If Hamas were a brand (and Hamas is a brand) it would distinguish itself from its competitors with three words: confrontation, competence and integrity. Everything Hamas does is distinguished by these three things. Every Palestinian Arab knows it. When holding Hamas up beside Fatah the comparison is stark.
The weakest of those three points is integrity. Whereas Hamas was once the honest if brutal alternative to Fatah, its years controlling Gaza have offered temptation. Polling has shown that Hamas is no longer as squeaky-clean as once it was.
The strongest of those three points is confrontation. Hamas has unremittingly confronted Israel since its inception. Even when it has agreed truces with Israel Hamas has ensured that confrontation continues.
Abu Mazen has worked hard to remain confrontational in spite of American and European pressure to continue the now-empty charade of multilateral talks. That dilute confrontation pales to nothing when compared with Hamas’s work over the past week.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), long an Iranian client, has enjoyed face time this year not only with President Rouhani, but also with senior officials close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei such as Ali Larijani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. There have been no public reports that they met with senior leaders of the Islamic Republican Guard Corps – Quds Force (IRGC-QF) at the same time, but it is highly likely that they did.
Fatah’s Jibril Rajoub has met with the urbane Zarif in Tehran, and PA Parliament Speaker Salim Zanoun has met with President Rouhani. There have not, however, been indications that the Palestinian Authority received as warm a welcome as PIJ’s Ramadan Shallah.
Iran has shown that there are other players in town than Hamas, but this abduction operation demonstrates that Hamas is capable of the kind of confrontation that the Palestinian Authority cannot demonstrate, and a level of effectiveness and finesse that PIJ cannot yet achieve.
People have wondered at the pleasure that Palestinians have taken in the kidnapping of three young Israelis, apparently by Hamas, last week. Some have been appalled by that joy. Nobody has been surprised. For many Palestinians this kidnapping has been a successful confrontation. The Israeli giant has been opposed and humbled.
Israel’s security forces have come down on the West Bank with a cold fury. This disturbs Hamas not at all.
First, bear in mind that Hamas knew this was going to happen. They have had a chance to secure arms caches and key personnel where they would not be found. How do we know this? They have managed to hide the three lads they abducted, and hide them well enough that they haven’t turned up in a week. Anything or anyone the Israeli security forces seize in their searches is a cost of doing business.
Second, few blame Hamas. The people conducting the searches are Israeli, the people being searched already view them as enemies, and the cause of their misery — the abduction of the Israeli kids — is something they appreciate. Every roadblock, every closure, every checkpoint is an Israeli aggression, not an Israeli response to Hamas aggression.
Third, this is a very public demonstration of Hamas’s potency. Hamas has been bottled up in Gaza for years, but now within weeks of their acceding to the unity government with Fatah they have demonstrated their ability to conduct a significant and complex snatch operation which has made a mockery of Israeli security and which has humbled not only Israel, but especially the Israelis who have settled in the West Bank.
Last, the act of abduction has played well outside Israel and Palestine. They could have killed the boys in some graphic fashion and put a video of the slaying on YouTube. That would have caused revulsion in Europe, Asia and America. Abduction has been almost a non-story outside Israel. If the lads are killed in the course of a rescue operation Hamas will be able to say that Israel caused their death. If the lads are released by a rescue operation Hamas will be able to lament the deaths of their operatives. If the lads are exchanged or ransomed then Hamas will draw equivalence between these lads and Hamas operatives released in return.
Best of all for Hamas; Israel is, in spite of itself, showing evidence of impotent fury. This reinforces the first two points of Hamas brand identity: confrontation and competence.
While some Israeli Clouseau ignored a phone call from one of the victims, Hamas managed to spirit three lads out of Area C and into the wind.
Every raid, every house search, every bayonet thrust into a housewife’s bedlinen is a statement of confrontation. Every Palestinian who truthfully tells an Israeli border policeman that she has no idea where the kids are is co-opted into this confrontation. Every one of them can feel a certain satisfaction that even 47 years after Israel took the West Bank from Jordan, even 27 years after the Intifada began, Israel can’t render the Arab population of the West Bank docile.
Is it any wonder that there is a certain glee apparent in pictures of cakes offered in celebration? It is no wonder at all.
And competence? While some Israeli Clouseau ignored a phone call from one of the victims, Hamas managed to spirit three lads out of Area C and into the wind. While the army, the border police and the Shin Bet flail impotently, while Fatah gamely co-operates; Hamas has got clean away.
Some have suggested that in the years since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip they might have lost their edge. The burdens of running a city-state with a sizeable population have certainly taxed their abilities, and offered opportunities for corruption. To some extent this abduction will enable Hamas to distract their constituency from dodgy land deals, favoritism and impiety.
Some have wondered whether Hamas would be weakened by their rejection of Iranian and Syrian support and their loss of a powerful patron in Egypt’s now-fallen Muslim Brotherhood government. Their willingness to go into coalition with Fatah could have been an indicator of exactly that: seeking rapprochement as it became more difficult to go it alone. That question has been driven from everyone’s mind in the past week.
This operation has shown that Hamas in power is just as formidable a force as it was, and that Hamas can still set the pace of opposition to Israeli rule over the West Bank and Israeli settlement-building.