Paul Pillar

The Normalization of Hamas

Karin Brulliard's report in the Washington Post about how Hamas has been faring lately among its subjects in the Gaza Strip lends support to Rafael Frankel's recommendation in these spaces to take a fresh look at reaching an extended cease-fire with the group. The report supports the idea by showing just how ordinary a ruling party Hamas has become. It still has significant popular support, but its position as a de facto government has made it the target of grumbling by Gazans. The grumbling is about such mundane things as shortages of electricity and the unavailability of promised housing stipends, as well as Hamas officials being perceived to be enjoying positions of privilege unavailable to the general population. It is not about violence or too much stridency in standing up to Israel, and it is not about Islamization of society, which for the most part the Gazan population has successfully resisted.

The Israeli posture and, in lockstep with it, the American posture toward Hamas are stuck in an unhelpful time warp. It is a posture that simply applies the label “terrorist” to the group and assumes that an unchanging refusal to have anything to do with it is the only appropriate implication. A label is no substitute for a policy or for a strategy. And in this case, it is no substitute for understanding the current character and objectives of Hamas, which are not captured by the label.

Some Israeli officials probably view any damage to Hamas's standing among Palestinians as a salutary effect of Israel's long effort to strangle the group. That would be a misreading. As the Post article indicates, Hamas still profits from controlling trade through the smuggling tunnels that were built in response to the Israeli blockade.

The sources of popular unhappiness with Hamas contain the seeds of possible political failure of the group. And that gets to an important principle in dealing with groups one doesn't like: let them fail on their own. An imposed failure usually redounds to the disadvantage of the imposer.

Image: Hoheit