Friday, Apr 28, 2017

Hamas: New leadership, old problems

Nearly three years since the last round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, there is a growing fear that slowly but surely, another round is creeping ever closer. Unlike past outbursts of violence, this time there is a gradual build-up to another clash. What has averted such an occurrence so far is that neither of side is prepared or interested, militarily or politically, to face the other on the battlefield. But due to their actions and rhetoric, they may miscalculate themselves into war. Regardless of the trigger for the next war in Gaza, nearly 2 million people there — mostly long-term refugees — are facing intolerable daily conditions. This is a recipe for disaster. Israel and Hamas have developed adverse relations that feed into mutual inherent animosity, which inevitably leads to the use of force.
From Israel’s perspective, the threat posed by Hamas is only second to that of the Iran-Hezbollah nexus. Hamas in Gaza has been going through crucial changes. The recent election of Yahya Sinwar as leader of the movement there represents a further shift in Hamas toward those who oppose any form of constructive engagement with Israel, raising the likelihood of military confrontation. The election of Sinwar, who spent 22 years in an Israeli jail and was released as part of the Gilad Shalit deal, alarmed Israeli politicians and senior security people. Their claim that he was considerably more extreme than his predecessor Ismail Haniyyah is more telling of their opinion on the threat posed by the new leader than Haniyyah’s moderation.
Interestingly, this change in leadership takes place at a time when Hamas’ leading institution, the Shoura Council, is debating a change to its 1987 covenant suggesting the acceptance of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders as an interim solution. Gazans are hostage to Israel’s inhumane ground, air and naval blockade on the one hand, and Hamas’ authoritarian regime on the other. It is almost impossible for ordinary Gazans to resist without paying an even heavier price than they already have. There is no suggestion of abandoning the movement’s fundamental view that Palestine in its entirety should be under Muslim control, but it reaffirms past suggestions of a slight show of pragmatism in accepting Israel’s right to exist. It leaves some room for talks with the Fatah movement and the Palestinian Authority on a platform of negotiations with Israel. Then again, the assassination of senior Hamas operative Mazen Fuqaha led to threats by the organization to retaliate by killing senior Israeli security leaders. This exemplifies the volatility of the situation. It has not yet been established who killed Fuqaha; according to Hamas it was Israel, while Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said it was an “inside job” by rivals within the organization. But there is a view that what may hasten military confrontation is fear within Hamas that it is losing its ability to hurt Israel. This is prompted especially by the latter’s building of a sophisticated physical barrier along its border with Gaza that would make any infiltration into Israel by Hamas militants almost impossible. Israel’s government was recently lambasted in a report by its state comptroller for the way it conducted the 2014 war in Gaza and the time leading up to it. The report claims with much authority and justification that the war could have been averted had Israel acted prudently and made a genuine effort to improve the economic situation in Gaza.
It also criticized the government for not looking at alternatives to the disproportionate use of force it employed during the war, and for being complacent about the threat of Hamas’ tunnels. The massive investment in a barrier above and underground surrounding Gaza is a major lesson Israel’s government is trying to implement from the last war. Sadly, it completely neglects the root cause of militancy in Gaza: Misery created by economic hardship due to the blockade. As long as Israel’s cruel blockade deprives Gazans of their most basic human rights, Palestinian resistance is not illogical. Gazans are hostage to Israel’s inhumane ground, air and naval blockade on the one hand, and Hamas’ authoritarian regime on the other. It is almost impossible for ordinary Gazans to resist without paying an even heavier price than they already have. Worse, in any future war, of which the likelihood is increasing daily, they will be the ultimate victims. In the absence of a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, Gazans and their wellbeing are used as a bargaining chip in a political struggle they have little or no say in.
 

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