A year ago, Hamas’s strategic realignment away from Syria and Iran and closer to emerging regional powers like Qatar and Egypt increased the organization’s regional standing while partially alleviating the economic pressure on the group and on Gaza. Today, in an ironic twist of fate, initial celebrations have gradually turned sour as Hamas stands alone, isolated and vulnerable.
With the imminent resumption of political negotiations between Israel and Palestine, it would seem a perfect time for the international community to further cripple the organization and undermine its grip on Gaza. Prominent analysts have indeed urged the United States to pressure Hamas’s main financial backers — including the Palestinian Authority (PA), Turkey, and Qatar — to cut back on funding. These measures, combined with Egypt’s increased border restrictions and with the ongoing campaign to crack down on underground tunnels, could place significant financial pressure on Hamas (and Gaza with its over 1.5 million residents). Those who support this strategy argue that it would severely undermine Hamas’s capacity to govern, while encouraging people in Gaza to get rid of the Palestinian Islamist group.
But implementing yet another policy of "suffocation" of Hamas is misguided and can easily backfire.
Weakening Hamas through economic pressure and political isolation has been attempted in the past, with disastrous results. In the aftermath of Hamas’s electoral victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections the United States — in a remarkable 180 degree turn on its proclaimed "democracy promotion" agenda — worked in tandem with Israel to undermine Hamas, by encouraging Fatah to shy away from collaborating with the newly elected government and by cutting direct funding. That policy failed to turn all Palestinians against Hamas, but managed to turn them against each other, creating a toxic, unstable, and polarized climate. Eventually this led to an internal conflict between Fatah and Hamas supporters in the Gaza Strip. The result, ironically, was to deliver Gaza to Hamas, creating a de facto political and geographical separation between the West Bank and the Strip.
Following the Hamas takeover, the international community (led by Israel, the United States, and the EU) strengthened further its policy of non-recognition of Hamas and isolation of Gaza. By diverting financial assistance away from Gaza and pouring it into the West Bank through the presidency, the main strategy implemented to deal with Hamas was what a senior Israeli official tellingly defined as the "no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis" policy. Aimed at depriving the Hamas government of the badly needed funds to govern the Strip, the policy sought to weaken Hamas’s grip on Gaza, while creating the conditions for wide-scale frustration on the ground. The not-so-hidden agenda was to ensure Hamas would fail as a government, and that Palestinians in Gaza would rise up to overthrow it.
Simply put: that policy failed.
The crippling restrictions on Gaza (including blocking assistance and severely restricting inward and outward flows of goods and people) have led to a dire humanitarian situation for ordinary residents of the Strip, but did nothing to weaken Hamas. To the contrary, with public workers on the PA-payroll prevented from working in the Hamas government, the organization was able to recruit its own personnel and to place Hamas members or Hamas sympathizers in key positions of power. Accordingly, the group now controls all institutional aspects of life in Gaza, from the local municipalities, to the security sector, to the judicial apparatus, to the main ministries and government institutions.
What is more, the international restrictions furthered dependence, which in turn also helped to strengthen Hamas’s internal control. The average citizen of Gaza — impoverished by the restrictions and in need of assistance — became more dependent on Hamas, its government, and its welfare system. This is especially the case as import and export restrictions crippled the already modest private sector; for example, of the total 3,900 factories in the Strip, less than 200 were estimated to be fully operational by 2008, contributing to inflate the level of unemployment, which in 2009 was estimated at 41.5 percent. While weakening the private sector, restrictions on Gaza also contributed to the flourishing of the Hamas-controlled tunnel economy, further strengthening Hamas’s grip. In addition, the "no development" strategy also provided Hamas with a solid explanation as to why its electoral promises had not been fulfilled, thus helping the group in deflecting public criticism.
In other words, attempts to cripple Hamas by punishing Gaza have backfired in the past, with the closure strengthening Hamas’s control on the Strip, and with the restrictions deepening ordinary citizens’ dependence on the organization. Why would the same policy work now?
In addition, decisively working to dry up Hamas’s sources of funding — which would indeed amount to deliberately creating a humanitarian crisis in Gaza (and it is hard to refrain from noting this would de facto constitute an internationally proscribed form of collective punishment) — could lead to a number of additional negative outcomes.
Firstly, with Hamas currently struggling to reposition itself after the downfall of Mohamed Morsi’s government in Egypt and the likely retreat in Qatar’s foreign policy, attempting to further sever the group’s links with other regional actors could very well encourage those Hamas leaders, like Gaza-based Mahmud Al-Zahhar, who would like to rekindle the group’s relations with Iran.
Secondly, in the context of the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, aggressively isolating Hamas could push it to resume armed struggle and to act as the de facto spoiler of the negotiations. Indeed, a look at Hamas’s behavior in the post-2007 years shows that the group is extremely interested in preserving control over Gaza and that it is willing and able to observe periods of quiet when it perceives that such moves will assist it in strengthening its power. To the contrary, cornering the group may make Hamas feel it has nothing to lose and push it to act in an unrestrained way.
Finally, if we can agree that a successful negotiation between Israel and Palestine should deliver a viable Palestinian state, then it is absolutely clear that deepening the already dire economic disparities between the Gaza — whose real GDP per capita dropped from 89 to 43 percent of the West Bank’s between 2006 and 2009 — and the West Bank is an absolute disaster.
For all these reasons, attempting to engineer a coup in Gaza by financially pressuring Hamas is an extremely risky and misguided policy. Instead, the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should provide the U.S. administration the chance to push Israel to fulfill the terms of the December 2012 cease-fire, which openly referred to the need to move toward "opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements." Since isolation has not been working for the past six years, is it not time to try something new, like (re)integration?
Benedetta Berti a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the author of Armed Political Organizations (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) @benedettabertiw.