What To Do With Hamas?

Even as Israel still finds itself in the thick of this conflict, it must also be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and wondering what policies should exist in relation to the Palestinians. I don’t think the weight of this responsibility has ever been heavier on Israeli shoulders, if only for the fact that the Palestinians have never fought harder.

Policy makers to the center and left of center will be wondering if moderates in the Hamas and Fatah groups can lead their people up from the single-minded view of Israel’s destruction and cooperate with Israel or its intermediaries to allow for a “sustained quiet” without too many demands. Policy makers to the center and right of center will be completely dismissive of the legitimacy of the Hamas and Fatah leadership, not trusting them to keep their word on anything, and viewing the so-called moderates as deceptive mouthpieces for the larger hidden agenda. “Sustained quiet” will translate into rearmament to more dangerous levels.

Is Israel dealing with a single kid trying to grab the brass ring on the merry-go-round? A kid who, having missed a number of times, keeps trying because what is important is that he hasn’t fallen off the horse? Much of Palestinian political strategy, as particularly exhibited by Hamas, is “gangster-like.” We are reminded of the Palestinian founding father and Nobel Prize Laureate Yasser Arafat who always “packed heat.” But should we view all Palestinian political process with suspicion, forever dismissing the possibility of a partner? Having asked this question, let me also say that I recently retired from a maximum security prison where I worked for the past ten years as a clinical social worker. The prison was a breeding ground for criminal gangs, as most prisons are. As a clinical social worker, I listened to stories from inmates who were in these gangs or trying to get out of them. There were also many inmates I worked with who were not in gangs, who were not professional, antisocial criminals.  They were people not too different from you and me who had made terrible mistakes and were now paying for it. I want to continue with this article in the hope of pointing out the importance of this difference.  I will do this by taking a closer look at the nature of criminal gangs. Criminal Gangs Criminal gangs can be studied as microcosmic terror groups. They obey the same rules. They have very similar social structures. I will mention some commonalities that come to mind. 1) Harsh penalties for betrayal of loyalty Since criminal gangs always see themselves in a state of war, any kind of betrayal is dealt with severely. “Snitches” are methodically put to death, and those who commit infractions are “disciplined” with severe beatings. 2) Deception towards the enemy is the rule rather than the exception. Gang members will constantly try and “pull the wool over your eyes,” since their object is to exploit and harm, rather than interact with others in a reciprocal manner. 3) Deception towards oneself is the rule rather than the exception By nursing a litany of complaints and injustices set upon them by authorities or rival gangs, they can justify, through “honored victim status,”  retaliatory and exploitative behavior. They will be devoid of any awareness of the pain they’ve caused, since this would detract from the legitimacy of their actions. 4) Fellow gang members are expendable tools. Fellow gang members, even if they are “short to the house” (soon to parole) will be expected to “go on assignment” to harm or kill someone even if it means getting life without parole 5) Criminal Gangs are run on the military model. Criminal gangs have Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Privates. Privates will most often be assigned the dirtiest jobs, entailing the greatest risk.  In other words, “cannon fodder.”  All gang members will maintain “barracks discipline.”  This includes rolling up one’s mattress in the morning to show others that there won’t be any “lounging” during the day and that one is always ready for action. It is expected also that one will refrain from unnecessary profanity and disrespect (towards authorities, enemies, as well as one’s consorts) so as to not bring shame upon the gang. Gang members tend to be very polite, clean cut, with good hygiene. 6) Trying to leave the gang is an expression of disloyalty and threat to the group, punishable by death (“blood in, blood out”). Leaving a gang is always next to impossible, since you now carry secrets that can hurt a lot of people.  To be “set free” to mill about with non gang people is perceived as an immediate threat as well. One cannot associate with other races either, since gangs are usually built on one’s own race. Observations Some weeks after I started working for the prison, learning skills on how to keep from getting manipulated and sometimes paying the price for trusting too much, someone advised me.  “You can’t let the inmates run the prison.” As a social worker of course I had to find value in each and every client-inmate I worked with, otherwise there would be no rehabilitation for them. This required that I achieve a balance between acceptance of potential worth (as I believe all people have), and limits around interactions, particularly as it pertained to the demands inmates made. I had to learn how to sort out what came from attempts at exploitation–versus a cry for help and a request for direction on how to better oneself. My key ally here was my own gut feelings.  Did I feel threatened or extorted? Since most inmates had an antisocial style of trying to get what they wanted, I had to develop some kind of way to stay connected with them but not allow myself to be pushed around. I figured out that if I could help translate the exploitative style into a pro-social one (since at the basic level everyone’s needs were legitimate), I could at least get the inmate to stay in his chair, keep his voice down, and begin to examine his methods. This became a contest that was daunting, but with clarity I could sense gradual gains with many client-inmates, although not all. There would always be some that were unreachable, hardened into the culture of antisocial tactics. Which gets us back to Hamas, the client-inmate of Israel. It is important to note that in their cease fire proposal, they specified that there would be a concurrent flow of violence until concessions were laid out, not a cessation of violence first, then a discussion of concessions. The importance of this point cannot be overemphasized.  Extortion would continue—and always exist as a tool–for Hamas’ style in getting its needs met. This speaks to its group identity, which is consistent with a criminal gang. Making things more difficult is another question. Does this mean the whole group? Part of it? All of Hamas but not the rest of the Palestinians?…these are the subtleties that confront policy makers. It has been reported a number of times (recently by Yadlin) that the political arm doesn’t always know what the military arm of Hamas is doing. They may not always agree with each other’s tactics. It will continue to be wise if Israel adhere’s to a policy of insisting that the style of meeting legitimate needs be translated into pro-social behaviors that can better accomplish something for all Palestinians.  The unanimous rejection of John Kerry’s cease fire proposal is a case in point. The Israeli government stood up to an extortionist offering from Hamas, with Kerry as its mouthpiece. Israel will also need to make up its mind, just as I had to in prison (or else compromise my personal safety), to what extent this extortionist capability is entrenched.

About the Author
Victor Salkowitz is a retired Clinical Social Worker with over 30 years experience in prisons, child welfare, and adult mental health agencies. He received his B.A. in Psychology from UC Davis and an MSW from UC Berkeley, becoming licensed in 1991.