Slowly but surely, the government and the Israel Defense Forces have begun treating Hamas as a government rather than an organization. For instance, the prime minister announced that he sees Hamas as responsible for all the terror attacks in the Gaza Strip regardless of which organization actually carried them out. That is precisely how previous prime ministers used to talk about Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
In addition, after the terror attack at the Nahal Oz terminal, Israelis began to wonder whether the IDF has lost its power to deter Hamas, a question that a country generally asks about an enemy country with which it wants to have a deterrent balance, not an organization it wants to destroy. Not coincidentally, this is the same question Israel asks about Hezbollah. That's because both Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority lack a real government or central power, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia have, that can take responsibility.
The result is that although they are organizations, both Hamas and Hezbollah can take upon themselves the job of states and threaten Israel. The problem is further compounded by these organizations' ability to complicate the relations between Israel and its neighbors. While Hezbollah can cause a war between Israel and Syria, Hamas is still more dangerous. About three months ago the organization put a gun to Israel's head, bringing on a major crisis in Israel-Egypt ties when it breached the Gaza border. Egypt did recover fairly quickly, rebuilding the border and bolstering its forces there, but how will it behave if the breach recurs and it once again finds itself facing thousands of Palestinians flooding into its territory? Will it fire at them? Will it send a few more battalions to the border, thereby violating the Camp David accords?
Both possibilities endanger relations between Egypt and Israel, because even though Egypt is continuing to provide food and medicine to the Palestinians in Gaza and allowing them to cross the border to receive medical care, it sees Israel as directly and exclusively responsible for the situation in Gaza. Thus, the Egyptians feel any Egyptian-Palestinian conflict is rooted in Israel.
In response to threats by Hamas and Islamic Jihad to breach the Gaza-Egypt border again, Egypt tried this weekend to refute Hamas' contention that all its activities are intended to lift the Israeli closure on Gaza. "The declarations by Hamas and Islamic Jihad are astounding," the Egyptian foreign ministry said in a statement. "We do not accept these declarations, and they contravene the effort that Egypt is making to lift the siege and arrive at a lull that will allow the Palestinians in Gaza to return to their normal lives." The Egyptian foreign ministry warned, "Such behavior by Hamas does not serve the Palestinian problem, but rather narrow internal interests" - in other words, it stems from internal Palestinian political problems.
Egypt understands better than Israel that Hamas is not a terrorist organization like those Egypt has been fighting for dozens of years in its own territory. Egypt sees Hamas as a political and diplomatic threat that will only intensify unless an authoritative Palestinian state that can incorporate the group. Egypt also realizes that any political agreement Israel reaches with the PA will not be worth the paper it's printed on unless Hamas takes on its share of the political and financial burden. Moreover, if Hamas is not a partner in the Palestinian state, it will continue to threaten the PA's existence, as well as Egypt's ties with Palestine and Israel.
Israel, for its part, began boycotting Hamas when it refused to recognize the Hamas government, and even rejected ties with the Palestinian unity government in which Hamas was a partner. Israel still considers Hamas to be a terror organization that needs only a major assault to wipe it out.
Israel would do better to wake up. While Hamas is no peace partner, it is integral to "non-warfare," and a Palestinian unity government is necessary for Hamas to carry out that job. Israel already recognizes one part of the government, that of Salam Fayyad, and already treats the other part - Hamas - as though it were a government.
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