ATbar After Annapolis’ failure: The chances of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

After Annapolis’ failure: The chances of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

23/03/2009 | by Baliani, Diego  
The Annapolis conference: big expectations, few outcomes

A superficial review of the conditions in which the Annapolis conference took place may bring us to ask the question, ‘What went wrong?’

At the time of the conference, which was held on 27 November 2007,[1] there seemed to be all the necessary elements for starting successful Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to be concluded with a peace agreement by the end of 2008.

The first element was the unprecedented commitment of the US President, George W. Bush to achieve a peace agreement no later than December 2008:[2] A commitment publicly declared in the Annapolis’ Joint Understanding.[3]

The second element was the declared willingness of the Israeli government led by Ehud Olmert to engage in serious negotiations on all the final status issues with the aim to reach the agreement by the end of 2008.[4]

The third element was that those negotiations were to be held by the most collaborative Palestinian leadership ever seen in history by both the United States and Israel.[5]

Finally, there was the massive high-level attendance of the Arab world to the Annapolis conference including the PNA, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria and the representatives of 9 more Arab countries.[6]

So again, ‘Why was a peace agreement in 2008 beyond reach? Why did the Annapolis peace process end with an Israeli military intervention in the Gaza Strip instead of a peace accord? What will be the consequences of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead on the peace process?’

The provisions of the Annapolis’ Joint Understanding

According to the commitments taken with the Annapolis’ Joint Understanding, The Israelis and the Palestinians agreed ‘to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations’ and to make every effort to conclude a peace accord before the end of 2008.[7] In this respect it seems that vigorous negotiations among the teams led by Tzipi Livni and Ahmed Qurei actually took place during the last year, even if there are few details about their content.[8]

Problems arouse with the commitments required as preconditions to the signing of the final status agreement, i.e. the immediate implementation of the parties’ obligations under the 2003 Road Map sponsored by the Quartet, which aims to a permanent two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.[9]

The Israelis were required to freeze all settlement activities beyond the 1967 borders but the Palestinians as well as Israeli NGOs[10] contends that between December 2007 and November 2008 ‘settlement construction including both housing and infrastructures, continued at an accelerated pace throughout the West Bank, particularly in and around Jerusalem’. [11] Moreover, the Palestinians argue that since the Annapolis conference, ‘Israel has failed to implement any of its Road Map obligations thus far […] with respect to: (1) settlement activity, (2) attacks against Palestinians and their property, (3) internal closures, (4) Jerusalem institutions, and (5) other Road Map obligations’.[12]

The Palestinians were required to immediately cease all violent activities against Israelis and to dismantle all militia infrastructures present in the Palestinian territories and not belonging to the Palestinian Security Services (PSS). Again, between 2007 and 2008 several Palestinian groups inside the Gaza Strip have been striking inside the Israeli territory with rockets and mortar shells[13] and they also carried out a suicide bombing attack in Dimona on 4 February 2008.[14] Even the short-term lull arrangement (tahdi’a) reached with Hamas on 17 June 2008[15] and enacted on June 19th [16] collapsed after the resumption of hostilities on 4 November 2008.[17]

All this occurred regardless of the efforts spent by both sides during the peace talks. In August 2008, roughly one month before its resignations, Israel’s premier Ehud Olmert proposed an agreement under which Israel was to return up to 93% of the occupied territories and which entailed a withdrawal from some settlements in the West Bank – a proposal promptly rejected by President Abu Mazen.[18] On the Palestinian side President Abu Mazen has started reforming the PSS[19] in order to both reduce the number of the security agencies and favour the replacement of the security commanders by younger officers. He also has launched a campaign aimed at strengthening Fatah’s control over security in the West Bank through successive deployments of the PSS in Nablus,[20] Jenin[21] and Hebron[22].

The answer requires a deeper analysis of the facts on the ground which will led us to conclude that – perhaps – the Annapolis peace process was flawed from the beginning.

The Bush Administration’s engagement

A first flaw was the low effectiveness of the Bush Administration’s effort regardless of the declarations made after the Annapolis conference.

In 2002 whilst the Second Intifada was still going on, President Bush took a tough stance by refusing to talk with the late Yasser Arafat and called for the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership.[23] One year later Bush’s approach was enshrined into the Road Map which required – among other things – the cessation of all violent activities against Israel and the dismantlement of the Palestinian militia infrastructures as preconditions for starting final status negotiations.[24] Nonetheless, it seems that already in 2002 Arafat’s power was waning.[25] After the death of Arafat,[26] The Palestinian leadership of Abu Mazen was left with weakened security services which will subsequently prove unable to guarantee the monopoly on the use of force to the PNA government. In this contest a new and more radical Islamist leadership was slowly emerging both from a political and military point of view – the Hamas leadership. Indeed, since 2002 the Bush Administration had been refusing to talk with President Arafat on the ground that the latter was responsible for the terrorist activities carried out against Israel. The result was a ‘hands-off’ policy[27] towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that contributed to its paralysis and rendered possible or necessary – according to the points of view – the adoption of unilateral solutions by Israel. An example was the 2005 Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip,[28] which left the camp free for the subsequent Hamas’ military takeover.[29]

According to media accounts, it seems that the Bush Administration was taken by surprise by Hamas’ victory of the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. The US and the other countries of the Quartet reacted quickly by applying a tough approach. On 30 January 2006, the Quartet declared that any future assistance to the new government would be conditioned to its acceptance of three principles: renounce to violence, recognition of Israel, and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations.[30] As a consequence; When the Hamas’ government was sworn in on 17 March 2006 and refused to recognize Israel, the international community immediately adopted political and economic sanctions against it.[31]

If this assessment is correct the decision to hold the Annapolis conference and to promote a peace agreement by the end of 2008 was a big switch in US policy but the time was running against it. The facts on the ground had changed already. The Israeli government led by Kadima was not strong enough to engage in a final status agreement and Abu Mazen could not decide for the people of the Gaza Strip anymore.

Moreover, the shadow of Iran was looming large on the Annapolis conference. The concern among Sunni Arab countries for the rising Iranian power status in the Middle East[32] as well as the need to approach Syria in order to weaken the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah-Hamas alliance[33] may help to explain the large Arab participation in a summit that looked flawed from the beginning.

The weakness of Olmert’s government

A second problem was the inner weakness of Olmert’s government, due to the fragmentation and polarization of Israel’s political system. Kadima and the Labour Party engaged in the peace process but together they could count only on a majority of 48 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, which felt short of the 61 seats required for forming a government. That means that they had to form a coalition with three more parties – Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu and Gil – who were much less committed to the peace process. On January 2008, soon after the Annapolis conference Yisrael Beiteinu dealt a first blow to the peace process by withdrawing its 11 lawmakers from the ruling coalition.[34] A second blow was dealt by Gil’s split on 2 June 2008, which caused a further loss of 3 lawmakers for the ruling coalition.[35] From then on Olmert’s government was supported by only 64 lawmakers and Shas enjoyed a veto power over the peace process, thanks to its 12 lawmakers. Shas adopted an uncompromising stance over the key issue of Jerusalem,[36] but its request to not divide Jerusalem could not be accepted by the Palestinians and seriously undermined the outcome of the negotiations.[37]

The inner weakness of Israel’s current political system runs against the peace process in light of the Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip. Only a strong Israeli government can negotiate with the PLO while fighting an asymmetric war with Hamas. On the contrary, Olmert’s majority has not been cohesive at all and Hamas could potentially exploit this weakness to torpedo the peace process by strategically-timed attacks against the Israelis. Every time Hamas resumes violence it legitimates the requests for a tougher negotiating stance, or for a suspension of the negotiations coming from those parties inside and outside the ruling coalition that are hostile to the peace process. Thus, a fragmented and polarized ruling coalition gives to the forces, which are hostile to the negotiations, the power to undermine both the stability of the Israeli government and the continuation of the peace process. Without a strong ruling coalition, the next Israeli government may decide to freeze the peace talks in order to focus its efforts toward the most urgent problem, i.e. the asymmetric war against Hamas – given that the top priority will be to counter the threat of a nuclear Iran. This conclusion is based on the assumptions that as long as Hamas do not accept the Quartet preconditions, Israel’s decision-makers will absolutely refuse both to grant political recognition to Hamas government and to recognize Hamas’ leadership as a partner in negotiations. In fact, Israel currently can control both Hamas and Fatah thanks to its military supremacy as well as the ongoing political and geographical division among Palestinians – according to old rule of divide et impera. And this is true also in the absence of a peace accord.

Fitna inside the Palestinian society: The political and military rise of Hamas.

The three phases of the internecine Palestinian struggle:

The third and most important factor has undoubtedly been the rise of Hamas. Like every Islamist movement, Hamas has probably been working on the basis of a clear and long-term strategy not vulnerable to political contingencies (such as the parliamentary elections) and which risks to weaken the Palestinian cause for an independent state for the years to come.[38] Hamas’ movement seems characterized by the following traits: (1) a strong Islamist ideology, (2) a nationalist political agenda limited to the territories of Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank,[39] (3) a strong militia capable of fighting according to the principles of the asymmetric warfare, (4) a da‘wa infrastructure capable of providing assistance to the poorest members of the Palestinian population as well as to the “martyr’s” families and of winning their consensus to the movement’s Islamist ideology and agenda. This structure apparently represents the current backbone of Hamas’ de facto administration in the Gaza Strip and is in contrast to the democratic principles informing the PNA.

During an interview, the late Sheikh Ahmed Yassin allegedly described the four-stages strategy he had followed to build Hamas’ movement: Firstly: The development of the movement’s institutions, such as charities and social committees, in order to recruit the manpower of the “resistance”; Secondly: Strengthening the roots of the “resistance” in every Palestinian house through the armed confrontation against Israel (intifada); Thirdly: The improvement of Hamas’ military capabilities; Finally: The establishment of a dialogue with the Arab and Islamic world.[40]

If this account is confirmed then it is impressive in the way it fits with the history of the internecine struggle for power between Hamas and Fatah, which can be divided into three phases: (1) 1964-1987: Fatah leads the “resistance”; (2) 1987-1993: the competition between Hamas and Fatah for the leadership of the “resistance”; (3) 1993-present: Hamas leads the “resistance”, Fatah leads the peace negotiations with Israel.

The third phase can be divided in three sub-phases: the period from 1993 to 2005 is characterized by Fatah’s political monopoly of the PNA; from 2006 to 2007 there had been a Hamas-Fatah duopoly inside the PNA; finally, Since 2007 there has been a Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip and a Fatah-led government in the West Bank so the Palestinian division has become a geographical reality.

Phase 1 (1964-1987): Fatah leads the “resistance”

In the 1970s whilst Israel was fighting against its future partner in negotiations, i.e. the PLO led by Yasser Arafat and the Fatah leadership, a different Palestinian leadership was sowing the seeds of division (or fitna) inside both the Palestinian society and the Palestinian national movement. It seems that between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s Sheikh Ahmed Yassin had been involved in the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities in Gaza. According to its 1989 confession in front of the Israeli interrogator he founded an Islamic society in 1976 and in 1978 he registered al-Mujama al-Islami in front of the Israeli authorities.[41] During the 1970s it seems that Yassin’s Islamist organization was focused on building its da‘wa infrastructure by providing social, medical, financial, educational and religious assistance to the needy inside the Palestinian Territories. At that time Yassin’s Islamist organization was not engaged in violence, but it was probably using its da‘wa activities in order to win the Palestinian consensus for its Islamist model of Palestinian society – which was in stark contrast with Fatah’s model of secular society.

The simmering clash between this two competing models began to emerge when Shaikh Yassin reportedly started building a militia in the 1980s[42] and became evident in 1987 after the outbreak of the first Intifada, when he announced to the world that Hamas was born[43].

Phase 2 (1987-1993): The competition between Hamas and Fatah for the leadership of the “resistance”

According to the biography released by the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades, in 1986 Salah Shehada was leading a cell called “Palestinian Fighters” (al-Mujahidoon al-Filastinioon).[44] After the outbreak of the first intifada[45] the “Palestinian fighters” started to forge their military capabilities by fighting against Israel’s forces and subsequently formed the Ezzedeen Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing. In 1994, Yahia Ayyash aka the “Engineer” apparently enabled Hamas to carry out its first suicide bombing attack inside Israel, i.e. the Afula Bus bombing.[46]

This event well express the fact that during the intifada Hamas had been gradually improving its military capabilities by developing suicide bombers in order to gain a leading role in the “resistance” to the detriment of Fatah and the PLO. During the same period, Yasser Arafat was gradually abandoning the armed struggle in order to engage in the peace process with Israel.

Indeed, it seems that since the beginning Hamas has been competing against Fatah to win the Palestinian consensus and that the two factions had been cooperating only for brief periods and for the contingent interest of fighting the common Israeli enemy.[47] This competition is symbolized by the disagreement between Hamas and Fatah over who really initiated and led the first intifada, given that each movement claim to be the sole responsible for the outbreak of the uprising. Thus, the emerging role of Hamas inside the “resistance” was alternative rather than complementary to Fatah’s role. During the 1990s, the Fatah-dominated PSS had the upper hand against Hamas and were able to control the Palestinian Territories.[48] Ten years later the power balance was going to shift to the other side.

Phase 3 (1993-present): Hamas leads the “resistance”, Fatah leads the peace process with Israel

Since the 1991 Madrid peace conference, Fatah’s leadership, including inter alia Yasser Arafat (until 2004), Abu Mazen, Ahmed Qurei and Saeb Erekat has been the only negotiating partner of Israel in the peace process.[49] Already in 1988 Yasser Arafat had de facto recognized Israel with the Algiers declaration.[50] In 1991, the Palestinian delegation officially participated at the Madrid conference and agreed to start Israeli-Palestinian bilateral negotiations. Finally, in 1993 Chairman Arafat and Israeli PM Yitzak Rabin recognized each other as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians and the Israelis respectively through an exchange of letters[51] and later signed the Oslo accords.

Nonetheless, in the same period Fatah’s has been gradually losing the leadership – and hence the control – of the Palestinian armed struggle or “resistance” against Israel in favour of Hamas. This development had a far-reaching consequence: The more Hamas was increasing its military strength vis-à-vis Fatah, the less it was willing to accept Fatah’s political leadership of the Palestinian national movement. As a result; in a context in which there are two competing leadership of the Palestinian national movement, Israel currently is negotiating with Fatah while boycotting Hamas.

1993-2005: Fatah’s political monopoly of the PNA

Between 1993 and 1995, Israel agreed to the development of the PNA infrastructures in the Palestinian Territories, which were meant to be a five-year Palestinian interim administration (the Palestinian Council).[52] Finally, Yass3er Arafat became the first President of the PNA, after winning the January 1996 Palestinian election. Between 1993 and 2004, Yasser Arafat had been dominating both the Palestinian national movement and the PNA institutions. Nonetheless, after the outbreak of the second intifada its leadership probably was weakened by several concurrent factors. Firstly: the progressive deterioration of his health condition; Secondly: Arafat’s inability to conclude a peace agreement after almost ten years of negotiations with Israel; Thirdly: the growing rejections of Fatah’s rule among the Palestinians probably motivated by the excessive length of Arafat’s supremacy and the growing perceptions of corruption inside the PNA;[53] Fourthly: the demolition of the very PNA politico-military infrastructures carried out by the IDF between 2001[54] and 2004;[55] Finally: the steady improvement of the capabilities of Hamas’ militia, which since 2001 had started launching rockets against Israel.[56]

In 2005, after the end of the second intifada and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, President Abu Mazen inherited a partially demolished, ineffective PNA and an internally divided Fatah movement.[57] On this basis, he had to manage an electoral campaign against the far more disciplined and cohesive Hamas movement.

2006-2007: The Hamas-Fatah duopoly inside the PNA

Ten years after the first Palestinian elections, the balance of power between Hamas and Fatah was going to switch in favour of the former. In 2006, Hamas won the elections[58] by presenting candidates who had never exercised political power inside the PNA. It is telling that whilst the Fatah list obtained 28 seats against Hamas’ 29 with the proportional system, Fatah candidates were soundly defeated in face-to-face competition against Hamas’ candidates (17 to 45).[59] After the elections, Hamas was controlling the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Government[60] while Fatah was controlling the Presidency, the PSS and the PLO (currently the only recognized Palestinian representation abroad). As a consequence; Between January 2006 and June 2007 the PNA and the Palestinian Territories had been ruled by a duopoly of Fatah-Hamas. Such a duopoly would have required a great deal of cooperation between the two factions in order to successfully manage both the PNA and the peace process with Israel. In the aftermath of Hamas’ electoral victory many analysts were wondering if Hamas was able to abandon the armed struggle and adopt a pragmatic approach in view of its new governmental responsibilities.[61] The question was a legitimate one given that for the first time Hamas had the opportunity to actively participate in the Palestinian government. The first signal was not encouraging. The 12-point political programme presented by Hamas was claiming its legitimate right of resistance to end Israel’s occupation and did not recognize Israel[62], thus disregarding the three Quartet’s preconditions.[63] As a consequence; The PLO rejected it[64] and Israel,[65] the United States and the EU began a political and economical boycott against the PNA as a whole in order to weaken Hamas’ government and coerce it into changing its behaviour or , alternatively, into resignation[66]. Inside the PNA, the cooperation between Hamas and Fatah required to manage it did not materialize. It seems that many Fatah leaders were wary to yield their power to Hamas after ruling for so many years and acted has they had never lost the elections. On the contrary, Hamas was unable to abandon its militant status and acted as it never won the elections.

There is no agreement about the reasons behind the failure of Hamas’ government. A first question is if Hamas was aware of its incoming electoral victory: Some contend that Hamas was not expecting it.[67] Others suggest that Hamas’ leadership knew about it but thanks to the discipline of its members, was able to conduct an operation of deception in order to hide his intentions to the world.[68] A second question relate to the ruling ability of the Hamas leadership. A first explanation could be that Hamas was ready neither to rule the PNA nor to abandon the “resistance”. A second explanation could be that Hamas’ leadership was able to rule, but the combined effect of Fatah’s internal sabotage and the international boycott hindered the action of his government. A third explanation could be that, regardless of its awareness of the coming electoral victory or the sabotage to its action, Hamas’ leadership was simply not interested in ruling the PNA given its Islamist nature and agenda.

In the light of the often contradictory statements released by different Hamas leaders on this point, the only reasonable way to deduce Hamas’ intentions is by observing its everyday behaviour. That is to say that what matters most is the final outcome of Hamas’ internal decision-making process, regardless of the possible different opinions inside its leadership. It is a matter of fact that since 1988 Hamas’ leadership has not repealed the clause of its statute calling for the destruction of Israel. On the contrary in 2006, when it was offered the occasion to abandon the armed struggle and recognize Israel in order to rule the PNA, Hamas was not willing or able to abandon the “resistance” against Israel.[69] On the other side of the coin, it seems also true that since the beginning Hamas’ government has been targeted by both the undeclared sabotage of Fatah and the declared sabotage of Israel, the United States and the EU.

There have been periodical accounts relating to splits inside Hamas’ leadership: Some refer to a split between the allegedly hardline Damascus-based politburo and the allegedly more pragmatic Gaza-based leadership[70]. Other accounts refer to a split between the civilian leadership and the military commanders inside the Gaza Strip, where the former is said to be more flexible and the latter to be unwilling to renounce to the armed struggle.[71] It is not clear if those reports signal a mere difference in opinion or a deeper conflict among pragmatists and hardliners. What is clear is that until 2008 the hardliners were prevailing, regardless of any division that might exist inside the leadership of Hamas.

Before the 2006 elections the rivalry between Fatah and Hamas was one between the PNA and a Palestinian Islamist opposition movement. In 2006, that same rivalry was translated inside the PNA with devastating effects for the functioning of the latter.

Even an analysis of Hamas’ military capabilities seems to confirm that Hamas is not going to abandon the “resistance” soon. Since 1987 Hamas has been improving its military capabilities by adding new deadly weapons to its arsenal, such as suicide bombers in 1994 and rockets in 2001.

During the Hamas-Fatah duopoly of the PNA, which lasted from January 2006 to June 2007, Hamas had been sustaining a vigorous military build-up in the Gaza Strip. In April 2006, Hamas announced the formation of a 3000-strong “Executive Force” with internal security duties.[72] Hamas probably deemed necessary to build its own internal security force in order to avert any possible plot against its rule in Gaza; this fear may have been strengthened by the loyalty of the 12 PSS’ agencies to the rival Fatah as well as the international boycott against Hamas.[73] The emergence of an internal security force loyal to Hamas and independent from the PSS chain of command (but under the control of Hamas’ Interior Minister) threatened the most important source of Fatah’s power – the monopoly on the use of force. As a consequence; Immediately after Hamas had deployed its “Executive Force” in May 2006,[74] President Abu Mazen reacted by massively deploying the PSS in the Gaza Strip.[75] From then on the Palestinian society ruled by the Hamas-Fatah duopoly has been periodically ripped by factional clashes among Hamas and Fatah.[76] Twelve years after the 1995 Dahlan’s crackdown against Hamas, the balance of power had shifted in favour of the latter. In fact, it seems that Hamas new security force was better trained and equipped compared to the PSS in Gaza.[77]

In February 2007 Hamas finally agreed to form a national unity government with Fatah, after an outbreak of intra-Palestinian violence claimed at least 29 lives in January. But the reconciliation was only on the surface.[78] Since 2006 Hamas had been continuing its military build-up and Fatah had been refusing to fully cede power to the former: in June 2007 the seed of division sowed in the weg1970s finally sprout in the Palestinian society.

2007-present: Hamas’ government in the Gaza Strip v. Fatah’ government in the West Bank

With the June 2007 Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip the Fatah-Hamas duopoly became a geographical reality.[79]

Since June 2007 Israel has been adopting a double-track strategy based on dialogue with the Fatah/PLO leadership in the West Bank and the parallel boycott of Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.[80] On 19 September 2007, Israel declared the Gaza Strip a ‘hostile territory’[81] and further increased the pressure on Gaza’s civilian population in order to overthrow the Hamas government.[82]

Fatah’s leadership refused to recognize the new Hamas government, cut off all contacts with Hamas’ leadership,[83] outlawed Hamas’ Executive Force in the Gaza Strip,[84] formed its own government[85] and confronted Hamas in the West Bank.[86] Finally, it started collaborating with Israel and the Quartet, thus obtaining the payment of the Palestinian tax revenues withheld by Israel and the resumption of the foreign financial aid.[87] Apparently, Fatah tacitly approved the international boycott against Hamas in order to weaken the latter and coercing it into returning the control over the Gaza Strip.

During all 2008, Fatah’s leadership had been negotiating a peace agreement that it could not implement in respect of about 1.4 million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. During the same period, Hamas had been building its political, military and social infrastructures in the Gaza Strip despite of the Israeli siege.

Since June 2007, Hamas seemed to be following a strategy based on six main points. Firstly: The continuation of its military build-up with the double objective of tightening its grip on the Gaza Strip and of strengthening the Al-Qassam Brigades. Hamas currently needs a strong militia able to fight an asymmetric war against the IDF as well as to survive a full-scale military invasion of the Gaza Strip.[88] Secondly: The achievement of a tactical lull arrangement with Israel in order to safeguard its infrastructures from IDF’s interventions.[89] A lull involves neither Israel’s recognition nor renouncing to carry out ‘quality operations’ such as the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers.[90] Thirdly: The evasion of the economic sanctions[91] and the development of its civilian infrastructure in the coastal Strip including a government,[92] a da‘wa infrastructure[93] and its own media.[94] Fourthly: The call for a reconciliation dialogue with Fatah in order to obtain from the latter an official recognition of its de facto rule in the Gaza Strip.[95] Finally: The search for partners in the international community in order to remove the boycott on the Gaza Strip and to consolidate its rule. Compared with Yassin’s four-stage strategy described above, Hamas seems to have realized the first three stages and is currently missing only the last one, i.e. reaching out the Arab and Islamic world to obtain political recognition.

It is noteworthy that Hamas currently is negotiating for a new 18 months-long truce that involves neither the recognition of Israel nor the end of the armed struggle. Moreover, Hamas wants to condition the truce to the lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip,[96] a result that would improve the survivability of its government. In this respect Hamas’ stance apparently has not changed since the June 2007 takeover.

The way in which Hamas has been building its administration during 2008 is a third indicator that confirms – at least for now – a political agenda that includes authoritarian and Islamist traits.

At the political level, Hamas has its own government led by Ismail Haniyah whose political program is still unknown – aside from imposing order in the Gaza Strip – and it renounced neither to the armed struggle nor to Israel’s destruction.

On the military level, Hamas has been reinforcing its internal security force called the “Police Force” (the former Executive Force) to tighten its grip on the Gaza Strip. In April 2008, Israel estimated that Hamas’ forces could count on around 20.000 operatives, i.e. 10.000 fighters from the Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades (the military wing of Hamas), 6.000 operatives from the police force and 3-4000 militiamen coming from different Palestinian groups loosely coordinated with the Police Force.[97] It seems that in 2008 the Police Force achieved relevant successes against some powerful clans inside the Gaza Strip. In August the police carried out a successful crackdown against the pro-Fatah Hillis clan[98] and in September they did the same against the Dughmush clan.[99] Apparently, the operation against the Dughmush clan was not limited to law enforcement. The police forces reportedly executed in cold-blood some male members of the family and kneecapped some women.[100]

If this assessment is correct, it is easy to understand why the existence of an ‘Islamist administration’ ruling almost half of the Palestinian population undermined from the beginning the Annapolis process and – rebus sic stantibus – is going to undermine it in the future.

Firstly: Israel currently is negotiating Fatah and is not recognizing Hamas, regardless of the fact that Hamas defeated Fatah in Gaza. As a result; while Ehud Olmert and Abu Mazen were trying to reach a two-state solution at the negotiating table, Hamas was imposing a ‘three-state solution’ on the ground.

Secondly: The analysis of Hamas’ strategy brings to conclude that until 2008 the latter has been following an Islamist agenda which include the armed struggle against Israel. Hamas’ strategy seems to include some tactical lull arrangement to build or recover its forces, but forbids any peace accord.

Thirdly: the Fatah-Hamas rivalry probably is not an incidental phenomenon that can be easily overcome through dialogue. On the contrary, this rivalry seems to be caused by the two different model of society envisioned by their respective leaderships. Hamas is clearly an Islamist movement while today’s Fatah wants a secular and democratic Palestinian state. Hamas strongly criticize Fatah’s corruption and its ‘collaboration’ with the enemy while Fatah as well as many Palestinians reject the idea of an Islamic state ruled according to the shari‘a. This could be one of the reasons that explain why it is so difficult for them to engage in a genuine reconciliation effort. Moreover, given the current Hamas’ military strength, A reconciliation could force Fatah to partially cede power to Hamas inside the Palestinian national movement and institutions.

Finally: The division among Palestinians can be considered part of the wider controversy between the U.S.-Israel alliance (which is currently supporting Fatah) and the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hizbullah alliance. Iran officially supports Hamas at a political level and opposes the Israeli-Palestinian peace process[101], but it denies providing any military aid to Hamas. However, soon after Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip the then Palestinian intelligence chief Tawfiq al-Tirawi accused Iran of providing financial and military aid to Hamas. Tirawi also sustained that Iran had a “big role” in organizing Hamas’ coup in Gaza[102].

One of the possible assessments of Iran intentions could be that the Iranian regime supports Hamas and opposes the Israeli-Palestinian peace process with the aim of gaining a “bargaining cheap” in the eyes of the US Administration. If this assessment will prove correct, then the evolution of the US-Iran relations could also affect Hamas’ approach toward Israel. Iran, Syria and Hizbullah currently are the only official supporters of Hamas. As a consequence; an eventual thaw in the US-Iran relations could also pressure Hamas into softening its stance toward Israel, and vice versa.

The implications of Operation “Cast Lead”

Between 27 December 2008 and 18 January 2009[103] Israel carried out a complex military operation inside the Gaza Strip called Operation Cast Lead. On December 27th, Israel’s Minister of Defence Ehud Barak explained the objectives of the operation in the following terms: (1) dealing a forceful blow to Hamas, (2) fundamentally changing the situation in Gaza and (3) the cessation of attacks against Israeli citizens in Southern Israel[104].

The operation inflicted a crushing military defeat to Hamas and provoked extensive damages to the Gaza Strip[105]. The underling assumption of the operation could be that today’s Hamas is susceptible of “strategic deterrence” since it is a movement that has developed political, military, economical and social infrastructures in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, the leadership of pure terrorist, clandestine organizations can not easily be deterred from carrying out attacks: The only way to stop them is by materially preventing their attacks and dismantling their cells. On the contrary, the leadership of a complex movement who owns military as well as civilian infrastructures is susceptible of deterrence since a military strike can damage its political, economical and social interests.

According to the IDF’s assessment, Operation Cast Lead destroyed roughly 1,200 rockets[106] (one third of Hamas’ estimated rocket arsenal) and killed around 700 militiamen. There is no consensus over the number of Hamas’ militiamen killed[107], but even accepting the IDF’s assessment the conclusion is that they destroyed no more than 2.8% of Hamas’ estimated forces. In addiction, the IDF targeted several Hamas’ political, military, educational and religious infrastructures. Even if Israel carefully explained that the operation’s target was Hamas and not the Palestinian population, the outcome of Operation Cast Lead has been that the Gaza Strip population as whole has paid the price for Hamas policy vis-à-vis Israel. On this basis, it is to be seen if Operation Cast Lead has succeeded in establishing an effective deterrence both on the tactical and the strategic level.

A preliminary assessment could be that the operation may have established a temporary ‘tactical deterrence’ against Hamas ‘quality operations’ (such as the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers) and the launch of rockets.[108] It seems that Hamas is not willing to provoke another Israeli punitive expedition and rather prefers to negotiate an 18 months truce. Moreover, in a rare statement Hamas has expressed its objection to the launch of rockets against Israel explaining that this is not the right moment[109].

However, the impact of Operation Cast Lead on the political-strategic level is not clear yet, since Hamas is still ruling the Gaza Strip and did not renounce to the ‘resistance’. The question is, ‘Has Operation Cast Lead managed to impose a “strategic deterrence” that will persuade Hamas to abandon violence against Israel?’ In a move that remembers Hizbullah’s behaviour after the 2006 summer war, Hamas declared ‘victory’ on the same day Operation Cast Lead ended[110]. The statement could indicate that for Hamas “victory” means safeguarding the source of its power (i.e the politico-military leadership and infrastructures inside the Gaza Strip) and maintaining its control on the Gaza Strip – a concept of victory that could be the consequence of Israel’s military supremacy. By controlling the Gaza Strip, Hamas can keep influencing the evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations through strategically-timed attacks and by preventing Fatah from deciding for the Gazan population. Indeed, there are reports on the rising Hamas’ popularity among the Palestinians[111], but it is to be seen if and how long this trend will last in the future.

The imposition of a “strategic deterrence” on Hamas’ leadership seems more difficult compared to Hizbullah’s case: Firstly: the control of the Hamas’ leadership over the military wing is deemed looser and less effective then Hizbullah’s control over its militia; Secondly: if Hamas wants to end violence against Israel, it also needs to rein in several Palestinian armed groups operating in the Gaza Strip such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committee.

Indeed, Hamas’ current willingness to negotiate a truce[112] can be interpreted in two alternative ways: It may be an expedient to gain time in order to recover its forces in the Gaza Strip and to subsequently restart the jihad against Israel. As an alternative, it may be an indication that Operation Cast Lead did manage to persuade the Hamas leadership into a more pragmatic approach toward both Israel and Fatah. On this regard, it is to be noted that the IDF killed several military leaders of Hamas, including two prominent hardliners such as the Ministry of Interior Said Siam[113] and Al-Qassam Brigades’ commander Nizar Ghayan[114]. If a split between pragmatists and hardliners actually exists inside Hamas’ leadership, then Operation Cast Lead may have weakened the hardliners both inside Hamas and in the eyes of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. As for the Hamas leadership; in 2007 Siam and Ghayan reportedly were outspoken opponents of the first Palestinian unity government and their killing may soften Hamas’ stance vis-à-vis Fatah and open a ‘window of opportunity’ for the formation of a second unity government. As for the Palestinians; Between 2006 and 2008, Hamas had been adopting a hardline approach by rejecting the three precondition set by Israel and the Quartet for starting a dialogue. This approach actually succeeded in derailing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and has attracted the political, economical and – according to the U.S. and Israel – also the military support from Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. But after two years it also provoked Israel’s military intervention in the Gaza Strip.

Future scenarios

There are three main factors that will probably affect the evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations in 2009.

The first factor will be the behaviour of the US Administration. On 20 January 2009, the new US President Barak Obama assumed office and Hillary Clinton started to shape the new American Middle East policy. The idea of a new Palestinian Initiative currently has strong supporters in the United States.[115] It is to be seen if and how they will engage in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be greatly influenced by the evolution of the relations between the United States on one side and Iran and Syria on the other in the light of the latter’s alliance with Hamas. An eventual thaw in relations between the United States with both Iran and Syria will probably pressure Hamas to soften its stance vis-à-vis Israel and vice versa.

The second factor will be the outcome of the Israeli elections, which were held on 10 February 2009[116]. Even if Kadima won the elections, the majority of the Israelis voted for rightist parties and President Shimon Peres finally asked Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of Likud to form a new government.[117] Likud officially advocates a tougher stance toward the Palestinians compared to Kadima’s stance. Moreover, the top priority of the next Israeli government will be countering the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Another relevant assessment relates to ‘how’ the elections were won. The election seems to have produced again a fragmented and polarized political system, including twelve political parties. The numbers may allow a national unity government made of three parties, including Likud, Kadima and a third party such as Yisrael Beiteinu or the Labour party (or both, thus forming a four-party coalition). The alternative will probably be a government made of five parties and supported by a narrow majority. According to this second scenario, it will be difficult for Likud to engage in a peace process even if it will want to, given the veto power that its coalition partners will enjoy over the government policies. Only a strong government supported by a cohesive coalition can promote the peace process whilst dealing with Hamas.

The last and the most important factor will be Hamas. After Operation Cast Lead, the three main questions to be answered in 2009 will be, ‘Will the Hamas government survive to the effects of the military operation? And if so, Will Hamas adopt a more pragmatic approach toward Israel and accept the Quartet preconditions for dialogue? Finally, Will there be another Israeli military intervention against Hamas in the Gaza Strip?’

Hamas currently keeps ruling the Gaza Strip and refuses both to abandon violence and to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Moreover, it keeps opposing the peace process and does not recognize the legitimacy of Abu Mazen’s leadership. But even if Hamas currently controls the Gaza Strip, it will not be able to take the West Bank: Israel showed its resolve in undermining Hamas’ rule in Gaza and will not allow a Hamas’ takeover of the West Bank. On his side, Fatah currently is not able to regain the Gaza Strip by itself and it cannot implement any peace agreement involving the Gaza Strip’s population. As a consequence; the division among the Palestinian factions delays the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and is weakening both the Palestinian cause and Abu Mazen’s leadership. The prediction that Hamas would collapse because of the international boycott or Israel’s military intervention has not fulfilled yet since Hamas proved to be extremely resilient.

As a conclusion: the current situation is that Israel and Fatah keep denying political recognition to Hamas and to exclude the latter from the negotiating table; Hamas keeps ruling the Gaza Strip and refuse to recognize Israel. Only a change to one of those conditions will push the peace process forward. Given the current Israel’s strength vis-à-vis both Hamas and Fatah, it is likely that the former will refuse to politically recognize Hamas as long as the latter will reject the Quartet preconditions. Thus, the situation could change if the damage inflicted to the Gaza Strip will lead to one of the following, alternative outcomes: the collapse of the Hamas government in the near future, maybe with the help of a tightening of Egypt’s border controls. Or the imposition by Israel of an effective “strategic deterrence” capable of softening Hamas’ stance and coerce the latter into abandoning violence and recognizing Israel. If none of this outcome will materialize and Hamas will maintain the same policy it has been implementing since 2006 toward Israel, then it is possible that the next Israeli government will decide to carry out another military operation in the Gaza Strip. The same day of the truce Netanyahu said, ‘regrettably the job has not been finished’[118] and ten days later he declared, ‘Sooner or later we’ll need to finish the job in Gaza, and that we will do’.[119] Even if Netanyahu’s declarations probably were motivated by Likud’s electoral needs, they show Likud’s attitude vis-à-vis Hamas.


[1] ‘Israelis, Palestinians agree on framework for peace talks’, CNN (27 November 2007).
[2] ‘Against the odds, Bush moves peace process forward’, CNN (27 November 2007).
[3] For the text of the Annapolis’ Joint Understanding, see The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Joint Understanding Read by President Bush at Annapolis Conference (27 November 2007), retrieved 17 January 2009 from