Middle East and South Asia correspondent Mustafa Qadri on Hamas’ future
Just before midday on 27 December, 2008, Israel’s air force,the fourth largest in the world, attacked more than 40 locations in the Gaza Strip. The targets were almost entirely people and facilities vital to the Hamas government.
‘Hamas was badly stricken, both in terms of its military capabilities and in the infrastructure of its regime,’ said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert when announcing an Israeli ceasefire on 17 January. ‘Its leaders are in hiding. Many of its members have been killed.’
Olmert’s comments point to what many observers have long suspected – that the invasion’s primary aim was to marginalise Hamas by killing large numbers of its officials and soldiers, and obliterating Gaza’s infrastructure.
‘Hamas was getting more moderate, it was distancing itself from its charter [which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state], and that is why Israel attacked,’ Middle East expert Patrick Seale told Al Jazeera in January. ‘Israel wants to radicalise the Palestinians so it can then say, “How can we negotiate with someone [sic] who wants to kill us?”‘
Despite the devastation in Gaza, Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon three years earlier, has tried to paint itself as the victor by virtue of its capacity to continue to resist. ‘God has granted us a great victory,’ proclaimed Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyah in a televised address after Israel halted its invasion. ‘The enemy has failed to achieve any of its goals.’
Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group has put this bravado in context: ‘[Hamas] is no military match for Israel, but can assert victory by surviving the onslaught,’ he argued in the Boston Globe. Yet questions have emerged about the future of Hamas.
This is not the first time Israel has sought to eradicate the group. Ever since Hamas became an independent political and military force – one that, ironically, Israel helped create as a religious counterweight to the secular Fatah movement – its leadership and grassroots welfare activities have been targeted by Israel.
Following Hamas’ June 2006 election victory, Israeli forces blockaded Gaza, cracking down on Hamas members and assets in the West Bank. Most Hamas parliamentarians, like speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council Abdul Aziz al-Duwaik, are in prison and most members of the militant Qassam brigades are either dead, in hiding or imprisoned.
Since starting its land invasion on 3 January, Israel has sought regional and international support for a continuation of its three-year blockade of Gaza. Crucially, such support has been forthcoming from both the former Bush and current Obama administrations in the United States.
Under a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed by the two countries on 16 January, the United States promised to help prevent Hamas rearming in Gaza and to rally like-minded nations, including members of NATO, to do the same. A Bush White House spokesperson pointed out that the MOU was reached in consultation with Obama advisers.
Hamas wary of a ceasefire
There is now talk of an enduring ceasefire, brokered by Egypt, drawing upon a UN Security Council resolution passed on 8 January. Hamas, however, remains cautious. ‘If Israel [offered] a ceasefire agreement, this shouldn’t be interpreted as suggesting an overwhelming desire for peace on its part,’ senior Hamas spokesperson Ahmed Yousuf told The Diplomat from Gaza. ‘It would rather indicate that Israel had reached a conviction that military power alone can’t solve all problems in the region.’
Israel wants an indefinite ceasefire agreement explicitly prohibiting Hamas from rearming, while Hamas wants any ceasefire to be trialled first and for Gaza’s borders with both Israel and Egypt to be reopened.
That Hamas is even in a position to bargain suggests it is far from a spent political force. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah, in contrast, has proved powerless against continued Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Some analysts believe this proves that Hamas has wrested the mantle of pre-eminent Palestinian resistance movement from Fatah.
‘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,’ says Dr Khaled Hroub, a veteran Hamas observer from Cambridge University.
‘It is an organisation with deep roots, and Gazans like Hamas,’ adds Professor Efraim Inbar of Bar-Ilan University in Israel. ‘I think Hamas is here to stay.’