Hamas has seen a strange turnabout in its international status, and this reversal is truer than ever since it launched its rocket war against Israel three weeks ago. In recent years, the Gaza-based Palestinian terror group and its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, have seen their fortunes in the Middle East rise and then fall precipitously. Today, while Hamas is being shunned by its traditional Arab backers, many Western countries and especially their foreign policy elites have begun talking more seriously about the benefits of reducing the isolation to which the group has been subjected by Europe and the United States.
Almost all of the Arab states, save Qatar, have made strong moves to curtail Hamas’s funding, influence and power. Saudi Arabia, which once bankrolled more than 50 percent of the Hamas budget, has largely cut off the organization. In March, the Saudi Interior Ministry declared the entire Muslim Brotherhood network to be a terrorist organization, a move which complicated Hamas’s position even further. After Hamas sided with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Sunni al-Qaeda affiliate that is attempting to topple the Assad regime, Hamas was thrown out of Syria, one of its most important strategic partners for decades. True, Hamas still has Iran, but their military connection has only alienated the Arab world further.
As for Egypt, after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, its Interior Ministry accused Hamas of providing logistical support for an attack by Sinai jihadists on the offices of the Egyptian Security Directorate in Mansoura, in the Nile Delta, which left 16 dead and 130 wounded. A court in Cairo responded by outlawing Hamas activities throughout the country. The Egyptians complain that Hamas has allowed al-Qaeda affiliates to find sanctuary in the Gaza Strip, where they can train and organize against the Egyptian state.
Yet, at the same time, the status of Hamas in the West has been rising. Since 2007, there has been a steady drumbeat of calls in the international community to acknowledge a role for Hamas as a legitimate diplomatic player, even though it has been formally designated a terrorist organization by the United States, Canada, the European Union and others. Despite persistent calls by Hamas leaders for the annihilation of Israel, a select committee in Britain’s House of Commons issued a report in 2009 reiterating its past recommendations for the nation to engage with Hamas.
Nine former senior U.S. officials wrote to President Obama in 2009 that the time for Washington to talk to Hamas had finally arrived. Some of the most prestigious international affairs journals have echoed the point. The recommendations have not been adopted by any Western government, but they did help shape the political discourse about Hamas. Indeed, when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas concluded a “reconciliation agreement” with Hamas last month, many Western voices suggested that Hamas would become more moderate and responsible as a result. Ten days later, Hamas operatives in the West Bank abducted and murdered three Israeli teenagers. This was followed by a massive escalation of Hamas rocket fire on Israel.
Given these two views of how to deal with Hamas, its best hope is to find new friends in the West, not necessarily in the Middle East. (As an Israeli who keeps in touch with our Middle Eastern neighbors, it is bizarre to now see more eye to eye with our Arab interlocutors than with Westerners who insist on engagement with Hamas.)
So Hamas is advancing a twin strategy. In accordance with the first part, which is aimed at the West, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh asked a Gaza audience this week, “Where is the Goldstone report” for the ongoing conflict? He was referring to the infamous 2009 U.N. commission led by Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa, which falsely accused Israel of war crimes in Operation Cast Lead. (In April 2011, Goldstone retracted the central charge in the report, that Israel had intentionally targeted civilians in Gaza.) This Wednesday, Haniyeh appeared to get his wish when the U.N. Human Rights Council voted to create a new commission of inquiry that, like the earlier Goldstone panel, will focus on Israel and barely touch Hamas. This is how public opinion is remade in the West.
Now, the Hamas leadership is planning a second round of legal, political and media warfare against Israel, targeted to Western audiences and sensibilities, in the hope that the U.N., the E.U. and other international bodies will again brand Israelis as war criminals. To fortify this effort, Hamas will seek to get its supporters into the streets of Berlin, Paris and London to draw headlines and intimidate European governments. There is a Muslim Brotherhood network in some European cities that can help mobilize demonstrators on behalf of Hamas.
The second part of the Hamas strategy is aimed at the Middle East. Hamas is hoping that continued warfare in Gaza will generate political shock waves within the Arab states (with the help of the Qatari-owned Al Jazeera), forcing them to rethink their positions. The war with Israel provides Hamas with an instrument to pressure the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank as well. In light of the chaos right now, it’s hard to assess the relative popularity of the two movements, but Hamas is likely to exploit the war and try to enhance its standing in Palestinian public opinion.
Given the interests of Hamas, it should surprise no one that while Israel accepted three cease-fire initiatives last week, Hamas rejected them all. While Israel has sought a way to shorten the conflict, Hamas appears to be interested in prolonging the war, even if the casualty count on its side is greater. The Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, admitted July 8 that Hamas was using the Palestinians as human shields and that this had has proven to be effective.
This is a point that is extremely difficult for observers to fathom in the West, where the role of ideology is often underestimated. Hamas has imbued its followers with the values of martyrdom. This March, an article titled “Hamas and the Culture of Death,” in the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat, tore into the Hamas prime minister for using yet again the Hamas slogan: “We are a people that love death for the sake of Allah as much as our enemies love life.” The distasteful Hamas mantra explained what is commonly perceived in Israel, which uses its Iron Dome missiles to protect its people, while Hamas uses its people to protect its missiles.
What Hamas is ultimately seeking in this war is to persuade the world to question Israel’s right of self-defense, so that it can strike Israel with impunity in the future and break out of its isolation. But if Israel gave in to these pressures, it would be giving Hamas a license to kill its own people. This is not going to happen.
Hamas has proven that it is not about to modify its hard-line ideology. Thus any diplomatic resolution to the war must demilitarize the Gaza Strip so that Hamas cannot carry out rocket attacks on Israel. Its underground network of attack tunnels that run deep into Israeli territory must be eliminated. It would be a tragic irony that just as nearly the whole Arab world was confronting one of the main terrorist organizations undermining its security, there were those in the West thinking about courting it.