By Ali Jarbawi
It is difficult to conceive of two more natural enemies than Hamas and the Zionist movement that dominates Israeli politics. In their different ways, each is rhetorically committed to the destruction of the other. However, their relationship is much more complex and symbiotic than a casual observer might expect.
Israel initially turned a blind eye to the activities and expanding influence of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood and the Mujamma (the "Islamic Center" and institutional home of the Brotherhood in Gaza). Israel believed the traditionalist, non-violent ideology of the Brotherhood would be a counterweight to the secular, nationalist Palestinian political factions. However, with the outbreak of the first intifada, younger leaders within the Mujamma successfully forced the organization to adopt a "jihad now" policy that led to the founding of Hamas. This marked a stark ideological transition from a movement that sought Islamization through communal and educational reform into one that turned to armed resistance and nationalism to achieve its vision of an Islamic society.
The further transformation of Hamas over only two decades into a party political movement in government would surely have surprised its founders. Its willingness, along with Fateh, to compromise basic health and education services and to engage in technical-legal sophistry in pursuit of hegemony over Palestinian secular government institutions would surely have profoundly unsettled them.
Backed to the hilt by its patrons in the US and European government, Fateh refused to play any part in an orderly transfer of power, fanning the flames of the internal conflict currently engulfing Gaza. However, Hamas’ extrapolation that its victory was a mandate from all Palestinians everywhere to seize control of all national institutions is blatant folly. With an increasing number of "hawks" from its military arm gaining political power, Hamas employs its security apparatus not just to tackle criminal groups. It is also brutally suppressing political opponents and curtailing the activities of civil society organizations. This is not the mandate given it by citizens who voted for "change and reform" and an end to Fateh corruption and misrule.
No doubt this transformation from bottom-up social movement to top-down autocracy has surprised Israel’s political and security establishments too. Israel often receives far more credit for strategic vision and control over the Palestinian arena than it deserves. But, while not entirely controlled by Israel, Hamas’ rise is not without positive consequences for its sworn enemy. Firstly, Hamas has proved to be an able guarantor of security for the residents of Israel’s southern communities around Gaza, and has seemingly received very little in return for this service. Secondly, Hamas’ links to the so-called "Shi’ite crescent" provide Israel’s leaders with ample ammunition to justify their denial of the legal and human rights of Palestinians on the grounds of the ill-conceived and failing "war on terror". Thirdly, Gaza can now, more than ever, be cited as a clear example of Palestinian inability to govern and provide human security for the people.
The internal political situation in Israel is now more fragile than ever. Its society is deeply divided and includes powerful and popular groups implacably opposed to any peace agreement that would be acceptable to even the most "dovish" Palestinians. Should Tzipi Livni be successful in forming a governing coalition it will be a fragile one. Her own reputation is fragile too; grave doubts about her leadership and security experience remain. She will undoubtedly seek to ride out the period until the next elections in the prime minister’s seat, letting Israeli voters get used to her occupying the top job. Such a recipe for Livni’s and Kadima’s survival cannot include open confrontation with the settler movement and the orthodox religious parties.
As has been the case for most of the period since Oslo, the Israeli government will continue to pay lip service to the peace process while maintaining its paralysis, thus postponing indefinitely the awful prospect of internal confrontation. Israel is content to see Hamas rule Gaza, but will not risk its rule extending to the West Bank. A politically and socially divided Palestinian society is critical to the "no credible partner for peace" argument that has served Zionism so well in recent years. The Israeli military, provided it maintains (or increases) its current presence, freedom of action and matrix of control, is perfectly capable of preventing Hamas from seizing power in the West Bank.
This approach is obviously inconsistent with the international community’s strategy of advancing the peace process through creating a model of security and economic growth in the West Bank. Israel may be happy to let Salam Fayyad’s deployment of Palestinian security forces in parts of the northern West Bank continue. However, in practice, this will remain a controlled experiment that will, under no circumstances, be extended to Hebron. Israel may be willing to move a few checkpoints around, like shuffling the deck chairs on a Tel Aviv beach, but it will not relinquish its grip on the overall situation. Of course, the spin-doctors at the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Prime Minister’s office will continue to cite their good intentions to "protect Palestinian moderates" from Hamas in the West Bank–a message crafted to appease the international community whilst driving deeper the wedge between Hamas and the political factions of the PLO.
The divide and rule strategy is as old as the hills of Jerusalem and it continues to work. It will continue to be the cornerstone of Israel’s strategy in relation to the Palestinians and will govern its relationship with Hamas. With Israel and most of the global community of nations against it (including the major Arab nations), and with its own internal divisions becoming more pronounced, Hamas’ chances of gaining further ground beyond its hollow victory in Gaza seem remote. From a national perspective, with Hamas showing signs of the indiscipline and rampant self-interest that has corroded Fateh, the search continues for a unifying leadership that places the goal of ending the occupation ahead of petty political ambitions.
-Ali Jarbawi is professor of political science at Birzeit University. (Originally published in Bitterlemons – www.bitterlemons.org – September 22, 2008)