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Israel’s Big New Shift in Hamas Policy

The Israeli government used to try buying off the group’s compliance. Now it’s intent on using reconstruction money to coerce it.

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
Naftali Bennett visits a building that was hit by a rocket, fired from Gaza, during a campaign visit in the city of Rishon Letzion, near Tel Aviv, on Jan. 21, 2013.
Naftali Bennett visits a building that was hit by a rocket, fired from Gaza, during a campaign visit in the city of Rishon Letzion, near Tel Aviv, on Jan. 21, 2013. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Beginning in 2018, Qatar’s envoy traveled with millions of dollars packed neatly in Louis Vuitton suitcases from Doha to the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv and was escorted to the Gaza Strip by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Yossi Cohen, former Mossad chief, even visited Qatar to iron out the details of the arrangement and encouraged the Qataris to keep the dollars coming. The cash purchased fuel for the besieged strip’s only power plant, funded infrastructure projects, and provided a monthly stipend of $100 to thousands of impoverished Palestinian families.

Israeli intelligence officials, however, say they knew that Hamas—the Palestinian group that runs a de-facto government in Gaza but is treated by Israel and the United States as a terrorist group—siphoned off the funds. The thinking was that Qatari cash would keep Hamas quiet—that it would essentially buy them off from firing rockets at Israel’s southern cities.

Beginning in 2018, Qatar’s envoy traveled with millions of dollars packed neatly in Louis Vuitton suitcases from Doha to the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv and was escorted to the Gaza Strip by Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Yossi Cohen, former Mossad chief, even visited Qatar to iron out the details of the arrangement and encouraged the Qataris to keep the dollars coming. The cash purchased fuel for the besieged strip’s only power plant, funded infrastructure projects, and provided a monthly stipend of $100 to thousands of impoverished Palestinian families.

Israeli intelligence officials, however, say they knew that Hamas—the Palestinian group that runs a de-facto government in Gaza but is treated by Israel and the United States as a terrorist group—siphoned off the funds. The thinking was that Qatari cash would keep Hamas quiet—that it would essentially buy them off from firing rockets at Israel’s southern cities.

But the policy seems to have backfired, several former Israeli officials told Foreign Policy. “Did the Qatari procedure work for us? We don’t think so,” said Col Eran Lerman, former deputy national security adviser of the country.

In the recent war with Hamas, Israelis were caught off guard by the group’s ability to hit deep inside Israeli cities, with not just Tel Aviv but Jerusalem within their reach. The group fired 4,360 rockets over a period of 11 days, four times more than it did in the 50-day war in 2014. For a brief period, the rockets overwhelmed Israel’s Iron dome missile-defense system. Moreover, despite a rigorous surveillance routine by Israel, Hamas has built a much more intricate maze of tunnels under the coastal enclave to hide its arsenal.

Israelis claim they destroyed much of Hamas’s ammunition and bunkers in 2014. The revival of Hamas’s facilities, assert the Israelis, could only have happened with Qatari money. They suspect that a large portion of the Qatari cash was used by Hamas to replenish the armory and to purchase materials to expand its tunnel network.

Last week Israel refused to allow Qatar’s monthly aid of $30 million to be directly delivered to Gaza. Hamas quickly responded with a threat that they would reconsider the ceasefire. But the Israelis are now determined to rework their strategy. Instead of cash for calm, it’s now planning to use reconstruction funds as leverage against Hamas’s rearmament.

There is support for such ideas among American policymakers, especially since the international community seems fatigued with investing in rebuilding Gaza’s infrastructure if it is destined to be destroyed in airstrikes a few years later. Dennis Ross, an American diplomat who has worked on shaping U.S. involvement in the Middle East under four presidents including on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, holds Hamas responsible for destruction in Gaza. He said that no one is going to invest in major reconstruction that will be jeopardized the next time Hamas decides it has something to gain politically by launching rockets into Israel. “An equation needs to be created which essentially says: Reconstruction for no rearmament,” said Ross.

He added that Hamas has been redirecting construction materials towards its own purposes at the cost of the donors and the people of Gaza. “The problem with not having control over the material that goes into Gaza, where it is stored, and then how it is delivered to construction sites, is that Hamas will divert materials for its purposes of rebuilding its underground tunnel network and rearming. Look at what it did after 2014,” Ross said. “It increased its rocket-fire by tenfold from 2014 to 2021. It built an underground tunnel network—one so extensive that Israel destroyed 60 miles of it and that is only a fraction of what Hamas secretly constructed. They used enormous amounts of cement, steel, electrical wiring, and wood—all of which was desperately needed for above-ground construction in impoverished Gaza.”

Human-rights activists and aid organizations, however, warned that such a policy might not achieve the desired objective and only end up prolonging the misery of the Palestinian people.

Seventy-two thousand Palestinians were displaced in the recent round of violence as residential buildings collapsed and became rubble within seconds. Crucial infrastructure, including hospitals and clinics, the power grid, and the water desalination plants, all suffered damages. Unexploded ordnance is strewn all across as many Palestinians, once again, scramble for basic necessities.

While a clear assessment of how much money would be required to rebuild the infrastructure that was destroyed last month is still to be made, it could easily cost billions. Promises of aid have been made but no one expects the reconstruction to be swift. In 2014, as many as 170,000 people were rendered roofless and many are still languishing in temporary shelters as the reconstruction of their homes was never completed.

Tamara Alrifai, a spokesperson at UNRWA, the U.N.’s Palestine refugee agency that is responsible for the needs of 1.4 of the 2 million people in Gaza, said that an assessment of destroyed and severely damaged homes is expected to be completed this month, “although we still did not receive sufficient funds to fully deliver on our plans to rebuild the shelters and homes of some Palestinian refugees whose homes were destroyed in 2014.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has said the United States will aid in rebuilding Gaza through the Palestinian Authority and under a U.N. mechanism. It is not yet clear what sort of monitoring mechanism the United States has in mind but the Palestinians hope it is not the same one that was instituted back in 2014.

The Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism (GRM), a tripartite body comprising of the United Nations as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, was created at the Cairo conference to rebuild Gaza in a way that dual-use materials did not end up with Hamas. Its processes were highly bureaucratic and slowed the reconstruction, and yet Hamas is suspected to have stolen the materials intended for civilian infrastructure. In addition, several Arab nations were reluctant to donate funds owing to the fear that they might eventually find their way to Hamas, whose parent organization—the Muslim Brotherhood—is much despised by the monarchies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

Palestinian intellectuals had forewarned that the GRM would fail in helping Palestinians and in deterring Hamas from making or firing rockets. Among them was Omar Shaban, founder and director of a Gaza-based think tank called PalThink. He argued that instead of the United Nations chasing every sack of cement, a national body of Palestinians should have been formed to undertake reconstruction.

“Not just I but many other Palestinians had said that the GRM would fail and any other mechanism that involves the U.N. would fail too,” said Shaban. “We have been saying that a national body, far away from Hamas, far away from the PA, should be established to carry out the task of reconstruction in coordination with international bodies such as the world bank and the EU so everyone knows where and how the money is spent.”

Mkhaimar Abusada, an associate professor and chairman of the department of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said it is impossible to prevent all the reconstruction materials from getting into Hamas’s hands. “All the materials and financial aid goes to the families but at the end of the day some of those families are connected to Hamas,” said Professor Abusada. “At least 30% of Gaza’s people are supporters of Hamas.”

He added, however, that Israeli policies abetted Hamas’s rise instead of derailing their project in Gaza. The deal with Qatar was designed to keep Hamas in play and relevant in Gaza with the ultimate aim of ensuring the division of Palestinians to ward off a political dialogue indefinitely, Abousada said. “Netanyahu’s strategy was to weaken the PA, to avoid serious peace negotiations, and to empower Hamas. He often said that internal divisions among Palestinians are in Israel’s strategic interests. Hamas was deliberately kept alive. If Israel is blaming Qatar they should blame themselves and Netanyahu too.”

Qatar has maintained that aid was provided in agreement with Israel and that the Israelis are well aware of how the money was used. Israel, nonetheless, wishes to replace Qatar, a supporter of Hamas and the Muslim brotherhood, with the opposing Arab bloc to take a lead in the future reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. “Egypt has announced half a billion dollars,” said Dr Col Lerman, “One wonders where it’s coming from since they are dirt poor but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is Emirati money to upstage Qatar. We do want Egypt to be in the driver’s seat.”

Experts across the political spectrum in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories believe that it is impossible to disarm Hamas entirely and naive to think that the group would not keep a cut of reconstruction materials and aid sent to Gaza. But a shift in Israeli policy—from keeping the Palestinians split and Hamas a functional government, to delegitimizing the group within Gaza and engaging in a meaningful political resolution with the Palestinian authority based in the West Bank—remains the only path to lasting peace.

Correction, June 16, 2021: An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of the U.S. diplomat Dennis Ross.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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