Where Hamas Goes From Here

Posted November 26th, 2012 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Ismail Haniya delivers a speech after the conflict in Gaza. (Ahmed Zakot / Courtesy Reuters)

[Originally published in Foreign Affairs.]

Once again, Hamas has been spared from making the difficult political choice that face most resistance movements when they gain power: whether to focus on the fight or to govern. Since it won the Palestinian elections in 2006 and then took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Hamas has been free to pursue a middle course, resisting Israel while blaming its political failures on its cold war with Fatah and on Israel’s blockade. Now Hamas will tout the concessions it won from Israel last week — as part of the ceasefire, Israel agreed to open the border crossings to Gaza, suspend its military operations there, and end targeted killings — as proof that it should not give up fighting. Meanwhile, the outcome should be enough to buy Hamas cover for its poor record of governance and allow it to again defer making tough choices about statehood, negotiations, regional alliances, and military strategy. The group might even be able to use the momentum to supplant Fatah in the West Bank as it has done in Gaza.

Hamas’ recent advance won’t fully mask the organization’s central dilemma, nor will it cover internal rifts about how to solve it. In the American and Israeli media, portrayals of Hamas often focus heavily on the group’s commitment to eliminating the Jewish state. And certainly any fair study of the group should take into account that goal. Yet for Hamas, the end of Israel is more an ideological starting point than a practical program. And what comes after the starting point is unclear: Hamas has never developed a vision of what a resolution short of total victory might look like, nor has it spelled out an agenda for governing its own constituents, despite all these years in power. In part, that is because Hamas is a diffuse and contested movement, whose competing factions all work toward their own self-interest.

Hamas’ top political leadership used to operate out of Damascus but scattered to Cairo, Doha, and other Middle Eastern capitals this year as Syria descended into chaos. Since then, the exiled leadership has clashed publicly with Hamas’ Gaza-based leadership. Khaled Meshal, the organization’s main leader, now based Doha, and his cohort have generally allied with the Sunni Arab states over Iran, welcoming the rise of Islamists in Egypt, in Tunisia, and among the Syrian rebels. Meshal himself has publicly endorsed a truce with Israel based on Israel’s withdrawal to its 1967 borders. The rest of the exile-based leaders have also indicated their willingness to consider a truce, although they say they would consider the deal temporary and would not recognize Israel. Party in response to Hamas’ pragmatism, and partly in acceptance of the reality of the movement’s rising power. Arab leaders finally ended their informal boycott of Gaza, and, in recent months, the emir of Qatar and the prime minister of Egypt paid visits.

Yet the growing stature of Hamas might accentuate, rather than diffuse, the tensions between its exiled chiefs and its Gaza-based leadership. According to Mark Perry, a historian who follows Palestinian politics, Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniya, has endorsed a close relationship with Iran. For his part, Haniya paid a warm visit to Tehran in February, provoking the ire of Arab leaders, who have since given him the cold shoulder, preferring instead to meet with other Hamas leaders. Haniya has expressed no interest in talking about a two state solution and overall, the rest of the Gaza-based leadership has simply grown more uncompromising under the Israeli blockade and now two lopsided wars. It prefers full-throated resistance to any political settlement.

It is unclear whether the differences presage an ideological split or are simply the result of two very different vantage points: inside Gaza, where the leaders have to worry about staying in power, and outside it, where the leaders worry about staying regionally relevant. So far, Hamas has seemed unable to address the issues that divide the two factions, which might explain why the movement has not selected a successor to Meshal, who was supposed to step down this spring. The sides do, of course, have lowest common denominators that hold them together: resistance as the primary avenue to winning Palestinian rights; gaining greater share of Palestinian leadership; and Islamism.

Since Hamas’ creation in 1987, it has tried to match Fatah’s strength. With that goal largely accomplished by 2007, it has moved on to pushing Fatah completely to the sidelines by maintaining a commitment to Islamism and opposition to the Jewish state. By contrast, Fatah has remained secular, and has even agreed to recognize Israel and to conduct an experiment in joint governance with it through the Palestinian Authority. Two decades into the Oslo process, Fatah has little to show for its efforts. Meanwhile, Hamas has not had to face Palestinian voters since 2006. Polling suggests that Palestinians — Gazans in particular — have lost patience with Hamas. But each conflict with Israel gives the movement a new lease on life.

As recently as last week, Israel was describing in breathless terms the latest tepid exploits of the smoky, aging leader of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, who is on the verge of obtaining non-member observer status at the United Nations. Israel’s foreign ministry was reportedly circulating policy options to deal with his gambit that included dismantling the Palestinian Authority and withholding its rightful tax revenues, which would effectively subject the West Bank to the same kind of isolation that Gaza has faced since Hamas took power. That would play directly to the long-term goals shared by Hamas’ leaders in Gaza as well as those in exile: to take over from Fatah the role of primary representative of all Palestinians.

What is more, developments in the region have boosted Hamas’ position. This is not the Middle East of the last war, in 2008-09, when, for the most part, the Arab world stood by as Israel subjected Gaza to overwhelming and disproportionate bombing. That conflict killed 1,387 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Hosni Mubarak’s government in Cairo even assisted the Israeli campaign against Hamas, while the West and Arab world poured money into Fatah’s West Bank government as a counterweight to Hamas. The regional landscape now is entirely different.

Still, despite a warm rhetorical embrace for Hamas, the Egyptian state has yet to significantly change its policy. It hasn’t opened the border with Gaza, nor does it want to do anything that would allow Israel to shift responsibility for Gaza to Egypt. Throughout the cease-fire negotiations, Israel said Egypt would be responsible for keeping the peace. But no matter what Israel says now, the language of the agreement and the reality on the ground make clear that Israel struck a deal with Hamas at Egypt’s insistence, and that Egypt will certainly be no guarantor of Hamas’ behavior. That’s an achievement for the ruling Muslim Brotherhood. As its (and Egypt’s) influence grows, it might be able to promote its preferred exiled Hamas leaders at the expense of the more uncompromising ones in Gaza.

Hamas has other competitors to worry about now. Until the uprisings two years ago, the Middle East’s Islamist movements were mostly on the outside looking in, railing against secular nationalist despots. In fact, Hamas and Hezbollah were the only Islamist movements who could claim to have ascended to power through popular victories at the ballot box. In the pre-uprising Arab world, then, Hamas (like Hezbollah) could plausibly claim some leadership of a regional Islamist movement. No more. The Muslim Brotherhood now governs Egypt. Islamists were elected to power in Tunisia. They have also emerged as power centers in Libya and among the Syrian opposition. Now that Islamists are competing for power in large states, Hamas (and Hezbollah) could shrink to their proper size in terms of influence. This outcome seems even more likely now that Hamas faces a vibrant challenge from jihadi fundamentalists within Gaza who consider Hamas far too moderate.

Hamas has presented itself as a voice for resistance, but as Gaza tries to rebuild and recover from this latest war, the organization will have to grapple with its own authoritarian, corrupt record in power. Its exiled leaders might sound more reasonable to Western ears, but they’re not the ones who actually control territory and manage a government. If it gets what it wants — a central role in Palestinian leadership — Hamas will have to reconcile its own internal factions or else risk a split. On the quickly changing ground of the new Arab politics, Hamas, like other governing movements, will have to articulate an ever-more detailed, constructive program, to convince rather than compel its constituents.

4 Lessons from the Israel-Hamas deal

Posted October 20th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners have been released and Gilad Shalit is home. How will this deal shape regional dynamics in the years to come? I’ve been studying “engagements with hostile non-state actors” for several years (another name for the subject is “talking to terrorists”), and like the many scholars and diplomats who have written on the subject, I have plumbed the yawning crevasse between rhetoric and practice. Western nations don’t talk to groups they’ve designated as terrorists, unless those groups have something they want. Historically, the U.S. and Israel almost always talk to their enemies.

What can we expect as strategic payoff from the Hamas-Israel prisoner exchange?

1. Israel’s enemies know that hostages are their best investment. Hezbollah reaped an asymmetrical deal in 2008 that did wonders to consolidate its power in Lebanon, trading two dead Israeli soldiers for live prisoners and nearly 200 bodies. The Hamas trade values one living captured Israeli as equal to about 1,000 living Palestinian prisoners. Hamas, Hezbollah, and other resistance groups now have every incentive to capture Israelis, dead or alive, and barter them. It’s officially an established tactic. “If one episode of this epic is finished there are others that we will go through till all prisoners are realized,” Hamas said in a statement published on its website. Hezbollah was equally direct, listing three decades of prisoner swaps and declaring, “These deals, along with the accord achieved today, have taught Zionist entity that the Israeli troops are under the reach of resistance heroes, who proved that this enemy doesn’t understand but the language of power.”

2. Force is better than politics at kick-starting negotiations. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have gone nowhere for years. Mahmoud Abbas’ application for statehood was treated almost like a declaration of war. Meanwhile, the Palestinian faction that actually acts like it’s at war with Israel and denies its right to exist extracted a favorable deal for itself after five years of negotiating over its hostage.

3. Corollary: Israel responds to violence. Hamas has argued since 2005 that its rockets and other attacks from Gaza drove Israel to dismantle its settlements there. That argument has an echo in Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 and disastrous battlefield performance against Hezbollah in 2006. Those, like Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who argue for a political rather an armed resistance, will have an even harder time now.

4. Egypt is more a bystander than a player on Israel-Palestine. There was some analytical hot air about the boost this deal will give its brokers in Cairo and Gaza, but let’s be pragmatic. Hamas is in trouble with its constituents in Gaza and the enthusiasm for the deal is unlikely to reverse the steady erosion of the Hamas government’s popularity in the strip. Similarly, the military rulers in Egypt were praised for spurring along the role, but their popularity depends on whether they secure Egypt. If Hamas moves its headquarters from Damascus to Cairo, then Egypt might gain some leverage.

Rather than a breakthrough, this should be perceived as historically continuous with previous deals, including the 2008 release of Samir Quntar to Hezbollah and previous swaps of Israeli corpses for prisoners in 1996, 1998, and 2004. In short, this deal makes quick shrift of the fiction that Israel “doesn’t talk to terrorists,” and it reinforces the conflict dynamic.

(Originally published here in The Atlantic.)

Terrorist Talkers

Posted June 30th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

It’s a banner day for the topic I’ve been researching all spring : What tools beyond direct force can Western government use to engage, modulate or otherwise shape the behavior of listed terrorist groups? I’ve been studying in particular the use of intelligence community contacts, diplomacy, creative government engagement through aid and trade, and Track Two diplomacy (which we might as well call secret negotiations, since almost all of the important initiatives take place with the full knowledge of the governments involved).

In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court ruling on the material support statute, which holds that political advice amounts to assistance for terrorist groups, several advocates of off-line diplomacy have reiterated their arguments for engagement.

First comes Mark Perry, author of the book Talking to Terrorists published earlier this year. He argues that the United States, Europe and Israel gain nothing by boycotting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, because those groups are here to stay and represent large and growing constituencies. Perry broke the story in March that General David Petraeus had told the White House that America’s pro-Israel stance was harming core national interests in the Islamic world. Now, he’s gotten his hands on another CentCom document in which he reports that some military propose that Hamas should be integrated into the Palestinian Authority security forces and Hezbollah into the Lebanese Army. Both groups, the authors of the military memo argue, should receive American military training, even though they’re defined as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. (The officers were on a so-called “Red Team” tasked with challenging assumptions and considering alternative ideas.)

The CENTCOM team directly repudiates Israel’s publicly stated view — that the two movements [Hamas and Hezbollah] are incapable of change and must be confronted with force. The report says that “failing to recognize their separate grievances and objectives will result in continued failure in moderating their behavior.”

Meanwhile, on the op-ed page of The New York Times today, the academics Scott Atran and Robert Axelrod write that informal diplomacy has played a crucial role in convincing terrorist groups to renounce violence and enter politics. They cite historical Track Two negotiations begun by private citizens in the transformation of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Real Irish Republican Army. They also cite their own back-channel conversations with Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which they said have yielded important insights.

Private citizens can talk to leaders who are off limits to policy-makers, and can report their findings; in this instance, Atran and Axelrod write, Islamic Jihad reveals itself as recalcitrant and committed to fighting Israel, whereas a Hamas leader suggested he would consider not just a truce (hudna) but peace (salaam). Atran and Axelrod caution that off-line private diplomacy requires expertise and discretion: “Accuracy requires both skill in listening and exploring, some degree of cultural understanding and, wherever possible, the intellectual distance that scientific data and research afford.”

It’s an uncomfortable truth, but direct interaction with terrorist groups is sometimes indispensable. And even if it turns out that negotiation gets us nowhere with a particular group, talking and listening can help us to better understand why the group wants to fight us, so that we may better fight it. Congress should clarify its counterterrorism laws with an understanding that hindering all informed interaction with terrorist groups will harm both our national security and the prospects for peace in the world’s seemingly intractable conflicts.

Advocates of such talks usually take care not to oversell their potential, given that talking to terrorists rarely yields quick results and frequently yields none at all, except for political fallout when secret talks are leaked. All three of these authors have written publicly about their private conversations with leaders of listed terrorist groups. Their conversations were conceived as part of a concerted effort to convince the groups in question to renounce terrorism and violence and pursue their grievances in a legitimate political forum.

It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court ruling would affect these freelance diplomats, who tend to report their foreign terrorist contacts to the government and conduct their diplomatic experiments more or less with their government’s blessing. But for now American law – and grand strategy – have perhaps intentionally left in a fuzzily defined gray area the question of what kind of engagement best complements national counter-terrorism efforts.

Israel’s New Crisis at Sea

Posted June 22nd, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Writing at The Daily Beast, I look at what the future holds for Israel’s Gaza policy now that the Netanyahu government has decided to relax its blockade. I suspect even more challenges to the current legal arrangement which puts both Israel and Gaza in limbo. Read the whole piece here.

If the Netanyahu government translates Sunday’s statement into a substantially more open border with Gaza, they’ll find the calls for a new approach to Gaza just as shrill as ever—perhaps even more shrill now that Israel has backed down on one element of the blockade. What Gazans object to is that Israel claims to have ended any vestiges of occupation of Gaza when it pulled out the Jewish settlements in 2005—and yet, at the same time Israel retains control of Gaza’s sea and land borders.

That’s the nub of the problem, and not the shortage of foodstuffs and medicines. If Israel resolved Gaza’s humanitarian concerns, the Palestinians in Gaza would still be incensed that they can’t travel, import or export goods without Israel’s permission.

In other words, it’s not the cilantro; it’s the siege that’s the problem

Nonviolence, Hamas Style

Posted June 21st, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Salah al-Bardaweel

Civil disobedience has enjoyed a renaissance among Palestinians, most vividly with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s call for a boycott against Israel rather than armed resistance. (Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss describe the “Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement” in this long essay in The Nation. Matt McAllester theorizes in The Daily Beast about why non-violence has failed to win Palestinian hearts.)

It remains possible that civic and political action will replace rockets and suicide bombings as the weapon of choice for Palestinian activists. So far, though, Hamas doesn’t seem too interested. In conversations I had with Hamas officials during a reporting trip to Gaza in January, I encountered glib jokes and incomprehension rather than any serious engagement with the idea of non-violence.

Hamas had suspended support for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians, but only, officials told me, because such attacks were failing to produce the desired effects – not because they were wrong, illegal or counter-productive.

“There are two paths: the path of Gandhi and the path of Al Qaeda,” Hamas parliamentarian and spokesman Salah al-Bardaweel told me.  When I asked him which one Hamas would take he paused and then said: “Al Q-andhi!” He bellowed with laughter at his joke.

He did add more seriously that “there are many types of resistance,” and that Hamas promoted social, political, and cultural efforts along with its military wing. He pointed out that some groups have splintered from Hamas because they didn’t consider it militant enough. Historically, Bardaweel argued, Palestinian organizations that focused exclusively on politics and culture at the expense of armed struggle lost popular support. “We are a resistance group, but we can’t let military actions spoil our entire political plan,” he said.

At a seminar for junior Hamas officials at the House of Wisdom, a think tank chaired by Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, a group of men in their twenties and thirties scoffed when I asked if they could imagine Hamas adhering to the Geneva Conventions and using the tools of non-violent protest.

One, a mid-level Hamas bureaucrat named Ahmed al-Najjar, didn’t even understand the concept. “Non-violence?” he said to me. “What have we ever accomplished by the throwing stones?”

An American colleague described the tactics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. As the American talked, Najjar leaned over to me and chuckled. “Non-violence in this part of the world is nonsense. What do you want? We should stand in front of the Israelis shouting ‘No, no occupation, go, go, occupation’? Non-violence is nothing. It does not work.”

Hamas’ Tunnel Diplomacy

Posted June 18th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

My letter from Gaza just went up on Foreign Affairs. In the piece, I describe the similar ways that Hamas has responded to economic and political isolation, in one case with tunnels, in the other case with their diplomatic equivalent. The web of tunnels underneath the Gaza-Egypt border turned an economic crisis for Gaza into a new sphere of influence for Hamas. I liken the approach — improvise and then pretend afterwards it was part of a strategic plan — to the way merchants solve problems.

Here’s the thesis:

At first, in 2007, Hamas only tolerated the tunnel economy; but it began to embrace it the following year, legalizing and regulating subterranean trade. Hamas had found a spontaneous solution to the economic crisis that was threatening its rule of Gaza — and, in the process, turned expediency into opportunity.

Opportunism as strategy appears to be the group’s new hallmark. When faced with only bad options to deal with the blockade or its status as a diplomatic pariah, Hamas has behaved as if it chose its predicament, leveraging its position into either greater control over Gaza or greater political influence beyond its boundaries. Desperation, in other words, has become an avenue to power.

Click here to read the whole piece.

A new Hamas book

Posted May 28th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in A Privilege to Die
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I’m looking forward to reading Hamas: The Islamic Resistance Movement, the new book by friend and colleague Steve Farrell, who worked with expert Beverley Milton-Edwards for many years before its release. I’ve learned enormous amounts about Hamas in conversation with Steve, who is an indefatigable shoe-leather reporter and has been covering the region for longer than most of us have even been paying attention.

(Matt Rees reviewed the book on Global Past and kindly mentioned A Privilege to Die.)

Hamas U.

Posted February 28th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

GAZA – Behind the arabesque arches of the five-story university library here, students occupy every available seat, cramming for finals in their humanities classes. Outside, a lucky few nap beneath palm and ficus trees on the cramped urban campus. At lunch, engineering students balance their books upright in the cafeteria and absent-mindedly munch subsidized falafel. This is exam period at the Islamic University of Gaza, charged with the bustle and anxiety of college life.

The first sign that this is a different place from the Western universities it resembles comes when a bell rings in the library. Quickly the students on odd-numbered floors – all men – gather their books and file into the stairwells. Women file in to take their turn. In keeping with a puritanical interpretation of Islamic law, men and women aren’t allowed to study together, so they switch floors every two hours. They lounge in separate student unions and eat in separate cafeterias. At intervals during the day, the call to prayer sounds from the minarets of the campus mosque, and classes come to a halt.

Their strict observance might sound extreme, but the Islamic University is no fringe institution: It’s the top university in Gaza. The majority of students here study secular topics; not all of them are even religious. If you want to get a degree in Gaza, a territory that is home to more than a million people, it’s simply the best place to go.

At the same time, the university is something else again: the brain trust and engine room of Hamas, the Islamist movement that governs Gaza and has been a standard-bearer in the renaissance of radical Islamist militant politics across the Middle East. Thinkers here generate the big ideas that have driven Hamas to power; they have written treatises on Islamic governance, warfare, and justice that serve as the blueprints for the movement’s political and militant platforms. And the university’s goal is even more radical and ambitious than that of Hamas itself, an organization devoted primarily to war against Israel and the pursuit of political power. Its mission is to Islamicize society at every level, with a focus on Gaza but aspirations to influence the entire Islamic world.

In recent decades, as Islamism has grown from a set of isolated radical movements to a fully realized political philosophy, its powerful fusion of intellect, pragmatism, and fundamentalist faith has refashioned societies from the Gulf to Turkey, Egypt to Pakistan. For outsiders who want to understand its power and appeal, the Islamic University of Gaza is probably the best place to begin.

When the Islamic University was founded in 1978, there wasn’t a single institution of higher education in the Gaza Strip. Its founders were members of the militant Muslim Brotherhood, believers that society should be organized according to Koranic principles, and they conceived the university as a sort of greenhouse for their brand of pure, uncompromising Islamism. At the time, Gaza was a freewheeling resort city, its seaside restaurants full of visiting Israelis and Egyptians attracted by Gaza’s famous grilled fish. Secular Palestinians dominated society and the power structure in the 1970s, and scoffed at the prospect of Islamists making inroads. Read the rest of the story in The Boston Globe’s Sunday Ideas section…