A rare opportunity to influence Hamas
As talks between Israelis and Palestinians get underway, the international community has a window of opportunity to pressure an increasingly isolated Hamas to reconcile with the Palestinian Authority – a move that would help Gazans, support a peace deal, and stabilize the region.
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Additional internal leadership divides are likely to prevent Hamas from reaching a long-sought after reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Fatah party and its reincorporation in the Palestinian Authority. Following a resumption of peace negotiations between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and Israel, Hamas members have lashed out at Fatah leader and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Fatah party, meanwhile, has been accused of exploiting anti-Islamist sentiment in the region to incite criticism against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The option of instigating an escalation with Israel remains unlikely under current conditions, but will become increasingly plausible in conjunction with Hamas’s isolation. As witnessed in the past, Hamas has used escalations with Israel to draw international attention toward Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and ease Israel’s blockade.
After an eight-day conflict with Israel in November 2012, Hamas succeeded in expanding its fishing and agricultural zones, in addition to lifting other limitations as part of a subsequent ceasefire agreement. The downside, of course, is that another conflict with Israel will have destructive consequences for the people of Gaza, further fueling the flames of discontent.
If the Brotherhood’s standing in Egypt continues to fall, Hamas will find itself further isolated and is thus more likely revert to a more hard-line stance against Israel, and is more likely to open itself back up to the destabilizing influences of the Iranian axis. Such moves may keep Hamas politicians in power for a few more months or even years, but will only result in continued hardship for the citizens of Gaza.
Given Hamas’s history of uncompromising religious fundamentalism, change for this group is not likely to come from within. The international community must give the group’s leaders a choice between moderation or collapse. Hamas’s backers in Qatar and Turkey must be convinced to make their aid to the Gaza Strip conditional upon Hamas’s reincorporation into the Palestinian Authority and recognition of Israel. The West can motivate these two major regional players to pressure Hamas in this way by increasing support to the Syrian opposition – which both Turkey and Qatar are backing.
The international community must also block any Hamas attempt to run back to its Iranian patrons. With the Sinai Peninsula no longer an open highway for weapons smuggling, Iran’s financial lifelines to Hamas must never be allowed to reopen. To ensure this, the international community must sanction and freeze the assets the many Iranian charities used to send funds to proxy groups abroad, like Hamas. The international community should also encourage nonaligned states in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia to freeze Hamas’s financial assets in their territories.
With the Middle East caught in the uncertain fog of an ongoing Arab Spring, a window for positive change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has opened. There are enough regional powers willing to isolate Hamas for its destructive tendencies – and little excuse for those who care about peace not to act.
Daniel Nisman is the Middle East and North Africa Intelligence manager at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical and security risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv, Israel. You may follow him on twitter at @dannynis.