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.

Adel Hana/AP
A Palestinian man carries luggage at the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, in Rafah, July 24. Egypt has sealed smuggling tunnels and blocked most passenger traffic, causing millions of dollars in economic losses and prompting concerns among Gaza's Hamas rulers that the territory is being swept up in the Egyptian military's crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists.

As peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians get underway, the international community has a rare opportunity to deal with one of the chief threats to a final status agreement: Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has ruled Palestinian territory in the Gaza Strip since 2007.

Hamas has reached its most isolated point since it forcefully took control of Gaza in 2007, after enjoying popularity in the wake of the Arab Spring. In fact, Hamas is now arguably faced with the most challenging undertaking in its history. A failure to replenish now dwindling sources of foreign aid will result in an unprecedented economic downturn in the Gaza Strip and threaten Hamas’s overall ability to maintain its rule.

To salvage this situation, Hamas leaders have three main options, and none of them are very appealing to their uncompromising ideology. Because of Hamas’s isolation, the international community has a window of opportunity to pressure Hamas to moderate its stance toward Israel and rejoin the Palestinian Authority. This path is the only one that will lead Gazans to a more prosperous future, support an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and bring a measure of stability to the region.

Hamas faces isolation on several fronts.

First, its main artery to the outside world – the system of smuggling tunnels that carry supplies from Egypt into Gaza – has been effectively cut off. On July 24, UN officials stated that the Egyptian military had destroyed approximately 80 percent of smuggling tunnels. Following the ousting of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, the Egyptian military set out to destroy hundreds of these tunnels as part of a broader effort to restore order in the Sinai Peninsula.

Tunnel closures have begun to impact daily life in Gaza, sparking rampant fuel and electricity shortages. Shortages of concrete have resulted in the firing of approximately 20,000 construction workers, while 90 percent of Qatari and Turkish-funded projects in Gaza have reportedly been suspended due to lack of supplies.

In addition, three fishing zones in Egyptian territory have since been closed to Palestinian fishermen. The official border crossing at Rafah, meanwhile, has remained mostly closed since July 3.

With Mr. Morsi’s ouster, Hamas has also lost a key ally – the Muslim Brotherhood – in the government of the Arab world’s most populous nation. After Morsi’s election in 2012, Hamas shifted alliances toward the regional Muslim Brotherhood movement, improving relations with Qatar, Turkey, the Syrian opposition, and other Sunni-Islamist entities. This policy shift came at the expense of long-standing ties with Shiite Iran and its ally, the Assad regime in Syria, resulting in a reduction of financial and military assistance from those sources. Now, Hamas has cooler relations with Egypt, including the general population and the new military-backed government.

To make matters worse, Qatar’s newly-appointed monarch Sheikh Tammim is reportedly weighing a reduction of foreign aid to regional Muslim Brotherhood movements outside of Egypt, including Hamas. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, has failed to make good on a promised solidarity to Gaza, suggesting that the Palestinian issue has also dropped down from a top spot on Turkey’s foreign policy radar.

Hamas also faces dissent from within. Inside Gaza, a local Tamarod (rebel) movement has emerged, based on the grassroots campaign that ousted Morsi in Egypt. Since July 3, Hamas has cracked down on numerous demonstrations, while shuttering the Gaza branches of the Maan and al-Arabiya news outlets, which were unrelenting in their critical coverage of Hamas.

On July 15, Hamas police dispersed protests in Gaza condemning an Israeli plan to relocate ethnic Bedouin residents. Those protests weren't related to internal criticism, but Hamas’s hard line against any political gatherings highlights its concerns that local activists may become emboldened to organize mass anti-regime protests in the future.

With current sources of political and financial support dwindling, Hamas faces three unfavorable alternatives.

Restore ties with Iran.

Even in its current crisis, Hamas remains divided over reaching out to Iran. In June 2013, the Hamas leadership prevented Mahmoud Zahar, an influential former member of the political leadership, from exiting Gaza and traveling to Iran to restore ties, even though Mr. Zahar's desire for rapprochement with Tehran was shared by many high-level Hamas military commanders. Hamas’s current leadership believes that a warming of relations with Shiite Iran would weaken its popularity in the Sunni-Arab world. This would be especially true given Iran's staunch support for the Assad regime's campaign against the Sunni opposition in Syria.

Reconcile with Fatah and rejoin the Palestinian Authority.

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.

Provoke Israel.

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.

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