The Hamas government in Gaza has always been a tragic mess

Not looking good: exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. EPA/Mohammed Saber

Writing about conflict is always difficult because of the romantic Western need for good guys and bad guys. That makes it difficult to make sense of things when everyone’s hands are dirty.

Writing for a Western audience about any political organisation with Islamic foundations is difficult. This is particularly so when the organisation has a military wing and uses it to attack Israel.

So let’s get a few things out of the way first. Yes, the 1988 foundation Charter of Hamas sought the destruction of Israel and was a manifestly anti-Semitic document. Yes, Hamas has a history of suicide attacks on Israeli cities, more recently relying on indiscriminate rocket attacks. Yes, Hamas regarded itself at its inception as a Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had its own jointly anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic ethos.

But to describe Hamas as merely a “terrorist” group, or to lump it in with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab or ISIS is to fail to grasp its peculiar complexities, history, regional affiliations and purposes.

Going underground

The tunnels Hamas digs are examples of patient engineering – concrete-lined and roofed, inter-connected, they are effectively an underground suburb of Gaza.

There are two sets of tunnels. The ones that lead into Egypt (most of which Egypt has now destroyed) are wider, to accommodate smuggled goods that keep life in Gaza above the level of pure subsistence.

An Israeli soldier leads a tour of a captured tunnel. EPA/Jack Guez

Those leading into Israel, meanwhile, are narrow, suitable for fighters moving in single file; these are modelled on the Viet Cong tunnels used against US troops in the 1960s and 70s, but are better built.

Their entrances and exits can be destroyed, but the Israelis have no maps of the system. The tunnels so far discovered represent only the tip of an iceberg. To destroy the whole system, Israel would have to send troops into it – but because the tunnels are inter-connected like a subway train network, people in one tunnel can be attacked from the front, behind, or from the flanks.

What the tunnels represent in today’s world is part of Hamas’s twin-track strategy: both to fight back if desired, and to establish itself as part of a credible government of Palestine, not just of Gaza.

Chronically unstable

Each of these tracks destabilises the other. It cannot be a government, or part of one, that attacks Israel. It cannot become part of a democratically elected government without the grassroots popularity it achieves from attacking Israel. And Hamas is popular, in Gaza, and probably in Hebron, in the south of the West Bank – where Israel settler behaviour can be highly provocative.

And that’s the rub: Hamas was democratically elected as the government of Palestine in the elections of 2006. Neither Israel nor the West were prepared to accept this, and nor was Fatah, the PLO, which was democratically defeated.

In 2007, after failed negotiations with Western donor countries over their conditions for recognition of the new government, war broke out and Fatah defeated Hamas militarily in all parts of Palestine – except Gaza.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (L) and Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas. EPA/Ali Ali

As the beseiged government of a rump state in Gaza, Hamas immediately faced a blockade from Israel and from Mubarak’s Egypt, which was then (as it is again now) antipathetic to anything connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Weak gestures

Hamas has developed as a government during the blockade years, but it is not as united as it seems on the surface. Its senior ideologues maintain that the Charter’s opposition to Israel still stands – but the Hamas government has not formally adopted the Charter into any part of its legislative or other governmental programme.

In fact, it has more than once declared a willingness to accept a return to the 1967 borders between Israel and Palestine.

The short-lived Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt came close to making a breakthrough here, with its moves to reassure the US and Israel it was not a threat to what had already been achieved in the region. If Mohamed Morsi had known how to do it – and he did not – that could have been the moment for a serious Egyptian diplomatic push to bring Hamas out of the cold and involve it in proper negotiations.

Even the Hamas ideologues say negotiations with Israel would be possible if Israel were first to issue a declaration recognising the rights of the Palestinians. This is a direct counterpoint to Western and Israeli demands that negotiations towards a long-term settlement can only be contemplated if Hamas first recognises Israel (as it has always refused to do), renouncing violence at the same time.

But violence is the only card Hamas holds against Israel, even though it has been largely ineffective and has incurred great costs – particularly the devastating Israeli invasions of 2008-9 and 2014.

Terms and conditions

Hamas sees the rights of the Palestinians in terms of three core demands: the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Palestine (Israel resists that as it could flood the area with Palestinians without sufficient land and work to absorb them); the integrity of Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital (it is claimed as the Israeli capital as well, and neither side is in the mood to discuss division); and the restoration of the 1967 borders (already a climb-down by Hamas from claiming all pre-Israeli Palestinian territory, but still unacceptable to Israel).

Since 1967, Israel has continued to build settlements within the West Bank, has built its great wall, and continues to administer and militarily command around 60% of the West Bank in what is called Area C.

The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, has full control only over a very small portion (18%) of the West Bank, the so-called Category A territory that includes Hebron, Bethlehem and Ramallah. The remaining Category B territories are under Palestinian civil administration and Israeli military control. Essentially, outside the West Bank’s Category A territories, only Gaza is technically “free” – although it can hardly be described as such given the blockade, and renewed violence.

Israel’s control of the great majority of Palestine and all of Jerusalem means the land will never revert to the pre-1967 borders. Israel seeks a peace settlement of 1967 plus most of its current presence and safeguards on the West Bank, plus all of Jerusalem, plus no Palestinian right of return.

In that sense, there will almost certainly never be a full-blown negotiated two-state solution. Instead, Palestine will probably continue as a shadow state that cannot control its own territory.

Grim outlook

Fatah has sought to negotiate a division of the region in keeping with the Israeli vision of it, and to win whatever trade-offs and concessions it can. Hamas has not. While it is no longer hellbent on the destruction of Israel, whatever its most vocal ideologues say, its priority is the return to the 1967 borders, or nothing. For Israel, on the other hand, it is the conquered and occupied status quo post-1967, or nothing.

If no peace plan is possible, can there ever be a lasting ceasefire at least between Israel and Hamas over Gaza? Hamas says yes – but only if the blockade is lifted. Israel will not lift it until the rockets and tunnels are gone.

Neither side can sustain the current bloodshed, nor indefinitely withstand the mounting international condemnation. At the very least, Hamas will end the conflict weakened because it staked everything on pointless rocket attacks, while a further stigmatised and disapproved-of Israel will have to go on attacking Gaza every few years.

Meanwhile, new tunnels and new rockets will continue to be built and launched until some settlement is achieved.

As things stand, any such settlement will now almost certainly be based on an expanded Israeli state, with a few “independent” Palestinian municipalities surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements, walls and roads. These areas will probably have no economic viability, and will remain dependent on Israel.

All of Palestine knows this is now the outlook. Fatah will sign up; Hamas says it will not – and that’s why Israel and the West want rid of it.

For better or worse (and right now, very much for worse), Hamas attracts a great deal of Palestinian support because it tried, unsuccessfully, very dirtily and at a terrible cost, to stand and fight.


Next, read: Israel’s stated aims in Gaza make no sense – and cannot secure a just future