On 14 June 2007 Hamas took Fatah’s last stronghold and declared “victory” in the Gaza Strip, ending ten days of heavy fighting among Palestinian factions in which Hamas’ Executive Force overcame the security services loyal to Fatah.
Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, heralded what he called “Gaza’s second liberation”, after Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal from the coastal strip. On the same day, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, announced the execution of Samih al-Madhoun, a prominent military commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and No.1 on Hamas’ most wanted list. Madhoun’s execution was videotaped and made available on YouTube a few days later, probably by Hamas’ own television station, Al-Aqsa TV. The video graphically showed the Fatah militiaman being dragged along and shot by masked gunmen. Hamas’ takeover determined the cessation of Fatah's activities in the Gaza Strip, and the division of the Palestinian Territories into two distinct entities subject to distinct rulers. The Gaza Strip is currently ruled by Hamas’ de facto government, while the West Bank is ruled by Fatah, with the latter enjoying the support of the United States, the European Union and Israel. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas has established an interim government headed by Ismail Haniah, which held its first meeting on June 19th, and is supported by the recently established “Executive Force” militia, as well as by the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. The decision taken by Hamas’ leadership soon after the takeover showed political moderation and openness toward President Abbas and his Fatah faction. On June 14th, Hamas assured that it would not impose Islamic law (shari’a) in the Gaza Strip. On June 15th, Hamas granted amnesty to the cadres of the defeated security forces loyal to Fatah, releasing ten of them and ordering to all Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to hand over all firearms to Hamas no later than June 21st. On the same day, Hamas pledged to liberate BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who had been kidnapped on March 12th by the so-called “Army of Islam”, suggesting that Johnston’s liberation was made possible by the Gaza takeover and the defeat of the Fatah militiamen (he was freed on July 4th). Finally, since the takeover, Hamas’ leadership made several calls for dialogue with Abbas and Fatah leadership. Nonetheless, Abbas firmly refused to hold negotiations with Hamas and to recognize the legitimacy of Hamas’ takeover.
In the West Bank, Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen), took advantage of Gaza’s takeover to break relations with the troublesome Islamist ruling partner (Hamas), to revive the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and to restart relations with Israel, the United States and the European Union.
Before Gaza’s takeover Abbas could not repudiate Haniah’s government given that the latter was sworn in as a consequence of Hamas’ victory in the 2006 democratic elections[21 ]Furthermore, the 2006 Palestinian political elections had been strongly supported by the United States and the European Union and were presented – mostly by the Bush Administration, eager to show the world some positive outcome in the advancement of freedom and democracy amid worrisome reports coming from Iraq – as a further example of the triumph of freedom and democracy in the Middle East (following the 2005 Lebanese elections, the first democratic elections in the country since 1976). For this reason, Hamas’ election victory – an unexpected and unpleasant surprise for the U.S. and the EU – could not be rejected; the U.S. and the EU would have contradicted themselves by doing so. Following the Palestinian internecine bloodshed and the takeover of the Gaza Strip, the dismissing of the Hamas government became significantly easier and more justifiable for Abbas, as well as for the United States and the EU. This assessment of President Abbas’ motivations is supported by the decisions he made in the West Bank immediately after the Hamas’ coup. On the night of June 14th Abbas dismissed the Hamas-led unity government (sworn in on March 17th after the Mecca agreement) and declared a state of emergency, a decision quickly endorsed by U.S. The Financial Times reported that Condoleezza Rice telephoned Mr. Abbas shortly before his announcement. She told reporters afterwards that he had exercised his lawful authority. On June 17th, Abbas established in Ramallah a new emergency government of political independents headed by prime minister Salam Fayyad, former finance minister in the dismissed Hamas-led government. On June 18th, he dissolved the national security council, which was established under the March 17th unity government and was responsible for deciding which parts of Gaza and the West Bank would be controlled by Hamas and Fatah forces respectively (Ismail Haniah was deputy chairman of the council). On June 20th Abbas convened the 129-member Central Council of the PLO (whose last meeting dated back to 2003) with the aim of replacing the Palestinian parliament dominated by Hamas (the Palestinian Legislative Council). On June 21st the PLO’s Central Council recommended to dissolve militias of Hamas and Fatah, including the Executive Force and Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades. On June 26th Abbas asked Israel for permission to bring the Jordanian-based Badr Brigade of the PLO inside the West Bank, which reportedly is made up of around 1,000-2,000 well-trained fighters loyal to the Palestinian president. Finally, since June 14th Abbas has been refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Hamas takeover and to hold talks with the Hamas leadership. President Abbas and the Fatah’s leadership thus lost the Gaza Strip but gained the support of the International Community. From a political perspective, the U.S., the EU, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and above all Israel condemned Hamas’ coup and gave support to President Abbas and Fayyad’s cabinet. From an economic perspective, Israel has already declared that it will transfer to President Abbas the tax revenues (the so called “clearance revenues”, i.e. Palestinian indirect taxes – custom duties and VAT – collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority) retained by March 2006 as a punitive measure against Hamas’ government. A 2007 IMF report estimates that between March-December 2006 Israel collected around USD 730 million in clearance revenues and that only about USD 270 million was directly or indirectly transferred to the PA. That means that Israel will soon transfer to President Abbas about USD 460 million of clearance revenues (and maybe is already doing so). In the same way, the EU announced that it will resume direct financial aid to President Abbas while the Bush Administration made clear on June 16th that the US embargo will end by the time the new Fatah-led government will be sworn in.
It should come as no surprise that Hamas showed “political moderation” and mercy toward the defeated enemy (Fatah) after two weeks of bloody internecine fighting among Palestinian “brethrens”, in which Hamas have always had the upper hand: after the violent takeover of Gaza, Hamas needs to consolidate its power in the Gaza Strip and end the international political and financial boycott. To this end, it needs to impose law and order inside the Gaza Strip in order to obtain the recognition of the armed takeover by its opponents (mainly Fatah, Israel, the U.S. and the EU) and to restart Gaza’s economy. The latter objective (economic recovery) depends on the former two (power consolidation and international recognition), considering that economic recovery requires internal security and political stability, and that the Palestinian economy is heavily dependent on foreign investment and aid.
Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip comes as no surprise and contradicts, thus far, the thesis that the Islamist movement – once in power – would have shown pragmatism and would finally have recognized Israel’s right to exist. The takeover of Gaza represents the natural outcome of Hamas’ political agenda as written in the statute of Hamas. Since his founding in 1987, Hamas – which is a Sunni resistance movement and an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – has promoted a clearly radical Islamist agenda, never renouncing its aim of establishing an Islamic state on all Palestinian land (which includes Israel’s territory). Hamas’ periodical political openings and conciliatory gestures to Israel must be interpreted as tactical moves aimed to gain a temporary cease-fire or consolidate positions while preparing the next step toward its one-state solution (the Palestinian state). Between 1967 and 1987 Hamas was favoured by the Israeli focus on Fatah. At that time Hamas was weaker than Fatah and in the eyes of Israel the imminent threat came from Yasser Arafat’s PLO, Fatah. Thus, the Israeli government did not prevent the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood – that in 1978 was registered by Israeli authorities as a non-profit religious organization under the name of Al-Mujama al-Islami – from building its own religious, social and economic network, and from promoting Islamic views among Palestinian institutions. In December 2004, on the eve of the Palestinian presidential elections, the first to be held since 1996, Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) boycotted the presidential polls, declaring that it was going to run instead for the municipal and parliamentary elections (the former were to be held from 23 December 2004, while the latter were initially scheduled for July 2005; they were subsequently postponed to 25 January 2006). It is possible that Hamas decided to compete in the elections in which it had a clear lead on Fatah, i.e. municipal and parliamentary elections, while boycotting those in which Abbas was bound to win (the presidential elections). Thus, the eventual participation of Hamas in the elections was not due to adherence to democratic principles but due rather to political calculation. In 2005, after five years of armed “uprising” against Israel (the second Intifada or Al-Aqsa Intifada), Hamas decided to respect a temporary cease-fire in order to favour the implementation of 2005 Sharon’s disengagement plan, i.e. the Israeli unilateral withdrawal of troops and the evacuation of the settlements from Gaza and four cities of the West Bank, carried out between August and September 2005. We witnessed another example of this behaviour on the eve of the January 2006 first democratic elections in the Palestinian territories. Hamas restrained its fighters from attacking Israel and rival Palestinian militants in order to not disrupt the Palestinian ballots, relying on his popularity among the Palestinians (who were tired of Fatah corruption and ineffectiveness). Hamas perceived the Palestinian elections as one of its means to gain power but did not renounce the armed struggle, given that democratic rules and values have no place inside Islamist ideologies. Thus, participating in the Palestinian election was a tactical move that never implied the renouncing of violence or the acceptance of democracy and its rules. Hamas’ decision to participate to the elections was fiercely criticized by radical Salafist ideologues, in particular by doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri (Al-Qaeda No.2), who believed that “the struggle in the way of God” (i.e. violent jihad) is the only way to establish the Islamic Caliphate. Anyway, it is a debate that has been taking place inside the Islamist circle and not between Islamists and democrats. Zawahiri tried to take advantage of the current Hamas isolation by softening his criticism against Hamas, testifying once again Al-Qaeda pragmatism and omnivorous ideology. In an audiotape message circulated on June 25th on Islamist websites, produced by Al-Qaeda media branch as-Sahab and titled “Forty years since the fall of Jerusalem”, he urged Muslims around the world to support Hamas. This represents a major shift in Zawahiri rhetoric, considering that he always slammed Hamas’ decision to participate in democratic elections as un-Islamic. The aim is to establish a Qaedaist presence in the Palestinian territories and start a jihad against Israel, the Zionist enemy, one of the main targets of the Al-Qaeda’s international struggle. Hamas keeps refusing Al-Qaeda’s support and presence in Gaza and the West Bank, due to the fact that it considers the struggle against Israel a Palestinian struggle and will probably not accept Al-Qaeda’s aid in the near future.
We can use three indicators to evaluate Hamas’ ruling capabilities in the Gaza Strip: the “degree of the monopoly on the use of force” obtained by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, “Gaza’s GDP variation” in 2007, and the “degree of international political and financial support” that Hamas’ government will receive. The first indicator is the degree of achievement of the “monopoly on the use of force” in the Gaza Strip. For decades the Palestinian Territories have been the theatre of the power struggle among Hamas and Fatah (not to mention other Palestinian factions and clans). In fact, from 1987 to 2007 there has been a duopoly inside both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The first power structure gravitated around Fatah and the PLO. They have always represented the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the eyes of both Israel and the International Community, and have functioned like a quasi-public administration with its own fiscal law (although taxes were collected by Israel), its own security forces (before the Hamas takeover there were 13 different security agencies loyal or close to Fatah) and even its own militias, the Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades and Tanzim. In the last decade Fatah and PLO have been increasingly seen as the corrupt but reasonable (and secular) Palestinian representatives in the eyes of the International Community.
The second power structure gravitated around Hamas, which since the 1980s has been building its own military, educational, social and – at the end – political power structure and network. Hamas (formally established in 1987) has been functioning as a parallel state inside the Palestinian territories, with its own militia (the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, formally established in 1992), its quasi-police force (the Executive Force, established in 2006) and its own “tax collection system”, the zaqat (mandatory alms-giving collected for Islamic causes and charities, one of the five pillars of Islam). Globalsecurity.org reports that “as for 2003 US intelligence sources estimated that the militant Palestinian group Hamas had an annual budget of 50 million dollars, raising much of the money through its reputation and charity” in the Palestinian territories and abroad.
After Hamas takeover this duopoly became geographically apparent, with Gaza ruled by Hamas and the West Bank ruled by Fatah. Hamas overcame the Fatah security forces and became the main politico-military structure in the Gaza Strip, and this is a first indication of Hamas ability to rule. The next challenge for Hamas will be to tame the armed Palestinian clans and families, of which we do not have a satisfactory picture yet. We caught a glimpse of this reality thanks to the Johnston abduction carried out by the so-called “Army of Islam”, a radical Islamist group controlled by the Dogmoush clan. Hamas alleges it was able to coerce the Dogmoush clan into liberating Johnston, and this would be a second indication of Hamas high degree of control in the Gaza Strip. Anyway, relations among Hamas and the Dogmoush clan, as well as the dynamics surrounding Johnston abduction and liberation are far from clear. For this reason, it is not possible to draw any conclusion from the event at this time. A third test for the Hamas leadership will be the ability to control privately owned weapons in the Gaza Strip, and here the indications are not good for the Islamist group. The Associated Press reports that there are around 400,000 firearms in the Gaza Strip, nearly one for every 2-3 residents. The ratio changes according to the demographics assumed as basic data: the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics’ estimates that there are 1.4 million people in the Gaza Strip (these statistics are based on the 1997 census, and will probably be lowered on December 2007), while a 2006 research of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies concluded that the figure is far lower, close to 1 million. According to the AP report, after the takeover Hamas was able to seize an estimated 15,000 weapons from the deposits of the defeated Fatah-affiliated security forces (a small fraction of the 400,000 firearms circulating in the Gaza strip). The June 21st deadline to drop all weapons to Hamas was not respected by Palestinian armed gangs and families. The second indicator is the “qualitative and quantitative variation of Gaza’s GDP” in 2007. The inner strength of a government depends on its budget. Hamas will need money to pay public-sector workers and to sustain its political agenda. According to the scarce and uncertain economic data available, the conclusion is that Gaza’s economic growth his heavily dependent on foreign public financial aid and private inflows (including humanitarian assistance and remittances). This means that, rebus sic stantibus, during 2007 Hamas will have at its disposal decreasing domestic economic resources and will be increasingly dependent on foreign financial aid.
A joint International Monetary Fund (IMF) - World Bank (WB) report released in March 2007 estimates that the West Bank and Gaza’s real GDP fell by 8% in 2006 while real GDP per capita fell by 11% in 2006. Considering the four items in which GDP is articulated – i.e. private consumption (C), government consumption (G), investments (I) and net exports (NX) –, the IMF-WB report assesses that government consumption (which includes salaries of civil servants) fell by 9.4%, private investment fell by 22.4% and government investments fell by 47.1%, export fell by 11.6% and import fell by 8.8%. Unemployment declined in the West Bank (from 20.3% of the population to 18.6%) while unemployment in the Gaza Strip rose from 30.4% to 34.8% (from 181,000 to 174,000 employed residents).
From a qualitative point of view, data look pretty bad for Hamas and for Gaza’s population. The two main economic indicators of a healthy economy are exports and investments (in particular Foreign Direct Investments), which bring new money into a country. The sharp decline in public and private investments will be particularly harmful and casts doubts on the medium-term prospect for economic growth in the Gaza Strip. That means Hamas will rely on decreasing domestic (or endogenous) revenues for its policies. Overall Gaza and the West Bank’s external trade decreased in 2006 and about a half of it had Israel as the country of origin or destination. Exports declined by 11.6% in real terms (i.e. less fresh money entered the Palestinian economy) and imports from Israel fell by 2-3% in 2006 while overall imports fell about 8% in real terms, suggesting that the Palestinian economy became even more dependent on Israeli imports. The IMF-WB report concludes that the GDP decline in 2006 was due to intensified Israeli restrictions on movement inside the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, “weakening security conditions, and growing uncertainty, as well as the shift in external assistance away from development toward humanitarian assistance”. Considering the PA government expenditure in 2006 the dependence on foreign aid is even more evident. A second 2007 IMF report estimates that the PA public deficit was about USD 1 billion in 2006, despite a doubling of foreign financial aid (from USD 349 million in 2005 to about USD 747 million in 2006). Considering the above-mentioned data, the conclusion is the same: there has been a sharp decline in PA domestic income (PA domestic revenues fell from USD 476 million in 2005 to USD 290 million in 2006) mostly due to Israel’s decision to withhold about USD 460 million of clearance revenues. Finally, as we said, U.S. intelligence estimates that Hamas’ 2003 budget was around USD 50 million. Today, with the international boycott running it is difficult to collect reliable data on this subject. It seems that Iran and Syria could possibly provide substantial financial aid to Hamas to an extent that is difficult to assess. Israeli officials believe that Hamas is able to circumvent the embargo and bring into the Gaza Strip million of dollars each month, using pro-Hamas business, cross-border tunnels and by sea.Israel is reacting by tightening his financial boycott on the Gaza Strip. At the end of September, Bank Hapoalim, Israel’s largest commercial bank, severed its links with the Palestinian territories after the Israeli government declared Gaza an “enemy entity”. At the beginning of October, the Israeli government sent a verbal warning to the Palestine Islamic Bank against transferring money to Hamas, the Executive Force. The third indicator is the degree of “international political and financial support” that the new Hamas’ entity in the Gaza Strip (which since June 14th has been labelled by the media as “Hamastan”) will enjoy in the near future. Considering the Hamas’ government heavy dependence on foreign financial aid, the amount of foreign aid Hamas will be able to collect in the near future will be directly linked to the number of countries that will recognize the legitimacy of his rule. From a qualitative perspective, Hamas’ government will be heavily exposed to the influence of foreign donors.
So far, Hamas’ de facto government in Gaza has received political support only from Iran and Syria. Israel’s cabinet declared Gaza an “enemy entity” on September 19th, an it is maintaining – together with the United States and the EU – a political boycott of Hamas’ government. Even the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, backed the Abbas’ leadership and downgraded relations with Hamas, regardless of the high-level contacts established with the latter after 2006 Palestinian elections. Egypt[63 ]and Jordan backed Abbas and legitimized the Salam Fayyad government, while condemning Hamas’ takeover. Despite this, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in an interview that Egypt was still willing to mediate between Palestinian factions. The Saudi Arabian government also reportedly favoured Abbas and the Fatah movement, but not to the same extent as Jordan and Egypt. While not condemning Hamas, the Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal stressed the necessity to respect the commitments undertaken by both Hamas and Fatah under the Mecca agreement. A few days later, Faisal declared the ending of the Saudi mediation effort between Palestinian factions; he said that it was up to the Palestinians to solve their problems through direct talks. The division among Arab states reverberated inside the League of Arab States (LAS). On June 16th, LAS foreign ministers gathered for an emergency session in Cairo where they expressed support to Abbas and his decision to appoint Salam Fayyad as prime minister, but stopped short from condemning Hamas. Instead, they expressed support to the Hamas dominated Palestinian Legislative Council as well, limiting their condemnation to “the criminal acts recently committed in Gaza” in an apparent attempt to give a chance for dialogue with the Islamist group. The international isolation will probably push Hamas even closer to Iran and Syria. Iran is currently backing Hamas “politically and spiritually” (according to Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mohammad Hosseini) but denied charges by Egyptian Foreign Minister Abul Gheit and by Palestinian intelligence chief Tawfiq al-Tirawi (loyal to President Abbas) that it contributed militarily to the takeover of the Gaza Strip. According to an Al Jazeera report, al-Tirawy maintained that Iran played a “big role” in Hamas’ seizure of Gaza by providing training to dozens of Hamas militiamen in Iran, and by smuggling weapons and equipment into the Gaza Strip through tunnels “not to fight Israel but against the Palestinian Authority”. It was the first time that a senior Palestinian official openly blamed Iran. A closer relationship with both Iran and Syria, with Hamas heavily dependent on their financial aid, could be perceived as too binding by the latter. For this reason, we can expect that Hamas will try to rebuild bridges with Fatah in the near future as a first step toward reconciliation with the International Community.
If this assessment will prove correct, the first conclusion is that the seizure of Gaza by Hamas and its partition from the West Bank will delay the establishment of a Palestinian state (in the short-mid term). From the Israeli perspective, the political and territorial division of the Palestinian Territories – which reflects the division among the two main Palestinian factions, i.e. Hamas and Fatah – will allow it to control the Palestinian factions better. Fatah and PLO are already being co-opted by the Israeli government (as well as by both the U.S. and the EU), and Israeli daily security operations currently taking place in the West Bank will secure Israel’s population against the threat of suicide bombings. Moreover, Israel is now targeting Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades – a militia affiliated with Fatah but not fully controlled by the latter – inside the West Bank, with no condemnation by President Abbas and his government. Hamas will instead be treated as a “rogue” element by Israel, as well as by both the U.S. and the EU. Israel, the U.S. and the EU will isolate and boycott Hamas with the aim of forcing it into renouncing armed struggle and Israel’s destruction. If Hamas will again resort to violence against Israel, the latter will have more room of manoeuvre to retaliate (considering that it will have to raid only the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip). On the other side, President Abbas and PLO are already enjoying full Israeli and international political and financial support. President Abbas and PLO will focus on consolidating PA institutions in the West Bank, while waiting for a solution of the “Hamas issue” (i.e. the weakening of Hamas) in order to finally extend his rule to the Gaza Strip. Hamas is currently cornered. Gaza economic indicators are worsening and poverty is spreading (the IMF-WB report estimates that “more than 75 percent of households in Gaza were considered poor by end-2006”), therefore Hamas will face declining endogenous economic resources (i.e. less money to support his political agenda) and rising unemployment (i.e. increasing dissatisfaction among the Gaza Strip’s residents). If the international political and financial boycott will stand for a while (which is probable), Hamas will be unable to rule by itself and will be faced with a hard choice. It can seek reconciliation with PLO/Fatah, Israel and the International Community by accepting Fatah/PLO’s authority, Israel’s right to exist and renouncing the armed struggle, but this decision will alienate the support of its more radical Palestinian constituencies. Moreover, the Israeli government and Fatah/PLO are not interested in negotiating with Hamas for now, since they still consider it to be a strong political faction enjoying wide popular support. They will be probably wait until Hamas will be weak enough – from a political, economic and military point of view – to accept Fatah/PLO rule before engaging it in talks.