The Middle East Channel

Hurting Hamas helps it

A year ago, Hamas's strategic realignment away from Syria and Iran and closer to emerging regional powers like Qatar and Egypt increased the organization's regional standing while partially alleviating the economic pressure on the group and on Gaza. Today, in an ironic twist of fate, initial celebrations have gradually turned sour as Hamas stands alone, isolated and vulnerable.

With the imminent resumption of political negotiations between Israel and Palestine, it would seem a perfect time for the international community to further cripple the organization and undermine its grip on Gaza. Prominent analysts have indeed urged the United States to pressure Hamas's main financial backers -- including the Palestinian Authority (PA), Turkey, and Qatar -- to cut back on funding. These measures, combined with Egypt's increased border restrictions and with the ongoing campaign to crack down on underground tunnels, could place significant financial pressure on Hamas (and Gaza with its over 1.5 million residents). Those who support this strategy argue that it would severely undermine Hamas's capacity to govern, while encouraging people in Gaza to get rid of the Palestinian Islamist group.

But implementing yet another policy of "suffocation" of Hamas is misguided and can easily backfire. 

Weakening Hamas through economic pressure and political isolation has been attempted in the past, with disastrous results. In the aftermath of Hamas's electoral victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections the United States -- in a remarkable 180 degree turn on its proclaimed "democracy promotion" agenda -- worked in tandem with Israel to undermine Hamas, by encouraging Fatah to shy away from collaborating with the newly elected government and by cutting direct funding. That policy failed to turn all Palestinians against Hamas, but managed to turn them against each other, creating a toxic, unstable, and polarized climate. Eventually this led to an internal conflict between Fatah and Hamas supporters in the Gaza Strip. The result, ironically, was to deliver Gaza to Hamas, creating a de facto political and geographical separation between the West Bank and the Strip.

Following the Hamas takeover, the international community (led by Israel, the United States, and the EU) strengthened further its policy of non-recognition of Hamas and isolation of Gaza. By diverting financial assistance away from Gaza and pouring it into the West Bank through the presidency, the main strategy implemented to deal with Hamas was what a senior Israeli official tellingly defined as the "no prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis" policy. Aimed at depriving the Hamas government of the badly needed funds to govern the Strip, the policy sought to weaken Hamas's grip on Gaza, while creating the conditions for wide-scale frustration on the ground. The not-so-hidden agenda was to ensure Hamas would fail as a government, and that Palestinians in Gaza would rise up to overthrow it.

Simply put: that policy failed.

The crippling restrictions on Gaza (including blocking assistance and severely restricting inward and outward flows of goods and people) have led to a dire humanitarian situation for ordinary residents of the Strip, but did nothing to weaken Hamas. To the contrary, with public workers on the PA-payroll prevented from working in the Hamas government, the organization was able to recruit its own personnel and to place Hamas members or Hamas sympathizers in key positions of power. Accordingly, the group now controls all institutional aspects of life in Gaza, from the local municipalities, to the security sector, to the judicial apparatus, to the main ministries and government institutions.

What is more, the international restrictions furthered dependence, which in turn also helped to strengthen Hamas's internal control. The average citizen of Gaza -- impoverished by the restrictions and in need of assistance -- became more dependent on Hamas, its government, and its welfare system. This is especially the case as import and export restrictions crippled the already modest private sector; for example, of the total 3,900 factories in the Strip, less than 200 were estimated to be fully operational by 2008, contributing to inflate the level of unemployment, which in 2009 was estimated at 41.5 percent. While weakening the private sector, restrictions on Gaza also contributed to the flourishing of the Hamas-controlled tunnel economy, further strengthening Hamas's grip. In addition, the "no development" strategy also provided Hamas with a solid explanation as to why its electoral promises had not been fulfilled, thus helping the group in deflecting public criticism.

In other words, attempts to cripple Hamas by punishing Gaza have backfired in the past, with the closure strengthening Hamas's control on the Strip, and with the restrictions deepening ordinary citizens' dependence on the organization. Why would the same policy work now?

In addition, decisively working to dry up Hamas's sources of funding -- which would indeed amount to deliberately creating a humanitarian crisis in Gaza (and it is hard to refrain from noting this would de facto constitute an internationally proscribed form of collective punishment) -- could lead to a number of additional negative outcomes.

Firstly, with Hamas currently struggling to reposition itself after the downfall of Mohamed Morsi's government in Egypt and the likely retreat in Qatar's foreign policy, attempting to further sever the group's links with other regional actors could very well encourage those Hamas leaders, like Gaza-based Mahmud Al-Zahhar, who would like to rekindle the group's relations with Iran.

Secondly, in the context of the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, aggressively isolating Hamas could push it to resume armed struggle and to act as the de facto spoiler of the negotiations. Indeed, a look at Hamas's behavior in the post-2007 years shows that the group is extremely interested in preserving control over Gaza and that it is willing and able to observe periods of quiet when it perceives that such moves will assist it in strengthening its power. To the contrary, cornering the group may make Hamas feel it has nothing to lose and push it to act in an unrestrained way.

Finally, if we can agree that a successful negotiation between Israel and Palestine should deliver a viable Palestinian state, then it is absolutely clear that deepening the already dire economic disparities between the Gaza -- whose real GDP per capita dropped from 89 to 43 percent of the West Bank's between 2006 and 2009 -- and the West Bank is an absolute disaster.

For all these reasons, attempting to engineer a coup in Gaza by financially pressuring Hamas is an extremely risky and misguided policy. Instead, the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should provide the U.S. administration the chance to push Israel to fulfill the terms of the December 2012 cease-fire, which openly referred to the need to move toward "opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents' free movements." Since isolation has not been working for the past six years, is it not time to try something new, like (re)integration?

Benedetta Berti a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University and the author of Armed Political Organizations (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) @benedettabertiw.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Morsi accused of plotting with Hamas ahead of massive rallies in Egypt

The Egyptian army announced it is detaining ousted President Mohamed Morsi over alleged links with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in connection with his escape, along with other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, from prison in 2011 during the revolution, which saw the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. In addition to conspiring with Hamas, the army is holding Morsi for allegedly killing prisoners and officers, as well as kidnapping officers and soldiers, and setting fire to the prison. A top Egyptian court ordered Friday that Morsi be held for 15 days pending an investigation. Morsi has been detained at an undisclosed location since his removal from office on July 3. The judicial order was issued ahead of planned major rival protests for Friday. Earlier in the week, army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called for Egyptians to take to the streets to show support for a military mandate to stop "violence and terrorism." Meanwhile, after receiving a legal opinion from lawyers, the U.S. administration has concluded it is not legally required to determine whether the Egyptian military's ouster of President Mohamed Morsi was a coup. If the United States were to designate the events as such, it would be legally required to halt financial assistance to Egypt, a move the administration is concerned could further destabilize the country. A senior official remarked, "The law does not require us to make a formal determination as to whether a coup took place, and it is not in our national interest to make such a determination."

Syria

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that over 100,000 people have been killed in the nearing two and a half year long conflict in Syria. Ban told the United Nations it is "imperative to have a peace conference in Geneva as soon as possible." Additionally, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated the Obama administration's commitment to a long-delayed peace conference. Later Thursday, Kerry met with senior members of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, which pushed for the committed delivery of military support from the United States. The National Coalition also announced Thursday it will meet on August 3 and 4 in Istanbul for discussions on forming a provisional government hoping to "strengthen" the group's position. Meanwhile, Syrian opposition fighters have reportedly overtaken multiple Syrian regime positions in the north and south of the country. According to activists, rebel fighters killed over 150 soldiers in Khan al-Assal on Monday and Tuesday. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 51 of the soldiers and officers were executed.

Headlines

  • Tunisia's unions have called for a general strike for Friday in protest of the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahimi in Tunis Thursday, the second Popular Front politician to be killed in less than six months.
  • The U.S. announced the easing of sanctions on medical equipment and humanitarian aid on Iran in a move seen by many analysts as a good will gesture ahead of President-elect Rowhani's entering office.
  • An estimated 28 people were killed in attacks across Iraq on Thursday, the deadliest of which was a car bombing in a busy market in Muqdadiya, about 50 miles northeast of Baghdad.

Arguments and Analysis

'"Combating Terrorism" Does Not Justify an Extralegal Mandate' (Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies)

"The undersigned rights organizations express their grave concern over the statement made by the Minister of Defense, on behalf of both the armed forces and the police, calling on the Egyptian people to grant him a mandate to 'combat terrorism'.  The most prominent causes for concern over this statement are as follows:

-Current Egyptian legislation includes provisions which clearly criminalize all acts of terrorism.  Not only is Egyptian law sufficient in this area, but some of these laws exceed the legitimate grounds for combating terrorism by criminalizing acts which should be protected as forms of freedom of expression.

-Even if loopholes were to be found in the laws currently in place, addressing the matter would not require a 'popular' mandate allowing the army and the police to act outside the law.  Rather, the matter should be dealt with by reinforcing the rule of law.  This could be achieved by the interim president -- who holds broad exceptional powers -- issuing the appropriate legal amendments after consulting with the vice president, the prime minister, and legal and rights experts."

'Special Report: How the Muslim Brotherhood Lost Egypt' (Edmund Blair, Paul Taylor, and Tom Perry, Reuters)

"Exactly when the military decided it would overthrow Mursi is disputed. Senior officers said that General Sisi, up until the last day of his ultimatum for the president to accept a power-sharing agreement, continued to hope Mursi would agree to call a referendum on the continuation of his rule. That would have given a constitutional fig-leaf to his departure.

A senior army colonel said the military had acted to save the country from civil war. 'This has nothing to do with the army wanting power, but with the people wanting the army to be involved. They trust us, you know, because we will always be with the Egyptian people, not with a person or a regime,' he said.

The military now faces the same conundrum it failed to solve in 2011-12: how to make Egypt work without taking responsibility, and hence unpopularity, for painful reforms?

In their first temporary stint in power, the generals presided over a period of economic stagnation, unabated human rights abuses and scant reform. They seemed almost relieved to hand the poison chalice to Mursi upon his election, even though they did not trust the Brotherhood with all the levers of power.

This time, it's different, said the colonel. The army will not govern and there will be a short, sharp transition to elected civilian government. Yet despite a sudden infusion of $12 billion in Saudi, UAE and Kuwaiti aid, the starting conditions look worse than for the previous period of military rule."

'Syrian refugees: no way home' (Editorial, The Guardian)

"In parts of Turkey, Syrian refugee families are having more babies and sending more children to school than the locals, in admittedly sparsely populated border regions. In Egypt, middle-class refugees who made it to Cairo and other cities face a prejudice which is a consequence of Egypt's own political divisions rather than anything they have done. It is not that arrangements in the host countries are ungenerous, or that international organisations such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have not done a decent job.

Rather it is that life in this sort of exile, pushed out of one society and held at arms length by another, is inherently miserable. People may not starve but they have no employment or status, and while personal security is better, it is far from perfect. Refugees, however, are not just victims. They can also in time become actors in the societies to which they have moved. Lebanon learned that when Palestinian refugees started to play a role, often an aggressive one, in the country's politics, a process which helped bring on a terrible civil war. Now Lebanon is looking after 600,000 Syrians and the strain is telling.

Who can say how the vexed relations between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon or between moderate Sunnis and Islamists will be affected by this influx? In Jordan, there are similar memories of how the clashes with the PLO led to a traumatic internal war. The parallels are of course incomplete, but they are a reminder that refugees rarely turn their backs on the conflict that displaced them."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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