The recent escalation between Israel and Hamas has demonstrated the fragility of a calm that lacks political reconciliation. Both sides have legitimate grievances, but because each has pursued misguided strategies that capitalize force—instead of addressing the roots of the conflict—neither can prevail without reversing its methods.
Israel has justified its military campaign in the Gaza Strip because it views Hamas as a purely terrorist organization. Since its inception in 1987, Hamas has developed a lethal terrorism capacity and a paramilitary arm, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. (As an offshoot of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ roots extend to 1945, when the Ikhwan established a branch in Jerusalem.) Hamas has often used its military capabilities to target Israeli civilians.
But Hamas is more than a terrorist organization: it is also a political and social movement entrenched in Palestinian society. A terrorist group encapsulates a small number of operatives who are largely decoupled from the broader civilian population they claim to serve. In contrast, Hamas commands widespread support not only in its bastion, the Gaza Strip, but also on the West Bank—support that enabled the movement to win a decisive victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections of January 2006.
Historically, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to militarily defeat the violent movements that muster popular support. Cases in point are the Afghan Taliban, Algerian Front de Libération Nationale, Iraqi Sadrist Trend, Irish Republican Movement, Lebanese Hizballah and Viet Nam Cong San. Even when such movements lose militarily, they tend to gain politically—most often because of the counterinsurgents’ misguided reliance on force that alienates and radicalizes the local populace.
While not every Palestinian supports Hamas’ ideology of armed resistance, grassroots support for the movement stems from the Palestinians’ collective anger at Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, its expanding settlements and its crippling economic blockade of the Gaza Strip that precludes the passage of people and goods. The socioeconomic status quo—coupled with the repeated failures of the peace process—offers no incentive to the Palestinians to exert pressure on Hamas, which, unlike its counterpart on the West Bank, the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA), has demonstrated its resolve to fight the Israeli occupation and provided essential socioeconomic services to the poor.
It suffices to walk through the refugee camps and checkpoints on the West Bank to get a glimpse of the pervasive poverty, hopelessness and humiliation that an average Palestinian experiences daily. These conditions triggered the Palestinian uprisings in 1987 and 2000. (“Balata was the womb of the intifada,” one resident of the camp told me, implying that it can rise up again.) The Gaza Strip, an area of 139 square miles, is worse. Roughly 1,817,000 people live in the overcrowded enclave with a population density of approximately 13,070 people per square mile. (By comparison, the average population per square mile in the United States is ninety people.)
Israeli decision makers should acknowledge that these factors contribute to the conflict. Ignoring the reality engenders inadequate counterstrategies. The government of Israel has the right to defend its territory and people, but Israel’s approach of resolving the Palestinian question militarily is counterproductive. It might weaken Hamas in the short run, but it also supplies the militants with incendiary propaganda material to boost their popular support in the long run.
Israel’s recent invasion of the Gaza Strip is designed to destroy Hamas’ rocket-launching capabilities and tunnel networks to achieve “sustainable quiet.” But in gathering the weeds, Israel roots up the wheat. Over 75 percent of the fatalities in the Gaza Strip have been civilians, according to the United Nations. By weeding out Hamas—and with it, scores of innocent Palestinians—the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) inadvertently bolster the militants, driving even those Palestinians who disapprove of Hamas’ ideology and governance to rally behind the movement. (A poll taken after the invasion corroborates this.)
Hamas, in turn, must abjure its destructive strategy of targeting the Israeli people. Its use of terrorism only distances the Palestinians from achieving national liberation and economic prosperity. Hamas’ resistance to Israel in action and rhetoric enabled its rise in the wake of the abortive Oslo Accords (1993, 1995). But although the peace negotiations faltered again in early 2014, the circumstances—both regional and domestic—are different.
From the Arab Maghreb to the Persian Gulf, the tides are turning against Hamas. The Syrian civil war (2011-present), in which the Alawite regime is fighting the predominantly Sunni opposition, compelled the exiled political leaders of Hamas (a Sunni Islamist movement) to relocate to Cairo and Doha. Hamas’ break with Syria has also weakened its ties with Iran, Hamas’ main sponsor and Syria’s ally. In the aftermath of the 2013 Egyptian coup d’état, which deposed President Mohammed Morsi (a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood), Cairo proscribed Hamas' activity in Egypt and closed its smuggling tunnels. And a poll conducted before Israel’s Operation Protective Edge indicated that over 70 percent of Gazans favored nonviolent resistance.
Hamas’ leaders should not succumb to the pressure from the Salafi-Jihadist factions in the Gaza Strip and try to outcompete them in producing violence. Hamas can maintain what legitimacy it has among the Palestinians by ensuring their safety and socioeconomic welfare and seeking to attain these goals through politics. The unity pact of April 2014 between Hamas and the Fatah-led PA is a step in the right direction as a potential opportunity for a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—if Hamas adopts a path of moderation. Israel should not discount this possibility and be prepared to negotiate with Hamas. Hamas represents too many Palestinians to be excluded from a peace settlement. Presuming that the IDF can eradicate the movement would be a mistake. Hamas is a potent force in Palestinian politics due to its relatively large popular following, which Israel’s heavy-handed approach unwittingly helps solidify.
Some twenty years ago, few (including the Catholic Church) could imagine negotiating with the Provisional Irish Republican Army that was uncompromisingly dedicated to fighting the British rule in Ireland. Yet, the Good Friday Agreement came into effect in April 1998. The leaders made costly sacrifices, but gained peace for their people.
Balanced concessions (such as ending rocket fire into Israel and lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip) can end the hostilities. But only a mutual compromise that would address the causes of the conflict and result in recognition by the opponents of two states, Israel and Palestine, will lead to a durable peace in the Holy Land. Just as the Israeli government cannot secure its citizens if the Gaza Strip remains an island of desperation, while the West Bank stagnates under occupation, the Palestinian leaders cannot advance statehood and economic prosperity if Hamas continues to deploy terrorism and rockets into Israel. Sustainable security for the Israelis and lasting prosperity for the Palestinians can be achieved through peace, not arms.
Irena L. Sargsyan is the co-managing editor of International Studies Quarterly. Her research focuses on international security, low-intensity conflicts, and violent movements.
Image: PM of Israel Flickr
Editor's Note: This piece has been updated from its original publication.