In the four years since it swept Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas has neither moderated its policies nor adopted democratic principles. Constantly torn between its ideology as an Islamist jihadi movement and its responsibilities as a governing authority in the Gaza Strip, Hamas has proven unwilling to transform itself. The result has been an ongoing ideological and political crisis for Hamas and, more generally, the Palestinian Authority. Last October, Hamas was faced with the challenge of new elections mandated by Palestinian law and set for January by the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah faction is Hamas’ chief rival. Hamas’ reaction was to ban any voting from taking place in Gaza. Consequently, Abbas postponed the elections indefinitely, sparking heated debate with Hamas over the legitimacy of his continued tenure as president.

Soon after Hamas’ 2006 electoral victory, I identified some conditions necessary for co-opting ideologically extreme and violent political movements (“Can Hamas Be Tamed?” March/April 2006). I argued that Hamas was unlikely to become more moderate in the foreseeable future, primarily because there was neither a strong Palestinian government nor a viable political center capable of containing and co-opting the group. Unfortunately, this has proven to be true -- and it remains so today.

After winning the 2006 election, Hamas immediately began grappling with various conflicting pressures. The Israeli government, which evacuated its citizens and military from Gaza in 2005, reacted strongly -- militarily, economically, and diplomatically -- to the continued firing of rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, first by factions other than Hamas and later by Hamas itself. Meanwhile, immediately after Hamas’ electoral victory, the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia) demanded that Hamas, in order to gain international legitimacy, commit to nonviolence, recognize Israel, and accept previous agreements signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. All the while, Hamas felt a domestic imperative to secure Palestinian national unity. In the face of these pressures, it consistently tried to govern without moderating its ideology. It remained dedicated to “resistance” and to Israel’s destruction -- and therefore opposed to any concept of a real peace process.

When forced to make hard choices, Hamas has been repeatedly pulled down by the weight of its dogma. In early 2007, in an attempt to halt escalating intra-Palestinian bloodshed and secure international aid, Hamas agreed to share power with Fatah in a national unity government. But Hamas adamantly refused to include in the government’s platform any acceptance of the Quartet's conditions or of the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which proposed that Arab states normalize relations with Israel following a comprehensive settlement of Arab-Israeli issues. By June 2007, the national unity government had collapsed. Under the initiative of its more radical military wing, Hamas forcibly overran Gaza and brutally established its rule, in many cases throwing Fatah members from rooftops or shooting them in the knees. Thus, despite the expectations of some who encouraged Hamas’ participation in politics, political inclusion did not contain or domesticate the group. Rather, Hamas resisted domestication until finally bursting out and forming an independent political entity.

The violent end of the unity government split the Palestinian territories into two entities -- one in the West Bank, one in the Gaza Strip -- with vastly different governments and political climates. In the West Bank, Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, embarked on an overdue and unprecedented reform process, which included clamping down on Hamas grassroots groups through widespread arrests, the discharging of radical preachers from mosques, and the seizure of Hamas funds. The reform effort has brought improved security and impressive economic growth to the West Bank. In Gaza, by contrast, Hamas focused on being the flag-bearer for Islamists in the Middle East. This attitude led the group to cast aside practical realities in favor of pursuing ideological goals. In addition to forcing itself on local clans and usurping traditional power bases, Hamas initiated a gradual yet determined process of Islamization in all spheres of life. These included legislation and the courts; the education system; the media; and social life, as the group, in accordance with its Islamic code of conduct, demanded "modest" dress for women, banned mixed-gender social events, closed or monitored Internet cafés, and even condemned chewing gum because it “arouses the passion of the youth." Hamas’ Islamization has also meant the systematic persecution of Gaza’s Christians. As Abbas recently put it, Hamas’ policies turned Gaza into "an emirate of darkness."

Despite this record, debate still persisted among Western commentators over whether Hamas was becoming moderate. This was because Hamas performed some window dressing to maintain its domestic legitimacy and garner international approval. Over the last two years, it has been conducting intermittent national unity talks with Fatah (to no avail). It also reached out to the West, suggesting a dialogue with Western governments. And some Hamas leaders occasionally expressed willingness to accept a long-term cease-fire with Israel if a Palestinian state were established along the 1967 borders. Hamas assumed these seemingly moderate postures as a way to address political pressures without reforming its ideology: there has been no evidence that Hamas leaders are reconsidering their core beliefs -- only that they are, at most, debating which tactics best serve those beliefs.

After Israel’s pullout from Gaza, one of Hamas’ main tactics was to allow, and later orchestrate, the regular firing of rockets from Gaza into nearby Israeli towns. Eventually, in December 2008, this rocket fire provoked Israel to launch Operation Cast Lead, a massive military operation in Gaza. It dealt a crippling blow to Hamas and deterred further rocket fire: whereas 7,000 rockets and mortar shells were fired into Israel in the three years before the operation, only about 300 were fired in the 12 months following January 2009, as Hamas has enforced a near-total cease-fire since Operation Cast Lead ended that month.

At the same time, however, Hamas has been rearming, especially with long-range rockets, despite enhanced Egyptian efforts to curb the smuggling of weapons through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border. Hamas is helped in this smuggling effort by Iran. In October 2009, Hamas test-fired an Iranian-manufactured rocket capable of hitting Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv.

This history and the fact that the group seems to be ignoring strong pressures to reform -- including rising domestic unpopularity and an unprecedented crisis in relations with Egypt -- suggest that Hamas cannot be part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process based on recognizing Israel and making historic compromises, nor part of a Palestinian body politic based on democracy and free elections.

Reaching a temporary cease-fire with Israel and claiming willingness to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders is no true sign of moderation when Hamas is simultaneously building its arsenal and treating terrorism as a tactical tool. "Hamas will never give up the option of resistance," the Hamas political chief Khaled Mashal stated at a rally last month, "no matter how long it takes." Hamas’ seemingly moderate political statements are always accompanied by forbidding conditions -- for example, that in exchange for only a cease-fire on Hamas’ part (not the recognition of Israel), Israel would have to withdraw to the 1967 lines and accept all Palestinian refugees.

Likewise, participating in the 2006 elections and flirting with national unity arrangements is not proof that Hamas has accepted the rules of democracy. The real test of a ruling party is if it agrees to a second round of elections, even if it might lose. Hamas failed that test recently when it undermined the scheduled Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections.

The sad conclusion is that Hamas presents one of those policy problems that are only manageable, not solvable. No force in Palestinian politics today has the power to break Hamas’ ideological basis or grip on power in Gaza. For internal pressure to be effective -- that is, for it to move Hamas to become more moderate, relinquish violence, endorse the peace process, and embrace democratic practices -- it would have to be coupled with solid, sustained external pressure. If international powers, led by the United States and the other members of the Quartet, grant Hamas a free pass, the group will continue to play the spoiler, threaten Abbas and other moderates in the West Bank, and serve Iranian interests.

No matter what, changing Hamas will be a long-term journey, like any process of co-optation. The challenge is to manage it in a way that mitigates the impact on innocent Palestinians, minimizes the risk of all-out escalation, and leaves room for a viable peace process. These imperatives, in turn, underscore the urgency of relaunching the peace process under a supportive Arab umbrella that, based on shared concerns over Iran’s bellicosity, would foster moderation and stability in the face of extremism. But the policy conundrum remains: Will the peace process progress with Hamas, or in spite of it? Unless Hamas unexpectedly changes course, the group will exclude itself from the process. That would be for the better. The challenge for policymakers in Washington, Europe, Jerusalem, and Ramallah then becomes how to deny Hamas the capacity to play the spoiler.

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  • MICHAEL HERZOG, a Brigadier General in the Israel Defense Forces, is a special emissary to the Israeli Prime Minister and Minister of Defense for the Middle East peace process. He served as Chief of Staff to the Israeli Minister of Defense from 2006 to 2009 and was a Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy from 2004 to 2006.
  • More By Michael Herzog