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Hamas after the Gaza war

Thursday 15 January 2009, by Khaled Hroub

"The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people", said Moshe Yaalon, the then Israel Defence Forces (IDF) chief-of-staff in 2002. The war launched by Israel in the Gaza strip at the end of 2008 is designed in part to force the Hamas movement too to internalise this belief. It will not and cannot work; indeed, it is my argument that the war will have the opposite effect.

After three weeks of intense and round-the-clock attacks by air, land and sea, Israel is far from achieving either its immediate aim of halting rocket-attacks from Gaza or the larger "psychological" aim enunciated by Moshe Yaalon. It has become apparent that the war itself will instead convince many more Palestinians that their ability again to withstand an assault by the fourth most powerful army in the world is a source of their power rather than their weakness.

In this, the 1.5 million Palestinians under siege in Gaza are writing a new chapter in their own uncompleted modern history. They are also demonstrating a more general lesson of warfare: that wars and armed conflicts have unexpected consequences, including often the creation of a new reality quite different from what it was launched to achieve.

The political reality

In this case, the outcome of the Gaza war of 2008-09 is likely to leave Hamas stronger and with an enhanced legitimacy among the Palestinians and within the region. Israel has pursued its official goal of "achieving a new security situation" in southern Israel with ferocity: its use of massive military force has in (at the time of writing) twenty days of war killed over 1,033 Palestinians, around 600 of them women and children. Yet it has failed either to silence Hamas’s primitive rockets or to destroy its ability to function as a coherent entity.

True, in operational terms Hamas’s capability has been reduced (though this may prove only temporary). Israeli intelligence estimates that Hamas has around 15,000 strong fighters, and it has killed in the current operation no more than 400. The movement’s leadership remains intact, and its popular support and regional standing have risen. It is clear that in the aftermath of the war Hamas will have to be included in international dialogue about the Palestinian future.

This in itself would be sufficient evidence of Israel’s failure. But even as things stand, the reduction in its capacity to subdue its enemies is exposed. The army that in the six-day war in 1967 defeated the armies of four Arab states and seized parts of Egypt, Syria and Jordan that far exceeded Israel’s then area has followed the embarrassment of the war against Hizbollah in 2006 with another inconclusive campaign against a non-state militia.

This has an important political as well as a military dimension. The heart of Israel’s strategy since Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian elections of January 2006 has been the imposition of an economic blockade against Gaza that would create such misery as to press people there to turn against the Hamas administration.

The flaw in this project is Israel’s self-defeating understanding of the basis of Hamas’s evolution since its formation in 1987-88 (see "Hamas’s path to reinvention", 9 October 2006). The growth of the movement in these two decades was never exclusively based on its armed activities alone. The bedrock of its strength was a broad-based social network that permeated Palestinian society (in much of the West Bank as well as in the Gaza strip). The 2006 elections were in part the reward for Hamas’s long-term effort to create this network, which is a continuing political reality that cannot be eliminated by military means.

The post-war prospect

There may be another twist of history at work here. Hamas’s emergence to the fore of the Palestinian national movement has also been a gradual process of displacement of the previously dominant Fatah movement. Fatah’s own early history after its foundation in the early 1960s was also a two-track one: military (where it marched from one impasse to another: its at best patchy operations against Israel in the second half of the 1960s, its defeat by the Jordanian army in 1970, its expulsion from Lebanon in 1982) and political (where it kept moving ahead, consolidating its legitimacy and political leadership of the Palestinians).

Fatah’s rise halted with the (in the end) futile peace process that started in 1991 with the Madrid conference after the war with Iraq over Kuwait. At the heart of what happened to Fatah is that its inability to end Israel’s post-1967 occupation via an endless series of negotiations came to erode its political and national capital. To put the same point in another way: the route to Palestinian legitimacy and leadership has always hinged upon offering a plausible strategy to resist and reverse the Israeli occupation. If this criterion fails to be met - as became the case for Fatah and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority led by the president, Mahmoud Abbas - the Palestinians will look in other directions.

This suggests that long-term trends as well as short-term events are working against Fatah and for Hamas. The indications are that Palestinian opinion in the West Bank increasingly regards Mahmoud Abbas as incapable of fulfilling the core responsibility of Palestinian leadership, and irrelevant at a time when they see their compatriots facing daily war-crimes by Israel. The decline in "Abu Mazen’s" image and standing is paralleled by a growth in Hamas’s popularity in the West Bank.

The pressures of war and suffering admittedly create exceptional circumstances and responses that can prove fleeting. It is also certain that some Palestinians in the Gaza strip now or later will direct their anger and frustration onto Hamas on the grounds that the movement has brought a terrible assault down upon them. But the larger and longer-term political picture is of a movement that will gain additional domestic support from this war, be regarded as a symbol of defiance and courage for millions in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and become an unavoidable reality at future diplomatic negotiations. If this is not a kind of victory, then what is?

Khaled Hroub is director of the Cambridge Arab Media Project in association with the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000), and Hamas: a Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press, 2006)

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