Opinion

Will Hamas Really Give Up Its Armed 'Resistance'?

As Rami Hamdallah takes over Gaza, Hamas will insist, like Hezbollah, its militants are synonymous with the Palestinian struggle. Can the Palestinian Authority really assert its authority over Hamas' shadow parallel state?

Palestinian Hamas militants, Gaza City. July 21, 2017
Like Hezbollah, Hamas insists its armed 'resistance' to be synonymous with the Palestinian struggle: Palestinian Hamas militants, Gaza City. July 21, 2017 MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

As Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah crosses over into Gaza, there's distrust, if not apathy, to the renewed attempts at Palestinian reconciliation. So many failures and false promises have bolstered an immunity to the rhetoric of new dawns  - and not only among the beleaguered population, but also its leadership.

On both sides of the Hamas - Fatah divide, Palestinians are watching the other with extreme caution and skepticism, gambling on the other's future failure to fulfil their expected administrative and political responsibilities and consequently to bear the full share of blame.

Hamas, albeit declaring rhetorical seriousness and dedication to the process, remains encumbered with internal divisions and financial crises that challenge not only the success of reconciliation, but also threaten the movement’s survival.

Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah waves upon his arrival with his government ministers to take control of Gaza from the Islamist Hamas group, in the northern Gaza Strip October 2, 2017
MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

Unifying Hamas' leaders, despite their conflicting positions, is what they see as an insurance plan in the case of reconciliation failure. They believe in Egypt's assurance of opening borders and progressing bilateral relations with Gaza even in the case of a breakdown in a unity government.

Hamas hasn't come to this point by choice: It has been compelled into this political maneuver. The move towards Fatah is a way of sharing the burden of Gazans' disaffection and criticisms of the Hamas administration with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.

Recent tensions in Gaza indicated a social explosion was imminent. Its Consultative Council recently debated whether, if the people were to defy Hamas and protest in the streets, Hamas would resort to imposing a general curfew and firing rockets on Israel to break the unpopularity bottleneck.

Nevertheless, the path to break through the entrenched political disputes between Fatah and Hamas is punctuated by substantial obstacles and fundamental differences between the two movements.

Any hope Gazans have in unity as a solution to their suffering is largely neutralized by a long and now institutionalized hostility between Palestinian camps, over the course of which senior officials and whole bureaucracies have become beneficiaries of disunity, strengthening their interest in disabling an internal peace process.

Abbas’s prerequisite – for Hamas to dissolve its Administrative Council - to resume talks and lift sanctions on Gaza - was satisfied. But on the ground, that will make little difference.

A Palestinian man flashes the sign for victory at the Erez crossing in the northern Gaza Strip for the arrival of Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah and his government on October 2, 2017
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

Hamas has always exercised authority through a shadow government, and not the administrative council; Hamas continues to operate a "parallel state." The council’s role was confined to the political harassment of opponents and provocation towards the PA. Thus its dissolution was a purely symbolic price for Hamas to pay.

Yet, some Hamas sources argue that the council was created in the hope of a future process of institutionalizing ties with Egypt and with Mohammed Dahlan, bypassing and disregarding Abbas’s PA. Some Hamas leaders are convinced this is still an option if Abbas pulls out of the reconciliation talks.

At best, as part of a unity deal, Hamas would effectively hand over border controls and the energy ministry to the PA and would abrogate taxes on imports. It would also accept a nominal return of the PA's security forces, while maintaining its own troops. Abbas is likely to go as far as assimilating most of Hamas’ employees into a unified administration.

But the PA's primary concern remains preventing Hamas' reincarnation into a quasi-Hezbollah, a political force that doesn't recognize legal controls over its military resources. This is why Abbas insists on uprooting Hamas' "parallel state" in Gaza, which necessarily means dismantling Hamas’s armory and imposing its own control over all the security forces.

This won't be an easy – or even feasible - process.

For Hamas leaders and for most Gazans, a disarmed Gaza would function as a mirror image of what is perceived as the demeaning life endemic to the West Bank: punctuated by degrading Israeli checkpoints, settler harassment and regular raids on a defenseless population, while the PA’s 'collaborationist' and 'inherently corrupt' security forces police the occupation and any signs of Palestinian counterinsurgency.

That narrative still holds despite the evidence of the past few years when Hamas has been sovereign in Gaza. What has been Hamas' contribution to Palestinian independence? Obsolete apocalyptic slogans and periodic military processions that do more damage to the Palestinian cause than it intimidates Israel, the sight of desperate people parading ineffectually to somebody else’s tune. But Hamas’s "resistance" remains the word that keeps on giving.

That resistance, or al-muqawama, is a crucial source of legitimation and the primary means by which Hamas distinguishes itself rhetorically from the PA. It’s also Hamas’ fundamental asset to remain engaged in Palestinian decision-making and shield itself from criticism by making "The Hamas Resistance" synonymous with the "Palestinian struggle." Therefore, not only will Hamas firmly refuse to have its resistance up for discussion, but it evidently aspires to extend it to the West Bank.

People celebrate as Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah arrives to take control of Gaza from the Islamist Hamas group, in the northern Gaza Strip. October 2, 2017
MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

Any enforced demise of Hamas’ armed resistance would also have the effect of widening the pool for militarized dissent. Those Hamas militants who would gain nothing from the Palestinian reconciliation process would defect to anarchist and unorganized jihadist groups whose sole purpose is to create an even more dangerous and uncontrolled form of unrest.

What does qualify as grounds for slight optimism, besides the lifting of American and Israel vetoes on the reconciliation, are the statements of Hamas’ leader Yahia al-Sinwar that his movement is going to make "shocking and great" compromises in the process of reconciliation that would be strictly monitored by the Egyptian authorities and backed by the United Nations.

For many people in Gaza, hope in unity is confined to the possible opening of its borders and a return to a humane electricity schedule. Yet, the prospects for its youth, who constitute most of Gaza’s population, remain bleak and depressing.

Beyond the PA’s temporary-employment programs that occasionally provide few hundreds with bare-bones subsistence, the local government remains flooded with the "disguised unemployed" and entirely incapable of creating livelihoods for Gaza’s youth. The private sector is far more damaged and Gaza’s compromised economy doesn’t seem to have prospects for growth as long as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn't settled.

Reconciliation, despite being Palestinians' most urgent necessity, remains a dark negotiating room whose exit doors are flung wide open. In Gaza, they're hoping it won't lead to yet another dead end.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was formerly the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2