Jonathan Schanzer is Director of Policy in The Jewish Policy Center. He is an analyst of Middle East affairs and terrorism, with a decade of experience in the field. Before joining the Jewish Policy Center, he was a counterterrorism analyst for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury (more bio here). Schanzer’s new book is HAMAS VS. FATAH, The Struggle For Palestine. This will be our main topic of discussion. Readers are invited to send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here we go:
How does Hamas’ decision not to continue with the cease-fire fit its long-term political goals?
First, Hamas differentiates itself from Fatah by demonstrating its steadfast and unwavering opposition to Israel. Anytime Hamas attacks Israel, whether with rockets or suicide bombings, it reinforces the perception that it is fighting for the “liberation of Palestine.” In other words, violence only strengthens Hamas’ political standing on the Palestinian street, where the majority puts a premium on anti-Israel violence.
It is also important to note that Hamas has used this six-month tahdiyeh (calm or lull, in Arabic) to build up its arsenal. The Islamist group has taken this time off from conflict with Israel to prepare for a war that appears to be underway. Over the last half-year, they have stockpiled katyusha rockets, grad rockets, mines, high-powered sniper rifles, night vision goggles, sophisticated anti-tank missiles, and other Iranian-designed deadly explosives that Hezbollah used effectively against Israel in 2006. They’ve also created an elaborate reinforced bunker system.
So now, if the Israeli military elects to respond to the renewed rocket attacks with incursions into Gaza, the Hamas fighting squads they face will be formidable. Even if the IDF gains and maintains the upper hand, Hamas will almost certainly appear stronger, more dynamic, and more deadly than it ever has in the past. This will undoubtedly help Hamas garner more support on the Palestinian street, and throughout the Arab world.
As I note in my book, violence against Israel is a time-tested way for Hamas to gain popular support.
You write in the book that out of three methods Israel was trying against Hamas – assassination, fence, and withdrawal – only the first two were working. Do you think these methods should be used again now?
While counterterrorism measures never bring an end to attacks, they can undoubtedly encumber the terrorists’ operating environment. This is why I believe assassination, or targeted killing, works. It drives Hamas’ leaders underground. It forces the entire Hamas organization to work in a defensive environment.
Take, for example, Israel’s targeted assassination of Hamas leaders Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, and Ismail Abu Shanab in 2004. With its top leadership eliminated in a span of only a few months, Hamas was in utter disarray. Specifically, after Yassin’s death, Hamas never found a religious leader to fill the void. His death made Hamas increasingly vulnerable to the widely held perception that it was simply a group of violent terrorists with no religious mandate.
The assassinations of Hamas’ top leaders also sparked what might be called a locality crisis. After the deaths of Rantisi and Abu Shanab, Hamas appointed its new leader in secret so that Israel would not be able to assassinate him easily. Meanwhile, the new public face of Hamas became Syria-based Khaled Meshal, who quickly became a liability. The longer the most recognizable Hamas leader was based in Syria, the more potential there was for Hamas to experience friction and fragmentation between local Gaza fighters and the decision makers abroad. This also gave Hamas the unmistakable appearance of being an international terrorist organization rather than a local and organic “resistance” group, as it always purported to be.
The fence, for its part, has worked only partially. Yes, it has stopped suicide bombings. The number of suicide bombings has dropped precipitously. To my knowledge there has been only one such attack in a year – the Dimona attack of February 2008.
However, Hamas has adapted. It realized that it could terrorize Israel with rockets. From behind the safety of the Israeli-made fence, Hamas has launched salvo after salvo of Qassams and other rockets into Israeli civilian populations such as Sderot, Netivot, and Ashkelon. In this way, the fence has backfired.
If and when the Israelis cross back over this fence to neutralize the Hamas threat, it will undoubtedly spark an international outcry. In retrospect, Israel’s defensive measure to prevent suicide bombings has inadvertently created a recognizable border for the Hamas mini-state.
The third method you mention – withdrawal – has failed. The 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip was a clear signal to the Palestinians that violence works, and that Israel’s will can be broken. Indeed, Hamas saw the Israeli retreat as a victory, much as Hezbollah saw the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 as a victory.
Hamas also realized after Israel’s departure that it had an opportunity to conquer a territory controlled by an utterly incompetent Palestinian Authority military. For two years following Israel’s withdrawal, Hamas laid the plans for its June 2007 conquest of Gaza. The fact that Hamas dug a tunnel beneath the Palestinian Authority presidential compound in Gaza City to detonate explosives demonstrates that the Gaza coup was the culmination of many months of planning.
Critics will probably say that your book might give Israel an excuse not to negotiate with the Palestinians “until they resolve their own issues.” Do you really think Israel should wait before it signs any agreements with Fatah, because Hamas might be the winning faction?
Critics can say what they like. The fact remains that there are two non-states run by two non-governments in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. How can Israel cut a deal with one Palestinian entity and not the other, and expect all of the Palestinians to accept it? Such a deal would be mired in controversy from its inception.
Let’s think through this scenario. If Israel strikes a deal with Fatah, Hamas will unquestionably object. The Palestinian street, indeed the entire Muslim world, would debate the legitimacy of such a deal. Hamas would then do its utmost to undermine the deal. This would include attacking Israel from Fatah-controlled territory, as it did throughout the 1990s to undermine the Oslo process. It would also likely launch waves of attacks against Fatah interests in an effort to weaken Fatah’s authority.
But even this scenario is not likely in the first place. What U.S. and Israeli policymakers continue to ignore is that Fatah would be loath to accept a final status agreement as long as Hamas remains in control of Gaza. An agreement with just one Palestinian faction would force the world to adopt two separate and permanent policies toward the Palestinians. This would undermine the Palestinian narrative of a people unified in their desire to gain independence. It would also undermine Fatah’s goal of representing the Palestinian people.
Some policy makers suggest that Israel, the United States, and other Western countries should continue to support Fatah with funds, materiel, and training until it is able to stand on its own again against Hamas. This approach could leave the door open for future talks if and when Fatah gains control.
Those who back this approach assume that Fatah is a moderate organization that eschews violence against Israel. The fact remains, however, that Fatah’s charter still calls for the destruction of the state of Israel.
You address in some length the Hamas-Fatah battle for control – but what about the Hamas-Hamas battle, between those living in the Palestinian territories and those living in neighboring countries? How will this power struggle help shape the future of Hamas and Palestinians?
The power struggle between Hamas’ internal and external leadership undoubtedly complicates things even further. When the external leadership in Syria, Lebanon, or elsewhere gains leverage, so do outside actors, such as Iran. Typically, outside influence only pushes Hamas to adopt a harder line and to carry out more acts of violence.
Ironically, when the external leadership holds more power, it also provides Israel with more leverage against Hamas when pleading its case before members of the international community. Indeed, the more Hamas appears to be an international terrorist organization (rather than a grassroots “resistance” group, as many at the Arab League and the United Nations might argue), the more Israel can push for financial sanctions, tougher diplomacy, or other measures. This is, of course, a bittersweet victory.
I should note here that any time you talk about the external Hamas, you’re essentially talking about individuals under the influence of Iran. Within weeks of the 2007 coup, Fatah intelligence sources were openly accusing Iran of funding and training Hamas. The Palestinian Authority intelligence chief, Tawfiq Tirawi, called the coup “a joint program with Iran.” After all, Iran had openly boasted of bankrolling Hamas after the international community imposed sanctions in 2006. Numerous other reports in recent years made it clear that Hamas fighters were training in Iran.
Iran has gained firm control over the Hamas organization. It views Hamas as a Sunni version of Hezbollah. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are aware of Iran’s growing influence. Many are angry that outsiders have created the sharp and growing divisions in Palestinian society. In one case that I described in my book, Fatah schoolgirls reportedly demonstrated outside of Hamas offices, chanting “Shi’a! Shi’a! Shi’a!” Their demonstration was a bold reference to the fact that Hamas was increasingly subservient to the Mullahs in Iran.
Will Palestinians stand for continued Iranian manipulation? Do they even have the ability to challenge the Mullahs? This remains to be seen.
How can Fatah maintain its control over the West Bank, and how can it recapture Gaza? Should the US and Israel help Fatah?
In its current weakened condition, Fatah can only maintain control of the West Bank through authoritarian rule and the threat of force. After the 2007 Hamas coup that drove them from Gaza, Fatah’s leaders sought to even the score with Hamas in the West Bank. According to Amnesty International, Fatah arrested 1,000 suspected Hamas members in the West Bank between June and October 2007. Fatah also dismantled a number of Hamas-controlled city councils, charities, and businesses. They even torched some of Hamas’ political offices.
With the help of the United States and Israel, Fatah is still rounding up Hamas members throughout the West Bank. There are signs that Fatah’s forces are getting stronger and more capable. However, Israeli and American advisors have publicly and privately stated that they still lack confidence that Fatah can maintain control on its own. Indeed, many fear that Hamas is simply waiting for an opportunity to topple Fatah in the West Bank the way it did in Gaza last year.
As for Gaza, I’m not sure Fatah can retake it. Israel can certainly retake Gaza. It has the strongest military force in the region. If Israel determines that it must reconquer Gaza for national security reasons, military analysts are in broad agreement that it can easily be done.
The question then becomes: What does Israel do with this territory? Few Israelis would want the IDF to remain in Gaza. Some say that once Hamas is defeated, the IDF should hand the Gaza Strip over to Fatah.
In my view, Israel cannot hand over control to Fatah. The residents there would reject it, simply because it would be an Israeli initiative. If it’s good for Israel, the logic goes, it’s not good for the Palestinians.
If Gaza is to ever fall back into the hands of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, Washington and Jerusalem must both quietly strengthen Fatah. They must not take credit for it. If Gaza is to ever be led again by Fatah, residents there must believe that they gained the mantle of leadership in an organic fashion.
A question from a reader:
You denigrate disengagement as a failure, yet as bad as the results have been – Hamas rule, increased rocketing of Sderot and environs – the 38 years of occupation that preceded it were even worse. Prior to disengagement,many, many times more Israelis – soldiers and Gush Katif settlers – were being killed and injured than have been since. The terrorists were celebrating even morethan they are now. And while the rocketing on Sderot wasnt as bad as it is now,it was still plenty bad -thousands a year,causing Israeli deaths, injuries and psychological trauma. And although Hamas wasnt officially in control before disengagement, it was already stronger and more popular than Fatah; the 2006 election and 2007coup just confirmed that. So whilethe results of disengagement have not been good, and certainly not whatIsraelhoped for, how can you say it was a failure when the post-disengagement reality, bad as it is, is much less bad than what went before?
Larry Derfner, Modiin
The Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza is a subject I did not address much in my book. My goal is to focus on the animosity between Hamas and Fatah. My book looks at the devastating impact this internecine conflict has had on the Palestinian people. It is a blunt and stark portrayal of the way the two main Palestinian factions have all but destroyed the Palestinian nationalist movement.
Of course, I have opinions about Israel’s successes and failures in Gaza and the West Bank prior to disengagement. I strongly disagree with Mr. Derfner. He appears to embrace a dangerously selective interpretation of Middle East history.
I find that proponents of “land-for-peace” often choose to ignore the fact that the Palestinians and surrounding Arab states were responsible for countless acts of violence against Israel during the Jordanian and Egyptian occupations of the West Bank and Gaza. Such attacks were, in part, what prompted Israel to conquer these territories in the first place.
From 1948 to 1967, thanks to Yasir Arafat’s Fatah organization, the Palestinian attacks against Israel were just as bad as they were after Israel conquered the disputed territories. For example, I recently interviewed a man who recalled that the Jordanian-occupied West Bank was responsible for daily mortar fire into Israel’s south prior to 1967.
Yes, the Israeli casualties were terrible during Israel’s administrative rule of the territories. But they cannot be blamed on Israel’s decision to control the West Bank or Gaza. The violence against Israel started long before then.
However, Israel’s decision to vacate the territories has undoubtedly backfired. In nearly every instance where Israel ceded territory to the Palestinians, the areas have either become safe havens for terrorist groups, or lawless areas that the Palestinian Authority struggles to control.
Dear Mr. Schanzer,
I understand that the Egyptians are trying to play a role in negotiations between the Palestinian factions. Can you please explain why they do it, and what’s in it for them?
Thank you for your interesting comments,
Though it is a crumbling and corrupt autocracy, Egypt believes it is the leader of the Arab world. Accordingly, there are few Sunni Arab issues that Egypt does not attempt to mediate. This is the primary reason why Egypt is involved in the negotiations between Hamas and Fatah. It’s also important to note that Egypt seeks to demonstrate that it holds more political power than its Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia.
Cairo is also involved in these talks because Washington expects Egypt to take an active role in regional issues, such as the Hamas-Fatah conflict, that impact Middle East security. U.S. taxpayers fork over some $2 billion per year in foreign aid to Cairo so that it fulfills this role.
Egypt, however, has failed. The regime of President Husni Mubarak is unquestionably responsible for much of the current mess. For years now, Egypt has allowed smuggling operations to take place beneath the Philadelphi Corridor. This is what enabled Hamas to amass the weapons it needed to sack Gaza in 2007. Today, these smuggling tunnels continue to supply Hamas with the weapons it needs to maintain control of the Gaza Strip.
Egypt’s weak response to the smuggling tunnels has also enabled Hamas to survive the effects of the international sanctions imposed upon Gaza. The tunnels supply the Hamas economy in the Gaza Strip with everything from cigarettes and car parts to erectile dysfunction pills and fresh cheese.
Readers might recall the crisis of late January 2008, when Egypt stood by as Hamas gunmen destroyed part of the wall separating Gaza from the Sinai Peninsula. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans streamed into Egypt, stocking up on food, supplies, and possibly weapons, effectively negating all international sanctions. Egyptian police watched Gazans cross the border without checking identification.
Mubarak admitted that he ordered his troops to allow Palestinians to cross into Egypt. “I told them to let them come in and eat and buy food and then return them later as long as they were not carrying weapons,” he said.
Finally, after several days of chaos, Egypt’s foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, announced that Egypt would invite delegations from Hamas and Fatah to visit Egypt separately to discuss the border problem, citing an Egyptian effort to “restore the arrangements that existed between Egypt and the Gaza Strip before the Hamas takeover.”
Egypt holds the key to enforcing sanctions against Hamas. If it allows Hamas to arm, attacks against Israel increase, creating an impetus for an Israeli invasion. Thus, depending on its policies along their seven-mile border, Egypt can effectively determine whether Israel and Hamas go to war.
What’s the best outcome Israel can hope for in the current climate and with the limited means it has applied so far in Gaza?
The best outcome is uprooting Hamas.
Israel has all of the means at its disposal to destroy Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The IDF is the strongest, best-trained, and most mechanized military in the region. It can accomplish whatever military goals it establishes for itself. However, the IDF will be hamstrung so long as Israel’s leaders determine that the limited means it has applied in Gaza are sufficient.
Think of Hamas as a dangerous weed that needs to be uprooted. Currently, IDF operations are akin to “weedwacking.” These operations weaken Hamas, but do not uproot it. These limited means will only yield limited results.
Hamas, an organization with the unwavering goal of annihilating Israel, will continue to grow stronger and pose a threat to Israel until Israel determines that it is time to destroy it at its roots. Israel’s decision makers will need to determine whether now is the time, or whether they wish to wait until Hamas poses an even more formidable threat.
Tactics of containment (targeted killing/fence/etc) in no way resolve the problem but only let it fester. Given the demographics of Gaza there surely will be a point in time when such tactics are overcome by a strategic necessity with the populations the doubling time of about 20 years. Would you address that issue, please. Also what ever happened to “Iron Dome”? Thank you.
I believe the demographic “time bomb” may be exaggerated. I refer readers to an excellent piece by Bennett Zimmerman and Michael Wise that appeared in the spring issue of inFOCUS Quarterly (the journal I edit) at http://www.jewishpolicycenter.
In short, the latest Palestinian census reports that there are more than 3.7 Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But, after removing twice-counted people and Palestinians not actually living in the territories, the population there totals no more than 2.7 million people. Indeed, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) appears to be politicizing its data.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that the demographic momentum may have shifted in Israel’s favor. In recent years, Jewish births have grown 40%, while Palestinian Arab births have fallen. Thus, Zimmerman and Wise conclude, Israeli politicians may be making needless concessions.
That said, I believe Israel will still need to move beyond its current short term strategies (targeting killings, fences, etc.), and finally impose its will in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is only getting stronger. The group is stockpiling increasingly sophisticated weapons and learning deadly guerrilla tactics through training in Iran. If Israel does not wish to allow Hamas to get any stronger, it will need to destroy the organization at its roots. This includes destroying key infrastructure, dismantling the dawa (outreach) network, neutralizing its leaders, and other measures. Again, what Israel has done to date can only be seen as temporary, half-hearted solutions.
Iron Dome, new anti-missile hardware, is yet another temporary solution. Simply shooting rockets out of the sky is not a deterrent to those who fire them. We’ve talked about this at Palestinian Rocket Report, an online initiative of the Jewish Policy Center (www.jewishpolicycenter.org/
As Robert Ivker noted at http://www.jewishpolicycenter.
Iron Dome’s target deployment date of 2009 has been pushed back, however. Analysts estimate that it won’t be ready until 2011.
On big problem is cost. The interceptor missile is prohibitively expensive. Each one costs $25,000 or more. Compare this to the $100 cost to build a Qassam, and the cost seems ludicrous. But even if the cost is justified, Iron Dome will not be able to intercept every rocket.
Active missile defense is only a stopgap measure. A large scale operation against Hamas will be ultimately necessary if Israel truly wishes to end the rocket fire.