Hamas's shortsighted manoeuvre

Hamas has won a military victory in Gaza at the cost of exposing its political weakness.


By taking over Gaza by force, Hamas has successfully completed the process that Israel started of separating the Gaza strip from the West Bank.

The move was rooted in unhappiness – mostly among members of the armed wing but also by some in the political leadership – with the Mecca agreement of February 2007. The critics of Mecca were unhappy that Hamas had been forced to offer political concessions to Fatah, which they saw as too weak to deserve them.

In addition, plans by the Palestine president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his newly appointed security advisor Mohammed Dahlan to reform and rehabilitate the Palestinian security services under the president's command created an impression among Hamas cadres that their military superiority in Gaza could be in jeopardy. Ever since winning parliamentary elections in January 2006, Hamas had felt that its authority was undermined by a lack of control over the security services. This led to the creation of the Tanfithya (executive force), which Hamas placed above other security forces. The mooted security reforms threatened this order.

The battles in Gaza showed how weak the Palestinian Authority (PA) has become. While this weakness is a direct result of Israeli policies, including unilateralism and the deliberate targeting of the PA security infrastructure, those battles will have far-reaching consequences for the Palestinian people and cause. They shook Palestinian confidence and undermined the image of the Palestinian cause in international eyes. In addition, aftershocks will be felt on the economy and on other institutions of the PA.

Even more damaging, the fighting will lessen the likelihood of any potential international political efforts to pressure Israel into some form of compromise, especially since Israel will use the situation to further justify its unilateralism, whether in terms of continued settlement expansion, the building of the wall or the draconian closures in the West Bank.

In light of the situation, Abbas had no choice but to dismiss the government led by Ismail Haniya of Hamas. Indeed, in reality this move came late. The challenge, and it is a large one, is for Fatah and the new emergency government appointed by Mahmoud Abbas on 17 June 2007 to set an example. This must mostly happen in the security sphere. There are elements within Fatah that are already unhappy with the new government, and Abbas needs to discipline his movement into working closely with new prime minister Salam Fayyad and his cabinet.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Hamas's takeover may soon be seen to be shortsighted. While the Islamist movement has proven itself strong militarily, it has weakened its position politically. The battles exposed the ideological and sectarian side of Hamas, and the brutality exhibited during the weeklong fighting has damaged the movement's standing among ordinary Palestinians. Hamas, it would seem, did not think of the day after.

The question of what happens next depends on a number of factors and players, including Fatah, Israel and the international community.

First, Fatah has to show a maturity that it has hitherto failed to exhibit, mostly in terms of imposing order on the streets and adherence to the due process of the law. Second, Israel must stop giving credibility to Hamas and discrediting Abbas in deed, if not in word.

Third, the international community must stop seeing itself as a charity that exists only to supply humanitarian aid to Palestinians. The international community is the determining factor in any political way out – not only of this crisis but the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a whole. It has a political responsibility to take its duties seriously, most importantly in terms of implementing international law and persuading Israel to adhere to international legitimacy.

This means in the first instance that the international community must move swiftly to pressure Israel to halt its settlement expansion and ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank. π

Ghassan Khatib is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president of Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.  © www.opendemocracy.org