Punishing Hamas has backfired
Want leverage? Then engage the Islamist regime.
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Some will argue that the isolation policy is working because Hamas has lost popularity, which even its leaders acknowledge. But intense public frustration in the Gaza Strip cannot be the measure of success. Gazans may not be satisfied with Hamas, but their anger continues to be directed at Israel and the West, as well as at Fatah, which many see as complicit in the siege.Skip to next paragraph
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As the sanctions hit the most vulnerable, Hamas finds ways to finance its rule and invokes the siege to justify its more ruthless practices. Growing poverty and hopelessness are boosting the appeal of jihadi groups, particularly among Gazans under 16 years old, who make up half the population.
It's time to stop digging this hole. Maintaining extreme pressure on Hamas in the hope of undermining its rule or stopping the rockets has gone nowhere. A new direction is needed – one that attempts to stabilize the situation by engaging the movement with the immediate goal of reaching a mutual cease-fire and the opening of Gaza's border crossings.
Of course, Israel has legitimate concerns about a cease-fire, as does the Palestinian Authority about how a shift of direction would affect its credibility. Hamas will not accept an end to hostilities if the closures remain in place. To address these competing interests, the cease-fire should entail reciprocal commitments to stop all attacks, an opening of the crossings that recognizes Hamas's role while restoring a Palestinian Authority presence in Gaza, and a credible international monitoring effort to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.
While the continuation of the current policy may be easier to envision, so are its consequences. The status quo is untenable. Israel cannot be expected to accept rockets targeting its civilians. Hamas will not sit idly by as Gaza is choked.
If current trends continue, we will see increased attacks against Israeli towns and cities as well as the resumption of bombings and attacks inside Israel, like the recent ghastly murder of the eight yeshiva students. Israel will intensify its military incursions, targeted assassinations, and attacks on key installations. And the peace process will vanish entirely, discrediting pragmatic Palestinian leaders. The conflict could then spread to the West Bank or even Lebanon.
Avoiding that worst-case scenario means sharply changing policy course. Engaging Hamas may provide the Islamists with greater international recognition, but acknowledging its role also could mean increasing leverage on it. As it stands, Hamas has nothing to lose. Not surprisingly, it is behaving that way.