The past year, and more specifically past month have amply demonstrated how Hamas is now a weak and vulnerable group, and most likely doomed to ultimate failure. While historically Hamas has sought to project an image of strength and omnipotence, the façade is now slipping. Still dangerous, though, it poses high levels of threat to Israel, and can be anticipated to remain doing so in the foreseeable future.
Hamas is part of the very broad family of Islamic groups and movements stemming from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Often referred to as the Brotherhood’s Palestinian chapter, it nevertheless significantly differs from its parent organisation. This is inasmuch as the fact that most Brotherhood type groups emphasise effecting change through social action, charity, and piety, whereas Hamas’s distinguishing feature is its commitment to defeating Israel through armed struggle against both military and civilian targets. Resistance is inherent and integral to Hamas’s identity; its very name is an acronym which translates from Arabic into English as “the Islamic Resistance Movement”. Thus, it may be argued that political compromise with Israel compromises the integrity of Hamas’s very character.
Arguably, Hamas is unfit for the task of government given that Israel’s strength forces Palestinian actors to both recognise and negotiate with it – albeit not necessarily directly – by default. Until the 1990s, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Fatah could credibly claim that that they were resistance movements protecting Palestinians from Israeli aggression. However, certain elements of the Oslo Accords undermine this assertion. Particularly problematic was the fact that the Palestinian Authority pursued a policy of security coordination with Israel in the West Bank. While Israeli-PA security coordination has been instrumental in counter-terrorism efforts in recent years, it has lead Palestinians to accuse Fatah of having so internalised Israel’s occupation of the West Bank that they had acquiesced to policing it themselves. This has dented Fatah and the Palestinian Authority’s credibility far more than rampant corruption ever could have, and Hamas must hope to never find themselves in this situation either.
Not only do Fatah and the Palestinian Authority enforce and police the occupation in the eyes of many Palestinians, but they further betray the principles of resistance by condemning terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians. For example, after worshippers were massacred in a synagogue in Har Nof in 2015, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was quick to condemn the attack in unequivocal terms. As with engaging in security cooperation and coordination with Israel, this is an absolute taboo which Hamas can never transgress.
However, these principles fundamentally weaken and undermine Hamas as a de-facto government in the Gaza Strip, and have taken it to war before. Whether or not Gaza’s situation will escalate into a full-blow conflict on the scale of 2014 remains to be seen, but if it does, then Hamas’s weaknesses in this respect will likely be to blame. Because of Israel’s policy of holding Hamas responsible for any attacks against Israel emanating from the Gaza Strip – regardless of which faction attempted to carry them out – the Islamist group will seek to prevent this from happening at all costs. Thus, Hamas has come to enact a policy which undermines Palestinian resistance, and directly benefits Israel. Given the number of more militant rejectionist factions in the coastal enclave (such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, and smaller Salafi-Jihadi groups), this very significantly undermines Hamas’s status as a leader of the Palestinian resistance.
Even if it cannot stop these attacks, though, Hamas has one option left: to condemn, or to not condemn. Thus far, they have always preferred the latter, understanding that choosing the former would destroy their little remaining credibility. This is particularly dangerous, and has historically acted as one of the greatest, but also unseen barriers to hostilities ending between Israel and Hamas. One example of this is the Hebron-based Qawasmeh tribe. Despite being affiliated to Hamas, Qawasmeh cells consistently sabotaged putative ceasefires agreed between Israel and Hamas during the Second Intifada, usually with spectacular suicide bombings. More recently, it is likely that rather than having been sanctioned by Hamas’s leadership, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel’s kidnappings and murders were carried out by a rogue cell affiliated to the Qawasmeh tribe, who were seeking to derail an ongoing Hamas-Fatah détente. Even though these attacks ran directly against Hamas’s interest, the group could not condemn them on principle, leading to the devastating escalation of Operation Protective Edge. Again, despite Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s recent strikes against Israel directly opposing Hamas’s interests, Hamas cannot condemn them.
Thus, Hamas finds itself in an unexpected position of weakness. Having miserably failed to govern and provide for the long-suffering people of Gaza, it must now choose between retaining its resistance credentials at the cost of clashing with Israel which it can ill afford, or sacrificing them to rule responsibly and effectively. While it can try to maintain quiet with Israel, its refusal to condemn attacks against the Jewish state further undermines its efforts to do so. As this week’s event show, Hamas is helpless against the efforts of more rejectionist factions. If Iran decides it wants to initiate a conflict with Israel through Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, then there is precious little Hamas can do about it.