As Israel and the United States consider a strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure, one crucial element in the calculus should be what regional response to expect. Retaliatory actions against Israel by Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas—which along with the Islamic Republic constitute the “Axis of Resistance”—would propel the Middle East into a regional war. Thousands of rocket strikes and the prospect of cross-border raids against Israel from Lebanon and Gaza significantly raise the price of an attack on Iran.
It was long assumed by policy makers that Hamas and Hezbollah—which receive significant financial and military aid from Iran—would automatically join in the fight. No less than former Mossad chief Meir Dagan said so just before he was pushed out of his position by Benjamin Netanyahu. But times have changed, and assuming Palestinian and Lebanese Islamists will take that posture ignores significant differences in the groups that have emerged since the 2008–2009 Gaza War.
The degree to which nonstate militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas can be deterred depends on five main factors: the group’s ideology; its organizational structure; elements of statehood (including political authority, territorial control and ties to a dependent population); interfactional competition; and external support.
With Power, Responsibility
Hezbollah adheres to Shia religious ideology, which obliges it to follow the orders of the waliyat al-faqih, the Shia jurist-theologian—who is also currently Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Additionally, Hezbollah is backed to such a degree by Iran that losing its sponsorship would be a severe blow to the group—probably worse than any punishment Israel is liable to exact. So despite feeling pressure from constituencies within Lebanon to avoid the costs of war, Hezbollah more than likely will be compelled to join in the fight.
Not so with Hamas. After being thoroughly defeated during the Gaza War, the Sunni Islamist group has largely been deterred by Israel. While rocket fire continues sporadically from Gaza, its rate in 2011 was around 75 percent lower than its peak from 2006–2008. Those rockets that were fired into southern Israel almost all came from other militant groups in the territory, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees.
According to Hamas’s own leaders, the changes within the movement stem significantly from its assumption of power in Gaza, lending credence to theories that bringing nonstate militant groups into the political fold may moderate their behavior, if not their ideology. “The burden is big on the shoulder of the government. The resistance might cost you a lot once you are trying to build the infrastructure for the Palestinian life,” Ahmed Yousef, a longtime political adviser and spokesman for the Hamas leadership in Gaza, told me in September. “Resistance and trying to focus on building the infrastructure of Palestinian life . . . can’t go hand in hand.”
Losing its external headquarters in Damascus after refusing to side with the Assad regime in the crackdown against Syrian opposition was also a big blow to the movement. To make up for the lack of Syrian sponsorship, Hamas is seeking to upgrade ties with Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But to gain favor with those powers, political-bureau chief Khaled Meshal had to announce that Hamas was renouncing violence for the time being.
A Deal with Hamas?
In the lead-up to a probable confrontation with Iran, it behooves Israel and Washington to take advantage of the pressures Hamas is currently enduring before the outbreak of violence changes the situation again.
The Islamic Resistance Movement has many times before offered a long-term ceasefire to Israel. Until now, the terms it proposed were ones that not even the most left-wing of Israeli leaders could consider. But given Hamas’s compromised position and its desire to prove it can lead the Palestinian national movement, the possibilities of a medium-term ceasefire with Hamas—on the order of five years or so—should now be seriously explored.
In return for five years of quiet, and for firmly cracking down on the other militant groups operating out of Gaza (which Hamas proved it could do during an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Israel in 2008), Israel should be willing to allow much greater access of goods and people into and out of Gaza. Using the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as an interlocutor in the negotiations could provide additional benefits to Israel in terms of boosting the security regime around Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, which has taken a serious downward turn since the fall of Mubarak.
Such an agreement could be a win-win-win-win for Israel, Hamas, Egypt and the United States. Israel removes a lethal threat from its southern border at a time when it can least afford another conflict. Hamas finally gets the opportunity to prove it can effectively govern. The Muslim Brotherhood gains international credibility as it assumes the reins of power in Egypt. And the United States retains Egypt in its sphere of influence at a crucial moment.
Moreover, if the changes witnessed in the Arab world and within Hamas are mere harbingers of what’s to come, then five years of quiet could be a prelude to a possible détente between Israel and the Sunni Muslim world—one that would go a long way toward mitigating one of the main sources of regional conflict.
Rafael D. Frankel was a Middle East correspondent for The Christian Science monitor and is a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University.