A hard-hitting column this week in Haaretz by Amira Hass posed a series of questions to Hamas leaders that cut right to the heart of the strategy and raison d’etre of the Palestinian group. Hass’s intimate knowledge of Gaza adds force to her questions, especially when she asks Hamas leaders how they feel about the lack of any quantifiable gains from the last war with Israel, other than a sharp and probably temporary rise in the group’s own popularity.
Hass notes that despite the supposed “victory” over Israel, Jewish settlements continue to expand, Palestinian economic gaps are worsening and Gaza remains isolated from the West Bank. Indeed, she reminds Hamas leaders, 43 percent of Palestinians in Gaza want to emigrate. Is that not proof that their military strategy has “proven its failure and futility”?
I have been following the development of Hamas since its emergence in the early 1980s. My routine journalistic encounters with Hamas officials, members and supporters across the region — from Khaled Meshaal in Amman to kids in the refugee camps in Gaza and Beirut — are meant to help me better understand the group’s political philosophy and calculations. I’m quite sure its leaders will never respond publicly to Hass’s questions for the simple reason that they cannot allow themselves to look defensive before any Israeli, even a sympathetic one such as Hass.
Instead, Hamas figures would argue that they shouldn’t be evaluated in a vacuum. They insist the group’s inception, growth and actions can only be understood as a defensive response to belligerent Israeli policies since 1948. They demand to be judged according to three criteria: the legal rights of Palestinians as an occupied national community and also as refugees; the right to self-defense against what they insist are Israeli acts of aggression; and their performance in contrast with the lackluster policies of the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas leaders know that historically they represent a minority of Palestinian opinion — only around 20 percent. (The number spikes to more than 50 percent only after conflicts like the recent Gaza War, when they can claim to be leading an armed resistance that Israel cannot defeat.) If they did choose to respond more directly to the very legitimate questions that Hass poses, they’d likely say that they would respect the will of the Palestinian people if a majority chose peace with Israel over war (a soft answer that evades the issues). At the same time, they would argue that Hamas should be assessed simultaneously and according to common criteria along with Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Hamas cannot dodge the hard questions so easily, however, given that its military engagements with Israel have led to regular and widespread destruction, homelessness, death and injury that have disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Conditions in Gaza are clearly not sustainable for most residents, who have become chronic wards of international charity. In the most recent conflict, more than 62,000 people lost their homes and are now sheltered in United Nations schools. Among the 3,000 children injured in the fighting, around 1,000 will suffer from lifelong disabilities. According to the World Bank, the Gaza economy is on track to shrink 15 percent this year. Given restrictions on cement imports, it will take 18 years just to replace the housing stock destroyed in the war.
Yes, Hamas has generated some political capital from standing up to Israel in the limited, slightly haphazard way that it did in Gaza. And it’s unquestionably true that Abbas has failed to translate diplomatic opportunities into a credible peace agreement with Israel. But Hamas will have to prove very soon whether it can do any better at achieving meaningful and permanent gains for Palestinians through political means that lead to statehood. Otherwise, its continued leadership is likely to produce more mass suffering, broken up by the occasional feel-good military “victory.”
For their part, the kids in the Gaza and Beirut refugee camps would interrupt at this point and ask if Israel is also willing to clarify whether its massive militarism is leading to long-term peace and acceptance in the region or to perpetual warfare and continued air-raid sirens. The really great mediator we lack would ask these questions of, and coax honest answers from, both parties in this conflict.
Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.