Not too long ago, after a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla killed nine activists and sparked international outrage, Need to Know spoke with some veterans of the Middle East peace process who had been asking the question: What should the world do about Hamas? The Islamic militant organization won elections in Gaza in 2008, and consolidated its hold on the region in 2009, when the opposing Palestinian political faction, Fatah, withdrew from the territory.
After the raid, a few very senior Israeli and international officials began to advocate a rapprochement with Hamas, arguing that progress toward a two-state solution would be difficult as long as the Palestinian territories remained divided between the government of President Mahmoud Abbas, which still controls the West Bank, and Hamas.
Hamas, for its part, seemed to suggest that it was eager to win legitimacy in the eyes of the international community and would be willing, under the right circumstances, to agree to the core preconditions of the Quartet on the Middle East (including the renunciation of violence and recognition of the Israeli state). As Daoud Kuttab, the founder of a non-profit media network in Palestine, told Need to Know in June: “Hamas has taken some concrete steps on the ground and in their public discourse to at least test the waters.”
Now, the Obama administration has rekindled the diplomatic process and brought the Palestinians and Israelis together for direct talks. But the question of what to do with Hamas remains unresolved. The group and its leaders have been sidelined, and as a result, they have sought to disrupt the peace process. Hamas militants claimed responsibility for an attack on Israeli settlers in the West Bank region of Mount Hebron this week that killed four people. And a Palestinian security official warned on Friday that Hamas “will attempt to launch more attacks and that the settlers will try to expand their retaliatory acts, as well,” according to Ynet News.
In restarting direct peace talks without the involvement of Hamas, U.S. and Palestinian officials say they hope to agree on a framework for a two-state solution that will permanently marginalize the Islamic militant group. “I would love to see the Hamas campaign against a Palestinian state,” Gaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator and adviser to Abbas, told Need to Know earlier this year. Of talks with Hamas, he added: “Very consistently, from Obama himself, from the secretary, we hear it from all levels of staff, that there is no desire for that.”
As Yaakov Katz, the leader of a far-right political coalition in Israel, noted in The Jerusalem Post, it was initially unclear whether Hamas would, in fact, launch a new round of attacks in order to disrupt the peace process. And Hamas militants have limited their attacks so far to the West Bank, rather than launching rockets into the Negev region of Israel, as they have in the past.
“It is interesting that Hamas, which has taken responsibility for the two shooting attacks this week, has only attacked in the West Bank and has not fired rockets from the Gaza Strip,” Katz wrote. “This is even more peculiar considering that it is far easier for Hamas to launch attacks from within Gaza, which it controls, than from the West Bank, where it has to worry about” Israeli and Palestinian security patrols.
The conventional view of Hamas’s strategy in attacking Israelis is that the Islamic organization is intent on provoking Israel into responding with force, thus sabotaging the talks. In fact, many Israeli politicians, especially the right-wing lawmakers who form a crucial component of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, seem to be anticipating such an outcome. As Katz put it, “Hamas still has a lot more it could do if it really wanted to push Israel up against a wall and torpedo the talks.” If Hamas were to begin firing rockets into Israeli territory, Katz added, “Israel would be forced to respond, even at the expense of the success of the peace talks. ”
But the more likely motivation behind the Hamas attacks, many Palestinian officials and veterans of the peace process say, is to destabilize the moderate Palestinian government led by Abbas, which has led a sustained crackdown on Hamas militants in the West Bank for several years. Abbas also tacitly approved of the Israeli blockade of Gaza as a way to choke off the supply of aid and weapons to Hamas.
The two sides have, at Egypt’s urging, held infrequent and unsuccessful talks regarding a possible “unity government.” But al-Omari, the former aide to Abbas, told Need to Know in June that the Palestinian president had little interest in forming any sort of partnership with his Hamas rivals.
A Hamas official told The Wall Street Journal on Saturday that the attacks in the West Bank demonstrated the need for the Palestinian Authority and the United States to negotiate with Hamas. “This proves that the only way to deal with Hamas is for the Palestinian Authority to sit with Hamas and make a reconciliation deal to build a common strategy. Hamas is a reality,” Mahmoud Ramahi told The Journal. “The United States and the Palestinian Authority have to sit and talk with it.”
Given Abbas’s apparent lack of interest in forming a coalition government, talks with Hamas seem unlikely. As a result, the feuding between the two sides is likely to continue, and Hamas militants are almost certain to ratchet up their attacks in the West Bank. But Hamas also seems unwilling to draw Israel into the conflict as well — either out of fear that Israel could defeat Hamas militarily, or because Hamas, for all its bluster, remains interested in winning international legitimacy, and in the prospect of a Palestinian state.