reflections

Geopolitical Diary: Hamas' Break Point

5 MINS READJul 3, 2007 | 02:00 GMT
Hamas has arrested the spokesman for the Army of Islam, the group holding British Broadcasting Corp. correspondent Alan Johnston in Gaza, senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said on Monday. The arrest comes exactly two weeks after Hamas publicly announced that it would free Johnston from his jihadist captors "using all means necessary." Hamas' recent actions are part of its Gaza leadership's strategy to illustrate the group's political legitimacy in the wake of its June 15 takeover in Gaza. This also explains why Hamas recently killed off the infamous Mickey Mouse look-alike character that urged Palestinian children to kill Israelis in a children's TV show aired on a Hamas-owned station. After getting serious flack for using a Western Disney character to promote jihad, the producers at the station had the character beaten to death in the show's final episode by a character posing as an Israeli. But these gestures alone are not enough to get the West to take Hamas seriously as a political player. Regardless of whether Hamas realizes it, the Gaza takeover has forced the group to make some serious decisions as to whether it can continue on its political path. Hamas' political evolution was first influenced by its predecessors of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which led a successful strategy of using grassroots work and social services to build up popular support. Hamas also closely watched as Hezbollah in Lebanon used its grassroots network to buy support, promote itself as a noncorrupt alternative and gradually integrate itself into the political system while maintaining its militant wing to defend its constituency against Israel. In essence, Hamas wanted to ensure the longevity of its militant arm by pursuing a political future. At first, Hamas' political debut appeared to have gone better than the group's leaders had hoped. The group won (an unexpected) landslide victory in the March 2006 election that included sizable gains in the Fatah-dominated West Bank, in addition to Hamas strongholds in Gaza. At that time, Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and parts of the northern West Bank was in progress, which gave Hamas a strong political basis to claim that it was its armed campaign — not Fatah's corruption and ineptitude — that forced the Israelis to withdraw. However, a successful evolution of a militant group into a political organization takes time. That way, the group can internally prepare itself as well as its constituency to make the necessary political concessions to achieve legitimacy and international recognition. So when Hamas was handed the reins of the government, and the West promptly cut off funds to the Palestinian National Authority, the group quickly realized it had more political responsibility than it was ready for or even willing to handle. Soon enough, a bloody factional struggle broke out between Hamas and Fatah over control of the security apparatus. The cutoff of funds combined with the number of people with guns on the streets not getting paid threw the Palestinian government into crisis mode. There were notable attempts to come up with a power-sharing agreement, such as the Saudi-brokered Mecca agreement, but the battle over the security forces broke the deal apart each time. Things got messy enough that Hamas figured it could forcibly back Fatah into a corner through a major Gaza offensive. That way Hamas would be negotiating from a position of strength to force Fatah into giving in to its demands over the security forces in yet another power-sharing arrangement. But Hamas overstepped, and Israel quickly saw an opportunity to keep the Palestinians further divided (and busy fighting each other). Hamas' Gaza takeover divided the Palestinian territories into de facto ministates, effectively precluding the need for Israel to even entertain having serious negotiations with the Palestinians. Hamas, locked into the Gaza Strip, now finds itself even more handicapped than before. Yet Fatah does not have the capability to impose its influence in the West Bank, much less Gaza, on its own. In other words the situation is untenable, and another Egyptian-led mediation effort will result in yet another doomed power-sharing agreement. The political stagnation in the territories will continue. There is a larger issue in play, however. Faced with the blowback of the Gaza takeover, Hamas is now deliberating whether it is really worth going down the political road. Though Hamas has traditionally been the most disciplined and organized of Palestinian militant outfits, there is a serious rift within the group's Syrian-based exiled leadership and local Gaza-based leadership over whether Hamas can or should make political concessions, such as recognizing Israel, to make this plan work. But without these concessions, Israel and the West will not allow Hamas to function as a governing authority and will continue to withhold funds. The group simply does not have the economic means to sustain itself or its populace — Gaza is essentially a refugee camp that is wholly dependent on foreign aid. This directly impacts Hamas because it will see a gradual loss of public support as the party is blamed for its hardship. Whether Hamas decides to give up on the political agenda remains to be seen. This is an issue that will take time to deliberate within the group and will likely lead to greater internal fissures. It is important to note that there has never been a militant group comparable to Hamas in political and economic position that has tried the political experiment, failed, reverted back to militancy and did not severely fracture. Hamas will still have plenty of sponsors in the region to prop the group up, but regardless of whether Hamas realized it when the order was given to launch the Gaza offensive, the group looks to be facing a similar fate.

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