Has Israel Revived Hamas?
JERUSALEM -- In its efforts to stop amateur rockets from nagging the residents of some of its southern cities, Israel appears to have given new life to the fledging Islamic movement in Palestine.
For two years, the Islamic Resistance Movement (known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas) has been losing support internally and externally. This wasn't the case in the days after the party came to power democratically in early 2006; despite being unjustly ostracized by the international community for its anti-Israeli stance, Hamas enjoyed the backing of Palestinians and other Arabs. Having won a decisive parliamentary majority on an anti-corruption platform promising change and reform, Hamas worked hard to govern better than had Fatah, its rival and predecessor.
Things began to sour when Hamas violently seized control of Gaza, but even then, Hamas enjoyed considerable domestic support -- and much goodwill externally. Then the movement turned down every legitimate offer from its nationalist PLO rivals and Egyptian mediators to pursue reconciliation, and support for it began to slip.
Things got worse in November when a carefully planned national unity effort from the Egyptians failed because, at the very last minute, Hamas's leaders refused to show up in Cairo. Failure to accept this roundtable invitation greatly upset the Egyptians, and they and other Arab leaders scolded Hamas publicly. Omar Suleiman, the head of the Egyptian intelligence service who was organizing the meeting, termed Hamas's reasons for rebuffing the invitation "unwarranted excuses." Hamas sought for its leader a seating position equivalent to the Palestinian president's, and it wanted Hamas security prisoners held in the West Bank to be released. Palestinian nationalists insist that Hamas's rejection of unity talks was solely to avoid the PLO's demand for new presidential and parliamentary elections.
A poll carried out afterward by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center showed that most Palestinians blamed Hamas for the failure of the talks. The survey, which was sponsored by the German Fredrich Ebert Foundation, found that 35.3 percent of respondents believed Hamas bore more responsibility for the stalemate. Fatah was blamed by 17.9 percent, and 12.3 percent said both Fatah and Hamas were responsible.
The lack of international support since the 2006 elections, followed by this rebuff to Gaza's only Arab neighbor, Egypt, compounded the deterioration of Hamas's internal support. By November, the survey showed, only 16.6 percent of Palestinians supported Hamas, compared with nearly 40 percent favoring Fatah. The decline in support for Hamas has been steady: A year earlier, the same pollster showed that Hamas's support was at 19.7 percent; in August 2007, it was at 21.6 percent; in March 2007, it was at 25.2 percent; and in September 2006, backing for the Islamists stood at 29.7 percent.
That's why, as the six-month cease-fire with Israel came to an end, Hamas calculated -- it seems correctly -- that it had nothing to gain by continuing the truce; if it had, its credentials as a resistance movement would have been no different from those of Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah. Unable to secure an open border and an end to the Israeli siege, while refusing to share or give up power to Abbas, Hamas could have had no route to renewed public favor.
For different reasons, Hamas and Israel both gave up on the cease-fire, preferring instead to climb over corpses to reach their political goals. One side wants to resuscitate its public support by appearing to be a heroic resister, while the other, on the eve of elections, wants to show toughness to a public unhappy with the nuisance of the Qassam rockets.
The disproportionate and heavy-handed Israeli attacks on Gaza have been a bonanza for Hamas. The movement has renewed its standing in the Arab world, secured international favor further afield and succeeded in scuttling indirect Israeli-Syrian talks and direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. It has also greatly embarrassed Israel's strongest Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan.
While it is not apparent how this violent confrontation will end, it is abundantly clear that the Islamic Hamas movement has been brought back from near political defeat while moderate Arab leaders have been forced to back away from their support for any reconciliation with Israel.
By choosing the waning days of the Bush administration to attack Gaza, the Israelis knew they would face no opposition from the leader of the so-called war on terrorism. Just as George W. Bush's misadventure in Iraq played into the hands of radicals and terrorists, this Israeli action will produce nothing less than that in Palestine. Let us hope that the Obama administration will see the consequences of what is not only a crime of war but also a move whose results are exactly the opposite of its publicly proclaimed purposes.
Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University.