A Palestinian in a coffee shop in Hebron on April 29, 2021 watches a speech by president Mahmoud Abbas. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images.
America’s interests in Gaza are threefold: to alleviate the humanitarian suffering of the Palestinians living there, to strengthen Israel’s security, and to see an end to the control of the Gaza Strip by a terrorist group increasingly allied with Iran. Hamas stands in the way of all three, and the end of Hamas control of Gaza should underpin America’s strategy in the region over the coming years. How can this be won?
Some relevant history offers the context for my argument. In 2003 Ariel Sharon announced his decision to remove Israeli settlements from Gaza, and later decided to remove Israel’s military presence as well. Sharon had come to expect nothing from peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and concluded that it was time for Israel to start setting its final borders. Those final borders, he said in December 2003, would not include Gaza with its then population of 1.5 million Arabs and 7,500 Jews—Jews who needed constant, costly, and difficult protection from the IDF.
Was there ever a chance that peace and democracy would prevail in Gaza? By the time Sharon moved settlers out in 2005, Arafat was dead and there was some thought that the Palestinian Authority (PA) could rule there as it did in the West Bank—not a model democracy, but after Arafat’s death a somewhat stable place whose security forces worked closely with the United States and with Israel against terrorism. Sharon did not help the PA take over Gaza, arguing (to the Bush administration, in which I served) that the only way he could maintain political support from a divided Israel for withdrawing from Gaza was by saying it was done purely for Israeli interests and utterly without cooperating with the Palestinians. Within days, all the Israeli settlements—including valuable and productive greenhouses—had been destroyed by rioters and marauders. Within two years, Hamas had seized power, after killing, imprisoning, or driving out PA security forces.
Between 2005-2007, during the years of PA rule, the United States was much involved with Gaza—negotiating between Israel and the PA an “Agreement on Movement and Access” of people and goods going to or from Gaza, and trying to resolve disputes. But since Hamas took over, the United States has left Gaza to Israel and Egypt to handle—with some Qatari money as grease. The U.S. government will not deal with Hamas because it is a terrorist group. Israel and Egypt control goods and people moving in and out, trying to limit smuggling while permitting food, medicine, and other material in. And Egypt has been the negotiator helping end all the rounds of war between Israel and Hamas.
In the aftermath of the most recent war, and with a new U.S. president in office, more thought is being given to whether these repeated rounds of conflict are inevitable. Israel will benefit if they can be avoided, as will the Palestinians in Gaza who are killed, injured, and immiserated because Hamas chooses to attack Israel. And, as mentioned, America’s interests will also be served by a cessation of these conflicts and the weakening of an Iranian-supported terrorist group. For a brief period after Sharon announced that Israel would leave Gaza there were dreamy, utopian statements from Palestinians and even some Israelis. Shimon Peres thought Gaza could be a tourist haven and a sort of Singapore on the Med. But today the question is not how Gaza can become rich, or even how it can escape poverty. The question is how the Gaza Strip can be freed from the grip of Hamas.
That is the question worth serious debate: is it possible over time to pry Gaza from the hands of Hamas?
Will someone conquer Hamas and Gaza? I well recall the statement to me by the head of Egyptian military intelligence in 2005, as Israel prepared its exit from Gaza: “Do not worry. Hamas will not take over. Egypt will prevent it.” He may even have believed this. Even with Egypt having undergone several fundamental changes in leadership, it was no less true then as it is true now that Egypt’s government is unfriendly to Hamas but will not remove it. For its part, Israel does not wish to reconquer and rule Gaza, because that would require a long and costly war and the permanent stationing of many troops there. Moreover, Israel would then be solely responsible for the well-being of Gaza’s population.
Israel has chosen instead to deter Hamas. In May, after the most recent round of war, the former Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Amidror explained that
the purpose of all the Gaza operations over the past fifteen years has been to hurt Hamas and restore quiet to people living in the south—not to topple the terror groups or conquer the Strip. Israel didn’t embark on Operation Guardian of the Walls with the goal of winning. The goal was to inflict maximum damage on Hamas’s military capabilities, in hopes of establishing deterrence. . . .
Conventional deterrence may be a way to manage this conflict, but it will not hasten its end. Nor can Hamas be “defeated” by improving life in Gaza, as if Hamas’s goals were a higher minimum wage or a lower unemployment rate. Visiting Israel in May, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said:
Across the meetings that I’ve had so far, I’ve heard a shared recognition from all sides that steps need to be taken, work needs to be done, to address the underlying conditions that helped fuel this latest conflict. The ceasefire creates space to begin to take those steps. . . . But we all know that is not enough; . . . we have to break the cycle of violence. Leaders on both sides will need to chart a better course, starting by making real improvements in the lives of people in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. I’m convinced that if they do, they will find willing partners in both Israeli and Palestinian civil society.
Fire the speechwriter. The “underlying conditions” did not lead to the recent conflict, unless the existence of the state of Israel is the “underlying condition” in question. That is what Hamas seeks to change. Nor is there a “cycle of violence” and Blinken should stop using that morally neutral phrase. Nor is Hamas interested in “real improvements in the lives of people” in Gaza: Hamas barely even mentioned Gaza in explaining why it attacked Israel in May.
If the conquest of Gaza by Israel is not in the cards, and neither conventional deterrence nor improving “underlying conditions” will affect Hamas’ desire to bombard Israel, what can be done over the next decade? The only possible way to remove or at least badly undermine Hamas in the long run is political: it is by reducing its level of support, building up support for alternative groups, and preventing it from ruling by sheer force. A key problem today is that there is no alternative that is more attractive to Palestinians.
Opinion polls suggest that Palestinians of Gaza would like for Hamas to be replaced. The polls taken this year before PA president Mahmoud Abbas cancelled the May 22 parliamentary election showed the unenthusiastic level of Hamas’ support. Forty percent in the West Bank and 34 percent in Gaza supported the Fatah Party, while 15 percent in the West Bank and 33 percent in Gaza supported Hamas. The former Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan, a Gazan by origin who was thrown out of Fatah for opposing Mahmoud Abbas and has not visited Gaza in well over a decade, had 17-percent support in Gaza. The point is that Hamas has very far from overwhelming support. In a free election it is unlikely that they would win power, even when opposed by corrupt, incompetent Fatah bosses. In Gaza, which they have controlled for fourteen years, two-thirds of the populace oppose them.
So what is to be done? First, all those promises being made by the Biden administration about helping the people of Gaza and not Hamas must be kept. Donors must ensure that their gifts do not go through Hamas or strengthen it. Instead, use NGOs that have some independence—or create new ones. Bank on the belief that most Gazans want food, medicine, hospitals, schools, and jobs more than they want Hamas. The choice put to Gazans should be stark and should be repeatedly stated publicly to them, in Arabic: Hamas can rebuild its arsenals or donors can start rebuilding Gaza. Make Hamas stand between the public and the benefits they want.
That is an essential precondition of political reform, but it is not enough. Gazans and all Palestinians must be presented with better options than Hamas or Fatah, the same choices they have faced for decades. It was a mistake in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections to permit Hamas to run unless it met the conditions set by the “Quartet” of the U.S., Russia, EU, and UN: namely to renounce violence, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and stand by previously signed agreements. That mistake was about to be repeated in 2021, until Abbas called off the elections for an entirely different reason: that he was going to lose. As the opinion polling previously mentioned suggests, Hamas was not likely to get a majority (in 2006, it won 44 percent of the vote to Fatah’s 41 percent) but Abbas wasn’t either. During the campaign, opposition to Abbas and his cronies arose from within Fatah and he might not even have won a plurality.
Electoral politics have been missing from the West Bank and Gaza for years, and so there was no great cost for Hamas to be excluded from elections that did not take place. But if the political system opens up and there are choices for voters to make, being excluded is a real cost and it may induce some Palestinians to break from Hamas. Its version of politics—as we see in Gaza, an Islamist dictatorship enforced with guns—cannot be undermined when its competition, as we see in the West Bank, is equally undemocratic and even more corrupt, though more secular and less brutal. The goal should be to undermine Hamas by showing Gazans, over time, that there are better alternatives than perpetual rule by an Islamist proxy of Iran, and moreover, that those alternatives are real and indeed are visible in the West Bank.
The bet is that if this is offered, Gazans will not choose to live in another Lebanon, whose population is only 22-percent Shiite but where the entire nation is controlled by Hizballah because of the threat and use of violent coercion. Hizballah is a reminder for Gazans, for Israel, and for us of what could happen if Iranian support for Hamas is not blocked and if Hamas is not attacked politically.
Israeli deterrence of the kind Amidror advocates will be needed for many years. But what is also needed is a long-range political strategy to undermine Hamas, whose control of Gaza appears to be opposed by two-thirds of Gazans.
What would a long-range political offensive against Hamas look like? It would mean that we promote competition among Palestinian political groups and leaders, but we exclude terrorists. That in itself means pushing for more freedom of speech and press than the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas likes to permit. It would mean strong efforts against corruption in the PA. It would mean pressing for free elections, as long as they exclude terrorist groups and their representatives. It would mean supporting honest and able Palestinian officials, whether mayors, governors, legislators, educators, security officials, or any other sort. How? With rhetoric and gifts of prestige (through meetings at high levels with foreign officials, visits to foreign capitals, and the like) and by making sure that our and other donors’ assistance is available as often as is appropriate for such officials to allocate, so that there is an actual advantage to those who act with integrity and are rivals to Hamas. It would mean constant pressure (especially by the United States on other donors, Western and Arab) to be sure that assistance does not go through or strengthen Hamas in Gaza. It would mean the strongest possible efforts to prevent smuggling of weapons into Gaza or reconstruction of Hamas’s weapons factories and warehouses.
All this may fail, leaving Hamas in control of Gaza. It may also be that in the end, too many Palestinians will cling to the Hamas dream of destroying Israel and will support violence and terror. And it may be that Hamas cannot be defeated until there is regime change in Iran, which is today its main supporter. Israel and its allies will have to deal with all that if it proves to be true. But relying on the Palestinian Authority has failed and will fail, and Israel has no present desire to invade and conquer and (worse yet) rule Gaza. The alternative is to try politics.
Give Palestinians an open choice between Hamas and decent government without corruption and terror. It is a choice they have never had except in the few months after Arafat died. As we know from the record of the PA and Fatah since then, that would not solve the deep divisions between Israel and the Palestinians. But it may weaken the Hamas hold on Gaza, and that is an objective worth seeking. Put another way, Israel, the United States, and many Western and Arab donor countries want to see Hamas out of power in Gaza. Let’s see if Palestinians can be enlisted in achieving that objective.