Punishing Hamas has backfired
Want leverage? Then engage the Islamist regime.
The policy of isolating Hamas and applying sanctions to Gaza has been a predictable failure. Violence to both Gazans and Israelis is rising. Economic conditions are ruinous, generating anger and despair. The credibility of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other pragmatic forces has been grievously damaged. The peace process is in tatters.
Meanwhile, Hamas's hold on the Gaza Strip, purportedly the principal target of the policy, has been strengthened. Since Hamas assumed full control in June 2007 the already-tight sanctions, imposed following the Islamists' January 2006 electoral victory, have been tightened further. Israel – upon which Gazans depend almost entirely for relations with the outside world – even curtailed cross-border passenger and goods traffic.
Israel has hardly been alone. The West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, seeking to undermine Hamas's standing, has done its part to cut off Gaza and prevent the normal functioning of government. Feeble protests aside, the international community has at best been a model of passivity.
The logic behind the policy was that by putting pressure on Hamas, they could prevent rocket launches into Israel. This would demonstrate to the Palestinian people that Hamas could not deliver and ought not be trusted. The hope was that the West Bank, buoyed by economic growth, a loosening of Israeli security measures, not to mention a revived peace process, would serve as an attractive countermodel. But the theory has not delivered on any of these counts.
Within Gaza the debate about whether the sanctions have helped or hurt Hamas's efforts to consolidate power is, for all intents and purposes, over. The Islamist movement has come close to establishing an effective monopoly on the use of force and a near-monopoly on open political activity. It has refashioned the legal and legislative systems. And it enjoys freer rein to shape society through management of the health, education, and religious sectors.
By boycotting the security, judicial, and other government sectors, the Palestinian Authority turned an intended punitive measure into an unintentional gift, creating a vacuum that Hamas has filled. The absence of any international involvement has meant the absence of leverage. The closure of the crossings has caused the private sector to collapse, eroding ordinary citizens' traditional coping mechanisms, increasing their dependence on those who govern, and weakening a constituency traditionally loyal to the Palestinian Authority.
Some will argue that the isolation policy is working because Hamas has lost popularity, which even its leaders acknowledge. But intense public frustration in the Gaza Strip cannot be the measure of success. Gazans may not be satisfied with Hamas, but their anger continues to be directed at Israel and the West, as well as at Fatah, which many see as complicit in the siege.
As the sanctions hit the most vulnerable, Hamas finds ways to finance its rule and invokes the siege to justify its more ruthless practices. Growing poverty and hopelessness are boosting the appeal of jihadi groups, particularly among Gazans under 16 years old, who make up half the population.
It's time to stop digging this hole. Maintaining extreme pressure on Hamas in the hope of undermining its rule or stopping the rockets has gone nowhere. A new direction is needed – one that attempts to stabilize the situation by engaging the movement with the immediate goal of reaching a mutual cease-fire and the opening of Gaza's border crossings.
Of course, Israel has legitimate concerns about a cease-fire, as does the Palestinian Authority about how a shift of direction would affect its credibility. Hamas will not accept an end to hostilities if the closures remain in place. To address these competing interests, the cease-fire should entail reciprocal commitments to stop all attacks, an opening of the crossings that recognizes Hamas's role while restoring a Palestinian Authority presence in Gaza, and a credible international monitoring effort to prevent arms smuggling from Egypt into Gaza.
While the continuation of the current policy may be easier to envision, so are its consequences. The status quo is untenable. Israel cannot be expected to accept rockets targeting its civilians. Hamas will not sit idly by as Gaza is choked.
If current trends continue, we will see increased attacks against Israeli towns and cities as well as the resumption of bombings and attacks inside Israel, like the recent ghastly murder of the eight yeshiva students. Israel will intensify its military incursions, targeted assassinations, and attacks on key installations. And the peace process will vanish entirely, discrediting pragmatic Palestinian leaders. The conflict could then spread to the West Bank or even Lebanon.
Avoiding that worst-case scenario means sharply changing policy course. Engaging Hamas may provide the Islamists with greater international recognition, but acknowledging its role also could mean increasing leverage on it. As it stands, Hamas has nothing to lose. Not surprisingly, it is behaving that way.