Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
War, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows. Israel is currently preparing for a potentially dramatic faceoff with Hamas. Over the past week, the group has launched rockets into Israel, and it has called for a million man march this weekend along the Israeli-Gaza border to mark the anniversary of last year’s March of Return. The protests may either fizzle or spark an intensified round of conflict. Whatever happens though, it will not undermine the curious, co-dependent relationship that has evolved between Hamas and the Israeli government, especially under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These two key Middle East actors despise yet depend on one another.
Israel and Hamas are unlikely partners. They call for each other’s destruction and have been through three major military confrontations, most recently in 2014. Nevertheless, these two sworn enemies have long cooperated out of practical necessity. On certain issues—including managing their conflict through Egypt and preventing the Palestinian Authority from reunifying Gaza and the West Bank—their objectives even align. Although neither wants to admit it, Israel and Hamas need each other.
For as long as Hamas has existed, it has maintained a strangely functional relationship with Israel. In the 1970s, even before Hamas was founded, Israel believed that Palestinian Islamist groups could serve as a useful counterweight to Fatah, the more secular, revolutionary, and (at the time) violent political party that dominated the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). In order to undermine Fatah, Israel allowed these groups, including the forerunners of Hamas, a fair amount of freedom to organize in Gaza. In 1979, Israel even officially recognized an Islamic charity created by Ahmad Yassin, one of the co-founders of Hamas. Within five years, Yassin would be arrested for weapons smuggling, and the Israelis would eventually assassinate him in March 2004 in an effort to stop Hamas terrorist attacks.
In the 1970s, Gaza’s Islamists needed Israel’s acquiescence in order to grow. But since 1987, when Hamas was founded as an independent organization, the group’s ideological legitimacy has rested on its claim to be waging an existential struggle with the Jewish state. This paradox has continued into the present day, with the added irony that Hamas, which has governed the Gaza Strip since 2007, is heavily dependent for its survival on Israel and Egypt. The Israelis in the main and Egyptians decide whether to permit deliveries of Qatari cash to Gazans, how much electricity to provide to the local power grid, and how far Gazan fishermen can travel from shore; in short, they determine what is allowed in—and who is permitted to travel to and from—the area.
Israel and Hamas realize that total victory over the other is unlikely, or at least unacceptably costly.
Hamas uses its arsenal of rockets both to maintain its domestic image of armed struggle against Israel and as leverage to compel Israel to make periodic economic concessions. By using controlled escalation, the group seeks to remind Israel that Gaza will remain a threat unless Israel meets some of its demands, including infrastructure development, prisoner releases, and a meaningful relaxation of Israeli restrictions on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza. Hamas, however, is walking a fine line: it wants to pressure Israel without triggering a massive Israeli response. The group, that is, must both fight with Israel and cooperate with it. And for Israel, the bitter reality is that despite Hamas’s terrorism and efforts to radicalize Palestinians, the group is the least bad alternative for running Gaza. The result is the current dynamic—accommodation mixed with confrontation.
From time to time, Israel and Hamas appear to be interested in a more long-term arrangement. In May 2018, for instance, Israeli intelligence briefed the country’s political leadership that Hamas, confronted with the deteriorating economic conditions in Gaza, was open to agreeing to a years’ long ceasefire in exchange for an easing of the Israeli blockade, a release of Hamas prisoners, and infrastructure development. And earlier this week, reports emerged that Israel, working through Egypt, was offering concessions in exchange for a guarantee that Hamas would prevent its demonstrations this weekend from becoming violent.
That both sides periodically attempt such agreements shows that Israel and Hamas realize that total victory over the other is unlikely, or at least unacceptably costly. Hamas knows that it needs Israel’s de facto acceptance to ensure its control over Gaza and defuse popular anger over the terrible conditions on the ground; it also knows that it cannot defeat the Israeli military and that it must maintain good relations with Egypt, which controls the critically important crossing at Rafah and is now working closely with Israel to try to preempt an escalation. Israel, particularly under Netanyahu, has for its part proved highly risk-averse. Netanyahu does not want a major ground operation in Gaza like the one in 2014, especially now, only weeks before an Israeli elections. And Israel has no desire to reoccupy Gaza, from which it withdrew in 2005.
Yet the two sides’ failure to agree to a lasting deal shows that both, in their own way, benefit from the status quo. For Netanyahu, Hamas is probably the least bad option in Gaza. The Israelis worry about Hamas’ ties to Iran and its capacity to launch rockets into Israel (last Monday, for instance, a rocket launched from Gaza destroyed a house north of Tel Aviv). But Israel has few good options. An Israeli reoccupation of Gaza would be too costly, and the Egyptians are not about to assume responsibility for the area. Destroying Hamas, meanwhile, would create a vacuum that could be filled by even more dangerous jihadist groups, including affiliates of the Islamic State (ISIS) now operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Hamas is also useful—it provides an easy target for Israeli propaganda, but it is also a group that Israel knows it can negotiate with, whether through Egypt, the UN, or perhaps (on occasion) directly.
In theory, the Israelis could push for the more moderate Palestinian Authority (PA), dominated by Fatah, to return to Gaza, from which it was ousted by Hamas’ coup in 2007. (Perhaps under a different Israeli government, it would.) But the split of the Palestinians between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah-led PA in the West Bank makes that impossible. And this split serves Netanyahu well. The Palestinian national movement now looks like Noah’s Ark: there are two of everything—two statelets, two security services, two systems of government, and two visions of what a future Palestinian state should be. For Netanyahu, Hamas is a hedge against a united Palestinian movement focused on serious negotiation to reach a two-state solution. Hamas, meanwhile, is biding its time for an opportunity to take over the PLO. Neither wants to strengthen PA President Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed, both Netanyahu and Hamas would prefer the current situation—a de facto three-state reality—to a two-state solution.
The Hamas-led protests this weekend may or may not provoke a new round of escalation with Israel. But even a serious blow-up is unlikely to change much. During the 2014 Israeli-Hamas war, nearly 2000 Palestinians were killed, including 1200 civilians. The long-term impact on Israel’s relations with Hamas, however, was minimal. Far from creating a transformative moment, the events of this weekend, whatever they turn out to be, will be more likely to mark yet another bloody phase in a conflict between two parties who seemingly can’t live with each other—or without each other, either.