Confronting Hamas

December 1, 2003 Topic: Security Regions: LevantMiddle East Tags: Gaza Strip

Confronting Hamas

Mini Teaser: Terrorist groups make poor peace partners.  Is Hamas any exception?

by Author(s): Steven N. SimonJonathan Stevenson

ON AUGUST 19, 2003, a member of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas detonated himself aboard a Jerusalem bus. In addition to killing 21 Israeli civilians and injuring over a hundred more, this attack ended the fragile cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinian terror groups, prompted the resignation of Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and stalled a peace process premised on the so-called roadmap. Slated to last for at least three months, the cease-fire lasted less than two, and Hamas immediately proclaimed that its attacks would continue. It appears to be making good on that threat.

If terrorism persists unabated, Israel will be compelled to continue retaliation. But even unsentimental counter-terrorism practitioners recognize the limits of this dispensation. In September 2003, Ephraim Halevy announced his resignation after four years as head of the Mossad and a year as director of Israel's National Security Council. He thinks the Israeli government must "offer more and demand more" to create a stable final settlement. In particular, it must offer a viable, secular Palestinian state and demand "that the Palestinians recognize the legitimacy" of the state of Israel. In other words, when required, a political dimension must be added to Israel's military strategy of "mowing the grass." In mid-November 2003, four former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's security service, gave a joint interview to Israel's largest daily, Yediot Ahronot. Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000, said that trying to defeat the Palestinians militarily "hasn't worked", and the other three agreed that bolder peace initiatives had to replace hard-line policies. Some Israeli soldiers are even questioning the morality and effectiveness of their government's tactics.

Hamas, the strongest of the religiously-motivated Palestinian terrorist groups, is the most formidable obstacle to peace. Yet targeted killings of militant leaders seem to boost the group's popularity among Palestinians during times of crisis (including those of Hamas's own making). Even moderate Palestinians were outraged by Israel's attempt to kill Hamas's halfblind, paraplegic spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Against this background, American support for Israel's current policies could eventually impede Washington's larger goal of democratizing the region. It is therefore central to U.S. interests in the Middle East (notably, its interest in denying Al-Qaeda new recruits) that Humus be tamed, Israeli retaliation curtailed and a two-state solution to the conflict forged. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the prime cause of U.S. problems in the Middle East, but ameliorating it must be part of the solution.

Easing Hamas into nonviolent politics, so that it might restrain itself as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) has done, would be preferable to outright coercion. But Hamas does not appear amenable to a Northern Ireland modus vivendi: it requires a political outcome that Israel and interested major powers cannot feasibly deliver. Forcibly dismantling the organization's military apparatus would thus seem the only effective option.

Hamas and the Peace Process

HAMAS AROSE during the first intifada in December 1987. From the beginning, three broad factors determined its lack of interest in political compromise. First, its ideological mission, as articulated in its "Introductory Memorandum", is absolutist and inherently violent:

Hamas believes that the Zionist colonization scheme can only be extirpated through a comprehensive holy struggle in which armed struggle is a basic instrument. Hamas also sees that the best way to conduct the fight with the Zionist enemy is to mobilize the resources of the Palestinian people to raise the banner of struggle in Palestine and to keep the embers of conflict burning until the conditions for a decisive battle with the enemy are complete. . . . [B]elieving in the sacredness of Palestine and its Islamic status, Hamas believes it impermissible under any circumstances to concede any part of Palestine or to recognize the Zionist occupation of it.

Hamas considers Palestine wholly Muslim land, such that surrendering any of it would be sinful. One passage of its charter suggests that religious redemption turns on destruction of the Jews. Thus, Hamas's leadership cannot easily endorse even tactical acquiescence in, still less a public endorsement of, a two-state solution. Consistent with this, Hamas has rejected peace deals like the one Israel and the Palestinians were negotiating at Taba in January 2001.

The second factor is Hamas's understanding of what constitutes a successful strategy. Many Hamas activists interpret Hizballah's bleeding of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as the cause of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon. This action is then assumed to be the strategic model for ousting Israel from the West Bank. Though such a view is wrong-pacifying the West Bank is more central to Israeli security and domestic political imperatives than occupying southern Lebanon--it resonates nonetheless.1 It also helps to explain why Hamas's leadership believes that, over enough time and through sustained violence, it can accomplish its absolutist goals. (Ironically, growing Israeli resentment of Jewish settlers, and the perception that the IDF is in the West Bank to protect them, may turn Hamas's wishful scenario into reality.)

Finally, there is Hamas's institutional psychology. Like most political and military organizations, Hamas is divided between relative doves and hawks. It can therefore seem schizophrenic on issues of compromise and violence. On a practical level, it exploits revenge attacks on Israel to boost morale and recruitment for the looming confrontation with its secular adversaries.

These characteristics do not stop Hamas from intermittently dialing back terrorist operations and edging toward negotiation, but they do suggest that the group's motivation for doing so is merely tactical. True, some Hamas leaders have, since 1988, advocated an interim solution involving an armistice, an Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967 (including all of Jerusalem) and negotiations on other rights. Hamas leaders also established informal contacts with Israeli officials during the Oslo process. Nonetheless, hard-liners have effectively vetoed any formal armistice offer and rejected Israel's attempts in 1993-94 to establish a dialogue aimed at convincing the organization to renounce violence in exchange for a guaranteed political role in any peace settlement. The fact remains that all ten of Hamas's declared or offered cease-fires between 1993 and 2002 emerged when it needed breathing room to regroup after pressure was exerted by a superior adversary--either Israel or the Palestinian Authority (PA). None has lasted longer than a few weeks.

As matters now stand, Hamas is extremely unlikely to dispense with violence as a political tool. It wants an Islamic Palestinian state in all of mandate Palestine, which Taba failed to provide. Corresponding to this ideological complaint is a pure power struggle: Taba would leave Fatah the dominant Palestinian party and cornerstone of the secular resistance, and that is equally unacceptable to Hamas. The two other key elements of Taba are objectives that Hamas shares, as far as they go, with the PLO-dominated PA and Fatah: a substantial end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and, most importantly, the creation of some Palestinian state. Due to Hamas's present popularity, Fatah leaders may assess that they lack the credibility to suppress the group in the hope of pre-empting future problems. Accordingly, Hamas can afford to wait, nurturing its popularity through social welfare operations and revolutionary appeals. A decisive challenge from Hamas, then, would most likely occur after Palestinian independence, when a sovereign entity existed for it to control politically, shape ideologically and use as a potential base for continuing its armed struggle against Israel.

Hamas's patience, however, is not tantamount to unwillingness. The group's forbearance on this front does not mean it is susceptible to political co-optation. The group considers a popular mandate essential to destabilizing the PA, wounding Israel and eventually theocratizing a Palestinian state. These goals require armed force. If Hamas did lose popular support on account of escalating violence, it could either tactically reduce terrorism as it did in June 2003 or pre-emptively wrest control from Fatah by force. But the logic of its strategy would bar a complete renunciation of violence. One way or the other, the availability of popular backing will only determine the timing of Hamas's violent challenge to its secular rivals. It will not affect the inevitability of that challenge.

In any case, Hamas's consistent refusal to join the PA government attests to its confidence in the viability of its unrepentant posture. The November 2002 meeting in Cairo between Fatah and Hamas under Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's auspices, arranged to explore the possibility of closer cooperation during the h, tifada, was futile. From the moment it began negotiating with Fatah, Hamas was working against the armistice, even while their military wings were apparently coordinating some operations. Hamas's continuation of terrorism was certainly intended to discredit the PA and demonstrate Israel's vulnerability. But Hamas's larger objective was, as always, to wage war on both and achieve a comprehensive Islamist victory.

Though it is in the interest of both Hamas and Fatah to avoid a decisive confrontation as long as they both share the proximate goal of statehood, each party must buttress its popularity in the meantime--for the perception of legitimacy will be required when the real test comes. The two sides are thus circling each other in preparation for an imminent show down. This is a tricky game. For Yasir Arafat and Fatah, ongoing terrorism makes Hamas a convenient "bad cop." At the same time, violence bolsters Hamas's popular standing as the strongest defender of the Palestinian cause. Although continued violence delays statehood and depletes military resources needed to confront Fatah and Israel, Hamas opts for terrorism, in part because it has no leader charismatic enough to compete with Arafat politically. According to a reliable survey, in November 2002, the secular Palestinian resistance collectively commanded the approval of nearly half the respondents, while Sheikh Yassin's support hovered at 14 percent. Others who enjoy sufficient name recognition to register in public opinion surveys are all affiliated with Fatah or other secular arms of the PLO, not with Hamas.2

A wild card in all of this remains the possible pre-independence demise of Arafat. If that were to occur, Hamas could cease biding its time and go on the offensive both politically and militarily. Absent that, Hamas will likely stick to its current halfway (but not unavailing) strategy of conducting sporadic attacks. If pursued consistently, it might gradually splinter Fatah and invite some of its frustrated members to take up the sword. On October 15, for example, a breakaway group called the Popular Resistance Committee, composed mainly of disgruntled Fatah members, bombed a U.S. convoy in Gaza, killing three U.S. security specialists and injuring an American diplomat. While Hamas distanced itself from the killing of Americans, the evident fragmentation of Fatah works to Hamas's advantage.

In response to Hamas's ongoing terrorism, Israel has escalated counter-terrorism operations--targeting finances and known militant installations, re-occupying territory ceded to the PA under the Oslo accords and killing militant leaders in relatively surgical military operations. This has given Hamas ample political cover to continue suicide attacks that provoke further Israeli retaliation against the PA. The PA is left to acquiesce in Israeli suppression, comply with demands to crack down on Hamas or both. In any case, Hamas, not the PA, is viewed as the Palestinians' popular champion.

In May 2003, however, Hamas appeared outflanked. Fatah declared a unilateral cease-fire and the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia (otherwise known as the Quartet) revived the peace process with the roadmap. Hamas would have looked like a violent spoiler denying the Palestinians their chance for peace and statehood if it had not at least agreed to a tactical ceasefire. This it did in late-June 2003.

For its part, Israel released only 400 of its roughly 6,000 Palestinian prisoners in August and reduced, but did not completely suspend, targeted killings. Suicide bombings on August 12 by Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (as well as the Jerusalem attack a week later by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) were stated to be retaliation for continued targeted killings. Hamas and Islamic Jihad formally ended their cease-fires in a joint statement issued on August 22. It cost them nothing in political terms. In fact, their support among Palestinians actually increased after the August 19 bombing.3

The Irish Comparison

THE RECENT history of Northern Ireland demonstrates that a terrorist group can be accommodated through a political process. It is tempting to believe that Palestinian terrorist groups could be susceptible to political incentives similar to those incorporated into the 1998 Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement), which have quieted the IRA and Sinn Fein, its political wing.4 On the basis of the Northern Irish peace process, it is hard not to credit the pleas of Ayalon and the other former Israeli security officials for extending more bountiful olive branches to the Palestinians. Unfortunately, material differences exist between the situations of Northern Ireland and the Palestinian territories that severely circumscribe any analogy. The acuteness of these disparities dictate that Hamas be treated very differently from the IRA.

The most fundamental difference turns on the relative strengths of the terrorist groups and the security forces. Max Weber argues that an effective monopoly on the use of force is essential to the modern state's viability. The "statelet" of Ulster--in reality, a British protectorate--need not have such a monopoly because it enjoys the security guarantee of the United Kingdom and its armed forces. Their military superiority over the IRA is sufficient to wipe it out in anything like a civil war. This is basically why the British government has been willing to meet the IRA halfway: London can afford to allow the IRA the conceit of holding arms if that is what is required for it to remain dormant.

Yet even this is a risky proposition. Notwithstanding the UK's guarantee, the Northern Irish situation is quite tenuous. Sinn Fein's empowerment has probably made Irish republicans less apt to compromise on agreement-implementation issues. The IRA has refused to take serious steps toward voluntary disarmament since signing the Belfast Agreement. The majority pro-British Ulster unionists, in turn, have blocked Sinn Fein's full participation in government. Republican and unionist recalcitrance prompted the suspension of the devolved government in October 2002, and it has not yet been reconvened.

The example of Northern Ireland, then, is actually a strong argument against a lenient stance on Hamas. If Northern Ireland is unstable even with a strong external guarantor, then a nascent Palestinian state with no such guarantor would have little hope of durability. In the context of a new Palestinian state, the PA (having made a tough peace with Israel) would stand in a position roughly comparable to that of Northern Ireland's unionists. Unlike them, however, the PA would enjoy no state-level security guarantor comparable to the UK. A Fatah-led constitutional government would likely be too weak to dismantle Hamas's military component forcibly should it instigate civil war--especially if the government had forfeited public support on account of its corruption, incompetence or agreement to a territorial settlement widely seen as unfair. The job of disarming Hamas would then fall upon the IDF's more-than-capable shoulders, but that would be even more politically incendiary than it is today.

Other factors make the Northern Irish example still more inapposite. Consider manpower and lethal intent. In the Northern Irish peace process, the release of republican prisoners was indispensable to the IRA's willingness to follow a nonviolent democratic course. But the number of prisoners involved (about 300) was much lower than the number of Palestinian prisoners now held in Israeli jails (about 6,000). Furthermore, the IRA did not attack British cities with the same lethality that Hamas and its cohorts have visited on Israeli ones. Thus, releasing Palestinian prisoners would raise substantially greater security risks, while leaving Hamas armed would only multiply those risks.

In addition, the IRA's ultimate objective of a united Ireland (probably supported by a third of the Northern Irish electorate) is politically attainable, even if it is unlikely at the moment; Hamas's ultimate objective of annihilating the Israeli state is not. Thus, the IRA's cease-fire and repudiation of violence, though tactical insofar as terrorism remained a fallback option, were strategic insofar as they were seen as the best way to unify Ireland. Hamas would contemplate such a shift strictly as a tactic for achieving a better position within a Palestinian state from which to initiate both a civil war against its secular Palestinian rivals and a wider war against Israel.

According to Sinn Fein, the right to representation in a newly devolved regime, effectively ensuring republicans a strong and constant role in Northern Ireland's governance, has co-opted militant Irish republicans (to an extent). Sinn Fein's mandate has risen from 10 percent to almost 25 percent over the course of the peace process, and it has become a political force in the Republic of Ireland. Both achievements raise the political costs of a full-fledged return to violence. Hamas, on the other hand, does not need to be pacific to be popular. In fact, its support has often increased when it has chosen to raise the level of violence.

Terrorist groups are rarely, if ever, truly neutralized unless they are disbanded and disarmed. The IRA is no exception. Even after the Anglo-Irish War in 1918-21 and the Irish Civil War in 1922, a rump IRA conducted sporadic operations against British forces for the next fifty years. It then spawned the far more lethal Provisional IRA in 1969, when the most recent "troubles" broke out. Neither the republican nor the pro-British "loyalist" terrorist infrastructures in Northern Ireland have disappeared. Both sides are engaged in residual terrorism and in criminal activities that preserve their terrorist capacities. Moreover, the IRA's relative quiescence since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement has spawned revisionist splinter groups--most notably, the so-called Real IRA and the Continuity IRA--as well as "out-of-area" terrorist intrigue in Colombia. Three IRA members detained there in August 2001 have been on trial for providing technical assistance to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

Since its devastating attack in Omagh, Northern Ireland in August 1998 that killed 29 civilians, the Real IRA has seemed controllable (though the Provisionals may occasionally "license" the Real IRA to stage attacks when they are deemed tactically desirable). Also, defectors from the Provisional IRA to the Real IRA have drawn on Provisional IRA weapons stocks. And the IRA itself has made only token disarmament gestures, in secret, to an international decommissioning body containing no representatives of the British or Irish governments or of parties representing the Protestant majority. In sum, the IRA is unwilling to relinquish its implied fallback threat of returning to its armed campaign should nonviolent politics fail to bring it seriously closer to a united Ireland.

These uncomfortable Northern Irish truths have more virulent parallels in the Israeli-Palestinian context. Even if Hamas and the two other main militant organizations could be persuaded to reinstate their cease-fires, their infrastructures would remain intact, residual terrorism would occur and rejectionist splinter groups would spring up. Indeed, Hamas has been working hand-in-glove with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the A1-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is affiliated with Fatah. All three groups have received material and logistical support from I-Iizballah. Hamas's apparent command-level influence over the other two main militant groups means that even if one group appears to "go political", Hamas can prompt another to wage terrorism when tactical or strategic reasons arise. Because Israel has been sensitized by over 800 fatalities during the second intifada, just one rogue terrorist operation could veto the Middle East peace process.

Even judging by the IRA's example, Hamas would not disarm fully and voluntarily under any circumstances. Moreover, it would be unwise to expect the PA to be able to conjure a better standard of living for most Palestinians immediately following the establishment of a state. Hamas's extensive charitable works would also allow them to sustain a critical level of grassroots support.

It would be a mistake to lump Hamas together with Al-Qaeda, which has a violent global political agenda that is practically non-negotiable. But Hamas is appreciably less malleable than other terrorist groups. This places it somewhere between Al-Qaeda's "new" terrorists and the "old" ethno-nationalist terrorist groups in terms of political amenability. Given Hamas's driving teleology, the smart money says that, as long as the group remains armed and popular, it will choose the radical agenda of Islamic victory, re-assertion of the right of return and continued armed opposition to the recognition of Israel. If an armed Hamas will result in a Palestinian state that is virtually doomed, then forcibly disarming it is indispensable. But how can this can be accomplished?

A Disarming Reality

IT REMAINS preferable--both in terms of facilitating a peace process and ultimately creating a stable, peaceful Palestinian state--to hold the PA accountable for disarming Hamas. As of late-September 2003, however, Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ahmed Qurei was able to make only vague promises to end the "chaos" caused by illegal weapons in the territories. Although his government was finally approved in mid-November, Qurei was unable to wrest control of the security services from Ararat. Like his embattled predecessor Mahmoud Abbas, Qurei appears politically unable to declare any intention to disarm Hamas and the other militias.

Disarmament certainly appears difficult: the Palestinian territories are awash in illegal guns far exceeding the quantities permitted under the Oslo agreement. Fatah itself appears to have been centrally involved in directing terrorism with Arafat's blessing for most of the so-called second intifada. And the regional status quo has not shifted away from sponsoring terrorist groups like Hamas and toward an active campaign of aiding in disarming them. U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq has not significantly discouraged Iran and Syria from supporting terrorists attacks on Israel, and Saudi Arabia still provides 50-60 percent of Hamas's budget (despite Riyadh's own rude awakening to transnational terrorism last May and more recently in early November).

But the counter-terrorism picture in the Middle East is not entirely bleak. Hamas's social welfare infrastructure (dawa) is central not only to its political and religious appeal among its Palestinian supporters, but also to its operational effectiveness as a terrorist group. Dawa operatives often provide logistical support to suicide bombers, and seasoned terrorists serve as officials of Hamas charity committees. Hence, there was a note of desperation in Hamas's plea for financial and political help from Arab states following Israel's 14 targeted killings during the first two weeks of September, Jordan's freezing of the group's bank accounts and the EU's decision to put its political wing on its list of terrorist organizations.

Hamas's military apparatus now appears riper for dismantling than it has since the second intifada began. If the task remains with the IDF, however, the Palestinian populace will only become more radicalized and less amenable to negotiated agreement. Given its heavy military and diplomatic obligations elsewhere, the United States should aim for maximum leverage with minimum exposure. As much as possible, Palestinians should be required to solve their own problems. In particular, in spite of its record of procrastination, Fatah should be prompted to confront-and defeat--Hamas.

The best chance for impelling Fatah to launch a successful challenge to Hamas lies in a determined diplomatic effort by the Quartet to marshal Arab assistance in eliminating financing to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups. But, given Arab sensitivities, an Arab role would have to extend beyond assisting American and Israeli efforts to neutralize Palestinian militants.
Key Arab states could be offered a closer role in the negotiation and implementation of a two-state solution. More substantial involvement would also give any agreement greater credibility.

Egypt's recent drive to extract another cease-fire from Hamas is unlikely to produce a stable truce. But the unofficial "Geneva Accord" that Ayalon and Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh mooted in October 2003 is another matter. The proposed deal significantly overlaps with the Saudi proposal for normalizing Arab-Israeli relations approved by the Arab League in March 2002. The Geneva Accord provides for formal Palestinian recognition of the state of Israel, divided and shared sovereignty in Jerusalem and a qualified "right of return" that would not actually entitle Palestinians to resettle in Israel. This initiative could provide an appropriate basis for deepening Arab involvement in forging a Palestinian state.

Beyond financial crackdowns, broad Arab cooperation would provide moderate Palestinians--and Ararat--the political cover to move against Hamas without appearing to be Israeli or U.S. puppets. The PA, for its part, may view Hamas's apparent financial vulnerability as an opportunity. Marginalizing Hamas's mammoth social welfare operations, which make the PA look bad by usurping its role as social provider, is among the most compelling reasons the PA has to improve governance.

Concurrently, the weakened PA must be rebuilt. This means a subtler reprise of the Oslo-era security arrangements, whereby the United States and Israel discreetly assisted the PA in suppressing rejectionist groups. Besides the PA itself, the IDF and Shin Bet possess the best intelligence on Hamas. The United States can offer the PA resources and diplomatic support.

Counter-terrorism assistance, however, must be more broadly based and more principled than it was throughout the 1990s. Given the ubiquity of weapons and bomb-making materials in the West Bank and Gaza (in large part due to Israeli, as well as Palestinian, criminal enterprises), outside assistance in confiscating smallarms and heavier weapons would be critical. Without this step, disarmament of Hamas will be an ephemeral achievement at best. This must be done sooner rather than later, since the stability of a Palestinian state would depend on the relative absence of weapons in circulation.

It is imperative, then, that the United States and others not repeat the failures of the Oslo period when helping the PA regain control of the Palestinian territoties. At that time, Washington particularly objected to, but was powerless to stop, the PA's use of bribery, extortion and extrajudicial murder to rein in its political rivals, as well as its coy but ineffective practice of detaining suspects one day and releasing them soon thereafter as a means of intimidating terrorists and placating Washington. The United States would have to discourage actively both of these practices. Otherwise, the result would be a repressive, manipulative and ultimately untenable state, devoid of the kind of liberal "demonstration effect" the United States wishes to create in the region. As such, it would lack any political legitimacy, without which the PA's successor would be unable to prevent the nascent Palestinian state's collapse into civil war.

Israel and the United States (along with its Quartet partners) would have to play active, albeit low-profile, roles supervising and shaping certain internal features of the PA. On this note, Israeli restraint in moving against Palestinian militants, while painful, would yield the best prospects for a credible and respected PA. That restraint would entail, first and foremost, a suspension of targeted killings. But Israel would stand to benefit: Although the policy has forced Hamas underground and constricted its ability to organize terrorist operations, it has also made Hamas operatives harder to detect and reinforced the group's violent revolutionary nature.

On the political side, a more systematic attempt by the Quartet to penalize PA corruption while also enabling it to better meet the needs of the Palestinian people would lessen Hamas's appeal as the noble guardian of Palestinian welfare. Sustained pressure on Syria to deny Hamas its base there could also help in this regard.5 Even the PA and Fatah's partial success in disarming Hamas would inspire Israeli confidence, opening the door to a sustained halt to targeted killings, reconsideration of the pace and location of barrier construction and the release of a greater number of prisoners. If PA action were sufficiently robust, advocates of an end to settlements might get their way--at least with respect to those outposts deep inside the West Bank.

A More Disarming Reality

IF THIS approach fails, the alternative is daunting. If unable to enlist Fatah against Hamas, the United States would have to do the job itself. Burdensome U.S. military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the grave risk to U.S. troops of inserting them between the IDF and Hamas (and its partners), increasing Palestinian hostility toward American personnel and the adverse political impact of another U.S. intervention in the Arab world--all of these factors would make a U.S.-led effort acutely problematic and risky.

Undesirable as that is, it is a grimly realistic scenario. The second intifada has already produced an alliance among Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the A1-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Countries like Iran and Syria may eventually decide to agitate through Hizballah, which has already infiltrated the West Bank. The PA is weaker now than it was during the 1990s (due substantially to Israeli attacks), while Hamas is considerably more powerful thanks to its rising capability to stage suicide attacks. Even with U.S. and Israeli support, it is uncertain that the PA could deploy the operational strength to suppress Hamas, and the group's parity in popularity makes confrontation by Fatah politically dangerous. But America's national interests--in particular, garnering more cooperation for U.S. regional objectives from Arab governments and diminishing terrorist recruit ment--require that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict de-escalate. The careful integration of a potential U.S. intervention into a viable and reasonably advanced peace process could become essential.

In order to create a Palestinian state, Martin Indyk, among others, has suggested replacing a dysfunctional PA with a U.S.-led trusteeship at once--and before any agreement for statehood has been established.6 That would be a serious mistake. Palestinians would look unfavorably upon outside intervention at such an early stage, seeing it as America doing Israel's dirty work. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the United States would be able to defeat Hamas. Israel has not yet been able to do so. For political reasons, the United States could not take the operational steps--surrounding cities, restricting movements and carrying out targeted killings--that the IDF has taken. There would only be one sure result of early U.S. intervention: the intifada would shift its focus from Israel to the United States. It would be more prudent for the United States to contemplate intervention only after a Palestinian state, led by a secular PA, has been established. U.S. forces and foreign troops under U.S. command would then be on standby to enter the fray only if the new government came under an insurrectionist challenge from a Hamas-led coalition of armed groups.

The political terms of the arrangement should call for the United States to move strictly at the invitation of the new Palestinian government. Intervention would then occur only if necessary to prevent political chaos, terrorism and the consequent failure of the nascent state. But the U.S. presence--and the political influence it gave--would also serve to preserve democracy and the rule of law in the new state of Palestine by pre-empting the PA's application of repressive methods to mainrain order. Thus, the United States would not merely be protecting an elected Palestinian government; it would be securing a fair and honorable Palestinian administration that could stand as a democratic example for the entire Middle East.

Under the fastidious circumstances contemplated here for intervention, it would be essential that the United States disperse the risk to itself and its military personnel on the ground by forming a broad coalition. Given a final settlement and a new state, the brighter political outlook would make this possible by ensuring broad participation. Furthermore, the hostility of many Palestinians toward the United States would be tempered, perhaps reversed. By intervening on behalf of a Palestinian government (rather than that of the Israelis) and having helped broker an agreement for statehood, the United States would enjoy the status of peacemaker. Of course, not all Palestinians would share this view, and American soldiers would become live targets. That is all the more reason to enlist a broad coalition that dims any perception that the intervention was solely a U.S. initiative.

It remains possible, if not probable, that a sufficient degree of coercive disarmament might go some way to domesticating and neutralizing Hamas. For this reason, neither hard military measures nor political outreach should be discarded. But Hamas is not Sinn Fein: it is more a rigid religious militia than a pragmatic political party, and it will conclusively relent only in response to force. Whether the time is now right for merely weakening its terrorist capacity or disabling it altogether, a more effective application of force against Hamas is essential. If the United States and its Quartet partners cannot help secular Palestinian groups in this endeavor, the United States could find itself compelled to lead yet another military intervention in the Middle East. That prospect should concentrate minds in official Washington.

1 See Mark A. Heller, "Implications of the Withdrawal from Lebanon for IsraeliPalestinian Relations", Strategic Assessment, Jaffee Center for Sn'ategic Studies, (Jtme 2000).

2 "The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: Utopianism vs. Realism", Strategic Survey 2002/3 (Oxford University Press for the IISS, 2003), p. 181.

3 According to a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, support for Hamas increased from 18 percent to 19.2 percent between November 20, 2002 and September 30, 2003. Meanwhile, Fatah's backing dropped by an identical amount, from 30.3 percent to 29.1 percent. Fatah and Hamas remained the most popular political parties in the territories by far. Palestinians who favored suicide attacks in Israel rose from 38.3 percent on March 27, 2003 to 54.9 percent on September 30, 2003.

4 Sri Lanka's experience with the Tamil Tigers also provides an interesting case study. It suggests that if counter-terrorism crackdowns are coordinated with political initiatives, they can positively modify terrorist behavior. Such crackdowns, particularly those focused on fundraising, strained the Tigers' operational resources and pushed it to declare a cease-fire that has endured since early-2002 due to positive political reinforcement. Having weakened the Tigers, the Sri Lankan government initiated talks and offered to legalize the group, provided it abided by the cease-fire and remained at the table. Had negotiations failed, the Tigers would have regrouped for more potent terrorist attacks, as they have in the past. But the intervening political compromise has been substantive enough to provide genuine motivation for both sides to continue peacefully on the political track.

5 In November 2003, the Senate passed the Syria Accountability Act to apply pressure through economic and diplomatic sanctions. But Washington's leverage over Damascus appears to have diminished since its high point during the early stages of the Iraq intervention.

6 "A Trusteeship for Palestine?", Foreign Affairs (May/June 2003), pp. 51-66.

Steven Simon is a Senior Analyst at The RAND Corporation and co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror (Random House, 2003). Jonathan Stevenson is Senior Fellow for Counter-terrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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