The rival Palestinian groups Hamas and Fatah officially agreed this week to reconcile and form a unity government. In response, Israel has decided to punish the Palestinian Authority by withholding two-thirds of its annual revenues. It’s a tactic Israel tried after Hamas won parliamentary elections in 2006 — and it will probably have as little success now as it did then.
Blocking the funds that pay the salaries of civil servants would destroy the Fatah-dominated West Bank’s relative prosperity, turning it into something resembling the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. There, several years of isolation have led not to the weakening of Hamas but to the strengthening of even more uncompromising enemies of the Jewish state.
In Gaza, the number of Salafi jihadis — austere militants willing to kill those they don’t consider true Muslims — has grown significantly since 2006. Many of them are former Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters who see Hamas as caving to Israel while getting only blockades, closed border crossings and military incursions in return.
Three weeks ago, a group of Salafi jihadis strangled Vittorio Arrigoni, a 36-year-old Italian activist who had advocated an end to the blockade of Gaza. Mr. Arrigoni’s killers posted a video showing him bloodied and blindfolded while scrolling text denounced Hamas for not instituting Islamic law in Gaza. It also demanded the release of all Salafi jihadi prisoners, especially Hisham Saidani, leader of a small group named Tawhid and Jihad. Earlier this year, he issued a religious ruling permitting the killing of Jewish and Christian civilians because they “are fundamentally not innocent.”
Like other Salafi jihadi groups in Gaza, Tawhid and Jihad has few members, its organization is poor, and its ability to threaten Gaza’s government is slight. Yet with a single rocket or a single murder, such groups can drastically change the fate of Gazans by scaring off their foreign supporters or provoking another war.
Embarrassed by Mr. Arrigoni’s murder, Hamas held a state funeral for him, offered to name a street in his honor, and on April 19 sent snipers and security forces to confront his suspected executioners, two of whom were killed in the raid.
Some in Israel hope that such bloodletting between two of the Jewish state’s enemies will result in their mutual destruction, but such thinking has proven faulty before.
In the mid-1980s, members of the Israeli government sought to weaken the Palestinian Liberation Organization by strengthening Islamists who would go on to form Hamas, a strategy that leading Israeli defense officials have since acknowledged was a mistake.
So was the closing of Gaza’s borders. Five years of isolation have not dislodged Hamas, revived the peace process, strengthened Fatah or ensured Israel’s security. Most of the Gaza Strip’s imports now pass largely unimpeded through tunnels that are wide enough to carry cattle, cars, anti-tank missiles and foreign radicals.
Nor has isolating Hamas persuaded most Palestinians to embrace the alternative model in the West Bank, where undemocratic practices remain common, local leaders lack popular legitimacy, and tight security coordination with Israel is routinely denounced.
Instead, blockading Gaza and isolating Hamas have given rhetorical strength to militants who argue that the Islamist movement has erred by holding its fire against Israel and failing to impose Islamic law. As a result, Hamas is slowly losing members to more radical groups.
On Monday, Hamas self-defeatingly sought to bolster its flagging Islamist credentials by mourning the death of Osama bin Laden and praising him as an Arab holy warrior — just days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ominously warned that “Israel would not recognize any government in the world that included members from Al Qaeda.”
In reality, the likelihood of such a government is slight, but if Israel continues to oppose Palestinian reconciliation, Mr. Netanyahu’s nightmare may become less of a fantasy.
Repeating the mistakes of the past will only strengthen Hamas’s Salafi jihadi challengers, who proliferated the last time Palestinians were penalized for their votes and could one day pose an even greater threat to Israel.
By Nathan Thrall, a Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group.