There are three major types of symbioses in nature: mutualism, in which both sides benefit; commensalism, in which one side benefits and the other remains unharmed; and parasitism, in which one side feeds off the other and at its expense. In the turbulent, belligerent but nonetheless symbiotic relations between Israel and Hamas, all three types have been observed.
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It was Israel that allowed Sheikh Ahmed Yassin to unite and to galvanize the separate Muslim Brotherhood branches of the West Bank and Gaza following the Six Day War. It was Israel that viewed Yassin in the 1970’s as a benign spiritual leader and let him establish religious, social and organizational foundations as a counterweight to the secular nationalism of the PLO. It was then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, actually, who not only met with leaders of Hamas but also turned a blind eye to its formal founding, a few days after the outbreak of the First Intifada, when Israel thought it could divide and thus rule the feuding Palestinian factions.
And Israel was just as effective in propping up Hamas when it was actually trying to destroy it. It was Rabin’s 1992 deportation of 415 Hamas operatives to south Lebanon that united the movement’s leadership, brought it international prominence and first exposed it to the Hezbollah brand of jihadist martyrdom that was to become its suicidal hallmark. It was the Mossad’s botched 1997 assassination attempt in Amman that catapulted Khaled Mashal to Palestinian stardom and returned Yassin to Gaza as a hero. And it was Ariel Sharon’ s decision to refrain from coordinating the 2005 Gaza disengagement with the PLO that positioned Hamas to win the 2006 elections – courtesy of George W. Bush - and to take it over by force shortly thereafter.
And the relations were never simple or only one-sided. Shimon Peres’ January 1996 approval of the assassination of the “engineer” Yahiya Abu Ayyash prompted Hamas to launch a deadly wave of suicide bombings that paved the way for Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarkable victory in the May 1996 elections. Netanyahu, in turn, derailed the Oslo Accords and antagonized Palestinian public opinion, thus strengthening Hamas at a crucial juncture in its relationship with its new arch-rival, the Palestinian Authority.
The same can be said of Operation Summer Rains, which Israel launched in of 2006 in an effort to find the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit but which actually achieved the opposite effect: it raised the price for his release and fortified Hamas in the process. By the same token, the October 2011 exchange of Shalit in exchange for 1027 Palestinian prisoners was a coup for Hamas and a loss of face for Fatah, but also a boon for Netanyahu: His popularity soared while the protests against his social policies receded to the background in the public’s consciousness.
Operation Protective Edge appears to be following the exact same pattern. Prior to the kidnapping of the three youths near Hebron, Hamas was at a historic low point, ostracized and isolated in the wake of the upheaval in Egypt and the civil war in Syria. But much as the Oslo Accords salvaged the PLO from the doldrums of its support for Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, Israel’s massive reaction to the kidnapping and to the trickle of rockets fired by non-Hamas players in Gaza has returned Hamas to the central stage from which it was only recently evicted. The Israeli bombing raids on Gaza and the casualties inflicted on its civilian population have cast Hamas once again as the main pillar of resistance against the evil Zionists and placed them in perfect position to play hard to get in the upcoming efforts led by Secretary of State John Kerry to broker a cease fire.
Contrary to what Israeli spokesmen have been saying in recent days – possibly in order to convince themselves – both a cease-fire and a limited ground operation won’t see Hamas weakened or humiliated, but rather strengthened and victorious, at least by twisted local standards in which weakness is strength and the death of innocents only makes you stronger. The only way to avoid such a scenario would be if Israel decided to “cut off the head of the snake” by eliminating Hamas’ military and political leadership altogether, as some, including former Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, have suggested. Netanyahu, however, is reluctant to undertake such a costly undertaking, which would exact a steep price in Israeli lives and could place Israel under the immense international pressure that it has hitherto avoided.
If he were an ambitious man, Netanyahu might consider handing over a Hamas-less Gaza to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but such a bold and risky move, even if successful, would likely increase pressure on Netanyahu to achieve the two-state solution that seems to have lost whatever support he once gave it. Barring that, the prospects of a Gaza without Hamas are bleak indeed: Either the Israeli army will have to reinstate the occupation, or Gaza will descend into chaos and fall prey to ISIS-type gangs and militias.
The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, as Robert Burns once wrote, but in the antagonistic relations between Israel and Hamas, replace “often” with “always”: The law of unintended consequences appears, in this case, to be an axiom. Thus, there’s no blaming obsessive conspiracy theorists who might deduce that such a long series of outcomes could hardly be coincidental and who are convinced that Israel and Hamas are collaborating once again in an intricate Machiavellian plot in which both sides have learned to excel, to their apparent mutual benefit.