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What drove Hamas to take on Israel?

By Dr Jeroen Gunning
Executive Director, Durham Global Security Institute

image copyrightAFP

Two months ago, Palestinians were cautiously optimistic as arch-rivals Hamas and Fatah announced the creation of a national unity government. Twelve days ago, violence flared up between Hamas and Israel. What lies behind Hamas' decision to return to violence?

The immediate trigger for the escalation was the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank on 12 June 2014. The Israeli government accused Hamas, arrested over 200 Hamas members in the West Bank and closed down organisations affiliated with Hamas.

To Hamas, the clampdown seemed politically motivated to eradicate its presence in the West Bank. The available evidence suggests that the kidnapping had not been authorised by Hamas' political leadership but seemed to be the work of members of a powerful Hebron clan, with a history of carrying out rogue attacks in opposition to the Hamas leadership.

Within this context, the clampdown demanded a response, if Hamas was to retain credibility. But influencing Hamas' response were two deeper, underlying developments:

The first was the establishment of the national unity government on 2 June and its subsequent breakdown. Palestinian hopes for the national unity government had been high.

Hamas and Fatah had been in tortured, on-off negotiations since Hamas' 2006 election victory, with numerous failed or short-lived attempts along the way.

This time, polls suggested that Palestinians believed that the experiment would succeed.

Hamas desperately needed a way out of its increasing isolation. It had lost Syrian and (much of) Iranian support in 2011 when it sided with the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

In 2013, its ally, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted from government. The Egyptian military leadership declared war on Hamas and closed the tunnels under the Egyptian-Gazan border that had enabled Gaza's survival (and Hamas' ability to arm itself) during Israel's blockade.

Hamas' popularity decreased, as did its ability to pay Gaza's state employees.

The national unity government, which effectively gave control to Fatah, was a desperate move to end this isolation.

Fatah, meanwhile, saw a national unity government as a way to regain control of Gaza through elections, putting it in a stronger negotiating position with Israel and vis-a-vis any future bids for membership of UN bodies.

Both parties sought to bolster their popularity by heeding the increasingly vocal calls from the public for national unity.

Political path

However, the national unity government ran into trouble even before the kidnapping.

Israel responded by halting peace talks with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) and announcing an expansion to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, telling Fatah it had to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas.

Sharp disagreements arose between Hamas and Fatah over who should pay Hamas employees in Gaza, and Gaza's police closed the banks in protest.

The kidnapping exacerbated these tensions when the Palestinian Authority's security forces aided the IDF in clamping down on Hamas in the West Bank.

image copyrightReuters
image captionHamas and Fatah ended years of often-violent rift by forming a unity government in June

The ensuing street protests, which Ismail Haniya, Hamas' prime minister in Gaza since 2007, described pointedly as the beginning of the "third intifada", were partly directed against the PA's security forces.

Thus, when Hamas framed its attacks on Israel as showing solidarity with the West Bank protests, this was in part to undermine Fatah and paint Hamas as the "true" champion of Palestinian unity.

Although the national unity government has not been disbanded, its breakdown profoundly affected Hamas' calculus.

While Hamas' decision to join was driven by its isolation, it also indicated Hamas' readiness to consider a political path out of the impasse.

With Hamas' consent, the national unity government upheld the three conditions the international community had set for engagement with Hamas: recognition of Israel, abidance by previous diplomatic agreements, and renunciation of violence.

Hamas' military wing and the militants amongst its political leadership had serious misgivings about the national unity government and dissenting voices were evident.

But the fact that Hamas had formally agreed meant that there was enough support to make a start.

Against this backdrop, Israel's and Fatah's clampdown on Hamas, so soon after the establishment of the national unity government, signalled the futility of a political route at this stage, thus strengthening those favouring a military response.

Economic pressure

The second underlying development is the increased hardship Gaza has experienced since the closure of the tunnels to Egypt.

With unemployment already over 40%, reconstruction all but halted, and exports down to 3% of pre-blockade levels before 2013, the closure of the tunnels led to a severe worsening of the situation, with fuel shortages leading to regular power cuts affecting hospitals, schools and the already failing water and sewerage systems.

image copyrightAP
image captionIsrael and Egypt's blockade has restricted what is allowed into the Gaza Strip for years

Hamas joined the national unity government because the status quo was unbearable. When it became clear that a government of national unity would not improve the situation, the belief that violence was its only leverage gained strength.

In addition, Hamas is under constant pressure from more militant groups in the Gaza Strip who accuse it of selling out to Israel.

Most of the rockets fired before June appear to have been fired by smaller militant organisations. Hamas has in the past clamped down on those, when it was in its interest to do so.

But not only has Hamas condoned attacks when it suited it. It is also wary of being seen as "Fatah II" - a reference to the notion that Fatah became Israel's de facto enforcer by agreeing to end violence and arrest those continuing with violence without the guarantee of a Palestinian state.

As the humanitarian crisis in Gaza deteriorated, rocket attacks from Gaza increased in the first five months of 2014.

Although Hamas has been weakened, it can still muster significant popular support, and the current conflict is likely to strengthen it, if previous conflicts between Hamas and Israel are any indication.

One of the Palestinians' most respected polling centres, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, found in June that 32% would vote for Hamas in legislative elections, while over 40% supported Ismail Haniya for president.

More broadly, a majority believed that "Hamas' way" to end the occupation was better than "Fatah's way".

While we do not know what levels of popular support Hamas has for continuing its fight, anecdotally, people seem to be resigned to more suffering because the status quo has become intolerable.

As a reputable source wrote in a recent email from Gaza, "people are suffering in Gaza. People are very, very tired. But even those who hate Hamas do not want to return to the situation before the war. People want to change the situation."

Strength through rockets

What, then, will induce Hamas to end violence?

Hamas rejected the Egyptian ceasefire proposal because, it said, it had not been consulted, and because it was a return to the status quo ante.

image copyrightEPA
image captionHamas has fired thousands of rockets at Israel - and been hit with air strikes in response

Hamas' own ceasefire proposal is too far-reaching for Israel to accept.

But, though bold, the demands focus largely on ending Gaza's blockade, from opening border crossings and an air- and seaport under international supervision, to the reestablishment of industrial zones and the (re)expansion of the marine fishing zone to 10km (6 miles).

Israel is unlikely to agree to these demands without a cast iron guarantee that the opening of borders will not allow Hamas to rearm - something which Hamas' military wing is unlikely to accept. But it is clear from the demands that ending the blockade is the main driver.

The very boldness of the demands suggests that Hamas believes that its rocket attacks - and Israel's apparent inability to stop them - has given it sufficient leverage to demand a significant change in the status quo.

The fact that the demands have been reiterated by representatives of the three main forces within Hamas - the political and military leaderships in Gaza and the political bureau in exile - indicates that the movement is united at this point, although it is the military leadership that seems to call the shots for now.

However, differences may well emerge between (and within) these factions over what further compromises will be acceptable, particularly if Israel's ground offensive affects Hamas' internal balance of power.

Dr Jeroen Gunning is Reader in Middle East Politics and Conflict Studies at Durham University. He specialises in the study of Islamist movements in the Middle East, especially Hamas and Hezbollah, and is the author of Hamas in Politics (Hurst, 2007).

Related Topics

  • Gaza
  • Hamas
  • Israel