How Hamas Acts as Israel's De Facto Partner in Gaza

The distinction Israel has made in recent years between Hamas and other organizations creates a hierarchy that places Hamas as the only party with which Israel is willing to do business

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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File photo: Hamas militants at a funeral in Gaza, May 2018.
File photo: Hamas militants at a funeral in Gaza, May 2018.Credit: \ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

When Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatens to topple Hamas, the walls should shake, and not with laughter. The last thing we need is for this threat to become real and for it really to be possible with a few targeted assassinations to kill off the organization’s leaders. Because doing so would have two terrifying consequences.

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First, Israel would have to reoccupy Gaza and manage the world’s largest and most densely crowded refugee camp, supply water, electricity, medical and educational services to the two million civilians there, allocate billions from its budget and bear direct responsibility for any civil activity. Second, the Israel Defense Forces would find itself facing an array of local terrorist militias that operate without coordination and without a united leadership, unlike the current leadership that is still ready to take responsibility for security, even if it at times falls short.

This would be the type of occupation from which the United States fled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from which Israel extricated itself after 18 years in Lebanon. Fortunately for Israel, it could still occupy Gaza the way it occupies the West Bank – an occupation that is done in part via an emissary. In the West Bank this is the Palestinian Authority and in Gaza it’s Hamas. In both cases, Israel is exempt from direct management, from paying huge sums at the Israeli taxpayer’s expense for the sake of the occupied residents, and in Gaza it is also free from legal responsibility.

In Gaza and the West Bank, Israel enjoys a deluxe occupation. But unlike with the West Bank, where the theoretical threat of a “peace process” still hovers, Hamas also frees Israel from having to deal with this nuisance. Hamas does not recognize Israel, it has no interest in diplomatic negotiations with it, its demand that Israel withdraw from all territories does not come with any promises of a diplomatic or military gain, and so this demand serves no purpose.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on May 6, 2018.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on May 6, 2018.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Because of its diplomatic and economic weakness, Hamas is forced to accede to the dictates of Egypt, which maintains a brutal blockade of Gaza on a par with Israel’s. Paradoxically, because of the close ties between Egypt and Israel, Hamas finds itself trapped in a security coordination with Israel, just like the Palestinian Authority. This can be seen in the occasional assessments that high-ranking IDF officers provide the government and the media, saying that Hamas is or is not interested in turning up the heat at the moment. The Israeli consideration of Hamas’ rational interests and the coordination of the Israeli response to the organization’s purported interests amounts to a dialogue between partner-rivals, with each side intimately familiar with the other’s thought processes and responding accordingly.

The distinction Israel has made in recent years between Hamas and other organizations like Islamic Jihad and the Salafi groups, and the policy of holding Hamas solely accountable creates a governmental hierarchy that places Hamas in the position of a recognized government, the only party with which Israel is willing to do business. And there is plenty of business to be done: Negotiations for the return of the missing men and the bodies of the soldiers held in Gaza; cease-fire agreements, border openings and closings (on the Israel and Egyptian sides), granting transit permits to Egypt and Israel, overseeing the transfer of construction materials, and Israeli pressure on the PA to transfer designated funds to Gaza, even when they are certain to fall into Hamas’ hands.

The rehabilitation of Gaza will not be accomplished without Hamas’ cooperation, and the easing of conditions that the IDF wants to grant Gazans cannot go ahead without a nod from Hamas. Lieberman is lying to the public when he promises to bring down the Hamas government, because unlike some of his vociferous colleagues, he is well aware of the benefits that Israel reaps from Hamas being in power. Just as Israel recognizes that there is no alternative to Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, it knows that Hamas is the only option right now for ruling the dangerous prison that is Gaza. Whoever wants to get rid of Hamas should first explain who he would put in its place.