Foreign Relations & International Law

Why Israel Is Stuck with Hamas

Daniel Byman
Monday, March 19, 2018, 7:00 AM

Hamas—the anti-Israel Palestinian faction that rules the Gaza known for its terrorist attacks on Israel—is on the ropes. Although the violent back-and-forth with Israel goes on, Hamas spends much of its energy trying to undermine its Palestinian rivals rather than fighting Israel with all its might.

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Hamas—the anti-Israel Palestinian faction that rules the Gaza known for its terrorist attacks on Israel—is on the ropes. Although the violent back-and-forth with Israel goes on, Hamas spends much of its energy trying to undermine its Palestinian rivals rather than fighting Israel with all its might. Israeli pressure, international isolation and Hamas’s own failings all make the group’s fate unclear. However, this seeming policy success poses a dilemma for Israel. Although Hamas is Israel’s enemy and would happily see the Jewish state destroyed, its continued control of Gaza (for now) is a necessary evil for Israel given the paucity of alternatives.

Since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, Hamas has stayed in power despite international pressure, mini-wars with Israel, and constant efforts by its Palestinian Authority rival to weaken it. Over the years, Hamas has developed increasingly professional military forces. It has built or acquired a massive rocket arsenal with ranges that have grown to encompass almost all of Israel. Hamas has also built tunnels to smuggle operatives into Israel and within Gaza to ambush Israeli forces should they invade. Its provision of welfare services made it popular in the past, and now the group provides law and order and uses its control of government—and particularly its effective security apparatus—to keep itself in power in Gaza. And perhaps most important, the corruption, incompetence, and weak leadership of the PA have diminished Hamas’ most important rival. The risk of war is always high.

Life, however, is miserable for Gazans. Sewage contaminates the water system. Electricity is at best intermittent, especially after the PA stopped paying Israel to keep the generators going. (This PA may relent, but this sort of pressure and punishment is common). Many children hover on the brink of malnutrition. The Israeli air and sea blockade, and occasional military strikes, make economic development in Gaza a non-starter. The U.N. reports that 80 percent of Gazans depend on international assistance. Hamas blames Israel for this sad situation, while Israeli officials point out that Hamas prioritizes spending on its military wing over the welfare of ordinary Gazans.

Hamas is on the ropes economically, its political support is weak, and it has few means to press Israel. Its smuggling operations and taxation of private smugglers have dried up as Egypt has cracked down on tunnel traffic along the border. The Iron Dome and, to a lesser degree, the David’s Sling anti-missile systems have diminished the value of Hamas’ rocket arsenal. Israel has also made progress destroying or blocking Hamas tunnels into Israel, which Hamas dug in order to be able to send operatives into Israel. Many among its military wing would prefer to shed the burden of governance and return to the purity of resistance. Egypt, which Hamas had hoped would be an ally when the Muslim Brotherhood held power there, is now a bitter enemy and has tightened border security with Gaza, cracking down on long-tolerated smuggling, with little concern for the welfare of the people there.

Part of Hamas’ stagnation is due to the fact that it has not overcome a fundamental internal tension: It wants to fight Israel and rule Gaza, but it can’t really do both. Israeli military operations and international pressure make it hard for Hamas to succeed on the governance front and will continue as long as Hamas continues to see fighting Israel as part of its mission. However, Hamas leaders see themselves as a “resistance” organization, and they worry that if they lay down their arms, they will be outflanked by more radical factions within the Palestinian community and, like Fatah before them, lose their credibility among ordinary Palestinians.

Israelis might be tempted to celebrate Hamas’ weakness—it’s hard, after all, to feel sorry for a group that has an avowed intention of killing you and works with Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy. Yet Hamas’ continued control of Gaza also serves Israel’s interests. Hamas is not the worst of the Palestinian groups opposed to Israel. Jihadist groups more akin to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda also have limited followings in Gaza as does Hamas’ long-time rival, Palestine Islamic Jihad, which works closely with Iran. In addition, members of Hamas’ own military wing have radical leanings. At times, Hamas has allowed these groups to operate in order to put pressure on Israel, but Hamas also cracks down on these groups, arresting some and even killing others. Hamas fears that these radicals will precipitate an unwanted massive clash with Israel and worries that these groups will pose a threat to Hamas’ own power.

In addition to quashing radicals, Hamas also governs and provides services to Gazans. Israel might not like how Hamas governs, but it’s better than no government at all. Although some Israeli actors want to stop economic development on Gaza to decrease Hamas’ popularity, Israel does not want a full-blown humanitarian crisis ending up on Israel’s lap. For this reason, Israel occasionally tolerates smuggling from Egypt to Gaza and has even pushed Egypt’s military regime to ease up on its pressure on Hamas.

Should Hamas’ power to continue to decline, it may not be able to govern Gaza. Militants could operate unchecked, while ordinary Gazans suffer more. In this scenario, Israel runs the risk that Hamas might turn more toward Iran for financial and military support.

Unfortunately for Israel, there is currently no credible alternative to Hamas in Gaza. Extirpating Hamas would require deploying tens of thousands of Israeli troops to Gaza for years and shouldering the responsibility to govern Gaza on a day-to-day basis; Israel does not want to do either of these things. In its last few military operations, Israel had the chance to reoccupy Gaza, but its leaders pragmatically opted for a punishing raid instead of the grind of another unpopular occupation of Palestinian territory.

Nor can Israel look to the PA for help. The PA is always eager to weaken Hamas, but it has no appetite for taking over Gaza. The PA could only do so backed by Israeli military force, which would further savage its already damaged legitimacy. Hamas, for its part, might formally surrender power but would not disarm. It would maintain a state within a state that would leave the PA with little real power but all the responsibility. So as weak as Hamas is, the PA is little better—and it could easily be worse. Hamas is part of the fabric of Gaza and, freed from the need to make unpopular governing decisions, could gain support as the PA falters. In short, Gaza is loser issue for the PA as well as for Israel.

Israel is left with an uneasy status quo—it both loathes Hamas and depends on it. For ordinary Gazans, the situation is far worse. They are stuck with a bad government but unable to leave Gaza or better their lives within its boundaries.

To escape this trap, Israel needs to do better on alternatives. The most obvious choice, the Palestinian Authority, requires fundamental changes if it is to replace Hamas in Gaza—among them: better leadership, less corruption, less repression and a more open political system. Israeli leaders need to help the PA establish its political credibility. Hamas excoriates the PA, pointing out—correctly—that the PA has achieved little for Palestinians despite 25 years of negotiations with Israel. As long as there is no hope for Palestinian self-determination through a peace process and Israeli leaders continue to disrespect the PA, this perception will be strong and Hamas will remain a necessary evil for Israel.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University, Lawfare's Foreign Policy Essay editor, and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

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