ideological foes and hoping to return to Gaza on the coattails of an Israeli victory--their adopted victory.

Hamas was left entirely alone to meet its fate, and, in the wake of a terrible war, to survey its grand strategy against Israel, which lies in tatters. It is much too early to judge how Hamas will craft a policy for the future. At present, of course, the Damascus wing of the movement, unscathed after the ordeal on the ground, is breathing defiance and vowing to pursue “resistance” more than ever before. Hamas’s knee-jerk rejection of President Obama’s initial statement on Gaza is by no means its final answer to the United States. Indeed, days will come for more sober reflection, and Hamas will have to take a very hard look at prospects for the future, given the newfound resolve of the leaders of the Sunni world--their brethren--in Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh to confront them, and the basic treachery and ineffectiveness of their supposed allies in Allawite Damascus and Shi’ite Tehran. They must also assume that, should they renew hostilities, Israel will react with immediate fury given the precedent already established.

The international community is placing its hope in the PA’s ability to replace Hamas. There are preliminary discussions of a “Marshal Plan” to rehabilitate Gaza with massive international funding, positioning the PA as the sole sub-contractor of this strategy. Thus, the Fatah party--the mainstay of the rump PA--will purchase its power in Gaza with hard currency. Its hitherto corrupt cronies, who squandered billions of foreign aid during the last 15 years, will make a comeback as mangers of this new endeavor. And, so the assumption seems to go, Hamas will fall on its sword in the face of this economic infux of funds and prosperity, succumbing to the dollar and the euro after having held out against the fire and thunder of the Israel Defense Forces.

Were the PA a robust administration in the West Bank where they still have titular authority, such an approach could have merits. But the reality is that the PA is a hollow, intensely unpopular regime; on the morrow of President Obama’s telephone conversation with Abu Mazen last week, Kadura Fares (a leading PA legislator) and Ashraf Al Ajrami (the PA’s minister for prisoners) issued separate but identical statements declaring that Hamas had gained in public support and stature after the recent fighting-- sobering assessments of Palestinian power dynamics coming from key second-generation leaders of the PA who are both bitter adversaries of Hamas.

It is true that the PA now fields forces well-trained under a scheme led by American general Keith Dayton, and until recently overseen by Jim Jones, Obama’s new national security advisor. Yet it is unlikely that a force that is still not able to maintain security in the West Bank could take control of the Strip any time soon. It should also be noted that it is Israel’s elite army units and security agencies, not these forces, that have been keeping the country effectively safe from West Bank terrorism.

So what are the alternatives to the PA? United Nations Security Council resolution 1860, calling for a cease fire without specifying to whom the appeal was addressed, was largely ignored by all interested parties. However, in Section 7 of the operative part of the resolution, the council “encourages tangible steps toward intra-Palestinian reconciliation,” reflecting both the wish and the assessment of the moderate Arab world that the only viable chance for Palestinian survival as a national and credible entity lies in Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. Up until now, both Israel and the United States have refused to work with any government that includes Hamas. But a chastened and wiser Hamas might reconsider its hostility to any political concessions in light of both the blow it has sustained and the abandonment it has suffered at the hands of its yesteryear patrons, Syria and Iran. However, it will only factor such an option into its deliberations if it receives a tentative indication that there will be a place for them in any final arrangement.

The United States has expressed particular trust in Salaam Fayyad, the able and professional Palestinian prime minister. But even he has consistently advocated a serious attempt at such reconciliation. His advice at this point in time could be most valuable. The success of the PA going it alone in Gaza is unlikely; together with Hamas, they have a good chance of advancing a two-state solution that will encompass the West Bank and Gaza. During the past year, Hamas has tentatively and gingerly edged towards accepting such a long-term, temporary solution. Admittedly, this is a long shot, but what do Israel, the United States, and the moderate Arab world have to lose by examining the virtues of a tentative olive branch offered with the magnanimity of the victor? Surely the prospect of weaning Hamas from the hands of President Ahmedinejad is worth a try, and if successful, it could bring the Israelis and Palestinians closer than ever to peace.

Efraim Halevy is the head of the Shasha Center for Strategic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, and was a national security advisor to the Israeli prime minister.


By Efraim Halevy