A few days ago, Hamas, Fatah, and 11 other Palestinian factions met for talks in Cairo to finalize a national political reconciliation process that would reunite the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The territories have been ruled separately since Hamas took over Gaza from Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) by force of arms in 2007.
The key sticking point in the talks was monopoly over the use of force. Fatah leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas insists that there can be only “one state, one government, one gun,” but Hamas seeks to maintain its armed military and terrorist wing even as it is set to hand over the reins of power in Gaza to Fatah and the PA this Friday, December 1. Abbas has explicitly rejected Hamas following the so-called Hezbollah model, in which a militant party participates in politics and joins the government but maintains a heavily armed and independent militia. Yet clearly, Hamas prefers this setup.
By maintaining its armed wing, Hamas jeopardizes the success of the reconciliation deal, making it highly unlikely that the status quo will change come Friday’s deadline. Hamas will only continue to incite violence in the region, and may ultimately bring Gaza closer to the next wave of violence.
A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
Hamas’s rhetoric and actions over the past few months both demonstrate the group’s continued commitment to what it calls “armed resistance.” Consider, for example, its continuing construction of attack tunnels dug from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Many of these tunnels were destroyed by Israel after the most recent escalations of 2014, but Hamas remains committed to rebuilding its underground network both internally, within the Gaza Strip, and under the Egyptian and Israeli borders (the former for smuggling, the latter to carry out attacks). According to Israeli officials in 2016, Hamas digs more than six miles of tunnels towards Israel each month, often underneath civilian infrastructure.
On June 1, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) uncovered a tunnel that passed under schools in the Maghazi refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Last month, an additional underground passage was found under another UNRWA school in Gaza.
In August, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) uncovered one tunnel that ran under an apartment building near a school and medical center and a second one under a northern Gaza family home where Omar Muhammad Mahmoud Hamad, an active member of Hamas, lives with his family.
In September, three Hamas fighters died in separate tunnel collapses, all within a period of five days. One of the accidents took place along the Gaza–Israel border. By one account, at least 20 Hamas militants have died in such incidents over the past three years. Most recently, Israel bombed a tunnel built by terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which ran through Gaza and ended near the Israeli Kibbutz Kissufim. Several Hamas and PIJ members were killed during the attack, and Israel has since recovered five dead Hamas members from the tunnel.
Hamas has continued illicit financial schemes specifically intended to finance terrorist operations and other militant activities.
Hamas has also continued illicit financial schemes specifically intended to finance terrorist operations and other militant activities. In early August, the Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency, uncovered a Hamas money laundering ring, which has transferred approximately $200,000 into Hebron since early 2016. Two Hamas couriers, both residents of Hebron, would travel to Turkey and collect thousands of dollars from a Turkey-based Hamas operative, Haron Nasser al-Din. The couriers would then use the money to buy commercial goods and sell them in Hebron, using the profit from these sales to pay the salaries of high-ranking Hamas members in the West Bank and operatives who had been released from jail.
Later in August, the Shin Bet and Israeli police exposed a Hamas money transfer network that has been funneling money from the Gaza Strip to East Jerusalem families since at least 2015. During the raid, officials seized approximately $28,000 worth of cash and gifts from seven families in East Jerusalem, all of whom had children who had carried out terror attacks for Hamas or with Hamas’s support. Since 2015, Hamas has transferred more than $36,000 worth of money and gifts to the East Jerusalem families. One of the recipients of these funds included Hassan Mahani, the father of one of the teenagers who carried out the 2015 stabbing of two Israelis in Pisgat Ze’ev, severely wounding a 13-year-old boy. Another recipient was the family of Tareq Abu Arafa, who was involved in the kidnapping and murder of dual U.S.–Israeli national Nachshon Wachsman in 1994.
Iran, too, remains one of Hamas’s primary means of support, providing both financial and material aid to the organization. According to IDF Military Intelligence Chief Hertzi Halevi, Iran provides Hamas with approximately $60–$70 million annually, in addition to training and weapons. In late August, Hamas’s Gaza chief, Yahya Sinwar, referred to Iran as “the largest supporter of the Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades with money and arms,” and described Iranian–Hamas relations as “excellent.” One month later, the Shin Bet reported that Hamas was establishing a base in Lebanon in order to further strengthen Hamas’ ties to the Iranian “Shiite axis.”
Indeed, Salah al-Aruri, the new deputy leader of Hamas, has led delegations of Hamas members to meet with senior leaders in Iran twice in recent weeks. During the first visit, Aruri confirmed that Hamas would never cut ties with Iran and that its “presence in Iran is the practical denial” of one of the preconditions Israel set for talks with Fatah in Cairo. On November 4 the Hamas delegation attended the funeral of the father of Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force.
While Hamas leaders cozy up to Iran, Tehran’s most prominent proxy group, Hezbollah, has also reportedly given Hamas its blessings to move forward with the reconciliation deal, anticipating that the deal could strengthen Hamas’s influence in Gaza and increase its chances of taking over the West Bank. Indeed, this past Monday, Hamas vowed to expand its military activities in the West Bank. Senior Hamas leader Khalil al-Hayya said that weapons that are currently being used by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip will be transferred to the West Bank: “These weapons will not be touched. It’s not for debate or talk. These weapons will clearly move to the West Bank to battle the occupation there.” This is not the first time that Hezbollah has supported expansion by Hamas into the West Bank. Following the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, Hezbollah dramatically increased its support for Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups.
Although Hamas has failed to carry out any major attacks against Israel since May, it continues to incite violence, praise attacks against the Jewish state, and prepare for future conflict with it.
In mid-July, two Israeli police officers were killed by three terrorists near the Lion’s Gate in Jerusalem. Following the attack, Hamas called for further violence against Israel and held a celebratory rally in the Gaza Strip. One week later, three Israelis were stabbed to death in their home in the West Bank by a Palestinian teenager affiliated with Hamas. Hamas deemed the incident “heroic.” In response to these attacks, the Shin Bet and the IDF arrested 25 Hamas members in a West Bank raid, including several higher-ranking members in the West Bank wing of the organization. Just four days after the stabbing, Hamas called for a “day of rage” in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in response to the EU’s holding up its terrorist designation of the group.
And although only three rockets have been fired into Israel since May, relative to the thousands that landed in 2014, the IDF reported in March that Hamas has developed more powerful short-range missiles, and is continuously restocking its arsenal in preparation for the next escalation with Israel. Indeed, just this past week, Yahya Sinwar reaffirmed Hamas’s intentions to prepare for war and destroy the Jewish state: “The discussion is no longer about recognizing Israel but about wiping Israel out … there is not one minute of the day or night where we aren’t building up our military might.”
RECONCILIATION'S UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Although the reconciliation is still technically set to go into effect on Friday, in its current state, it is difficult to imagine this will come to pass. Evidently, Hamas remains committed to its terror activities in Gaza, and perhaps most alarming to the PA, in the West Bank, too. In October alone, the PA arrested more than 50 Hamas operatives in the West Bank, in addition to the 130 operatives they apprehended from other terror groups such as the PIJ. It is not surprising that the PA has continued to make mass arrests of Hamas operatives in the West Bank, given that Arouri orchestrated a plot to overthrow the PA and take control of the West Bank in 2014.
Hamas’s actions alone send a clear message that continuing terrorism will take precedence over any reconciliation deal, but recent statements from its leadership only put the agreement further into question. Just this week, as the Cairo meeting was convening, Hamas issued a statement condemning the Arab League’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group. Hamas’s reaction is unsurprising: such a label flies in the face of its insistence that it be allowed to follow the Hezbollah model. And as its recent actions make clear, Hamas remains committed to maintaining its independent armed wing.
That does not bode well for reconciliation or regional stability. In the absence of intra-Palestinian reconciliation, the humanitarian situation in Gaza will again sharply deteriorate. It was that worsening situation on the ground in Gaza that led Hamas to these talks in the first place, but in the end Hamas prioritized the maintaining of its arsenal over improving the living conditions of the Palestinian people living under its rule. And with Syria burning, Yemen at war and facing famine, Iraq unstable, and Sunni states distracted by Iran’s regional aggression, the plight of Gazans will remain a fairly low priority both for regional and international powers in the face of other, more pressing regional crises. Lacking allies to come to its aid, Hamas may well feel the need to instigate a new conflict with Israel to distract from its failure in government and to justify its claim that it must maintain its arms to protect Gazans from Israel.
For true reconciliation to take place, Hamas will have to relinquish its weapons and agree that the PA has a monopoly on the use of force within the territories it controls. Reporting on the reconciliation talks in Cairo, UN Middle East Envoy Nickolay Mladenov warned the UN Security Council that should the talks falter, as previous reconciliation efforts have, “it will most likely result in another devastating conflict.” Unfortunately, he is right. Hamas’s refusal to break with terrorism will almost certainly doom the effort to bring calm to the region, as it has in the past. The result will be another Gaza conflict.