In response to the formation of an emergency Palestinian government, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that Washington would remove the embargo on international aid for the Palestinian Authority. Rice’s decision appeared to be the start of a “West Bank first” policy which aims to strengthen Fatah and weaken Hamas by demonstrating the stark contrast between living conditions in the West Bank and those in Gaza. While Palestinians living in the former would see their quality of life improve, those in the latter would continue to languish in isolation until they reject Hamas and support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
This strategy is destined to fail. In order to find a lasting solution to intra-Palestinian violence, not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the United States and Israel must accept that Hamas is a significant force in Palestinian politics, one which cannot be left out of the political process.
Despite recent events, Hamas’ intentions are not entirely clear. At times, it has signaled it may be slowly coming to accept a two-state solution, but at others it displayed unabated radicalism. These mixed messages may reflect the fact that some of Hamas’ leaders are moderating, and are engaged in a power struggle with hard-liners within the organization. Certainly, the conquest of Gaza may be a prominent signal that the hard-liners have triumphed; however, the international community has not given the moderates within Hamas any incentives to cooperate. Those who advocate arming Fatah and isolating Hamas have intimated that they are empowering the former to destroy the latter.
History provides us with two valuable lessons about this situation. First, terrorist organizations only gradually forgo violence and commit to a political process. Therefore, it is important to discover whether there are moderates within Hamas, and if this happens to be the case, to strengthen them. To do so, the international community needs to end its policy of blanket isolationism, which only weakens the pragmatists, and adopt a policy of conditional engagement in order to promote cooperation.
Second, history also suggests that simply rejecting elected leaders in an effort to bolster more acceptable alternatives will only exacerbate the situation. In 1981 Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s government tried to limit the Palestine Liberation Organization’s influence in the Occupied Territories by dismissing municipal officials and mayors sympathetic to the PLO, and by creating an alternative network of village leagues with a compliant leadership. In an attempt to generate support for the village leaders, Israel then worked to improve living conditions throughout the territories. This strategy backfired, however, increasing disorder in the Palestinian areas and enhancing the PLO’s popularity.
Some might argue that a “West Bank first” policy can succeed where the village league initiative failed. In particular, the village leaders never had any popular support, owed their position to Israel, and were quickly accused of collaborating with the enemy. Today, Abbas has both legitimacy and a base of support as the president of the PA and chairman of the PLO. However, despite all this, Abbas remains weak and does not even have full control over his own party. Moreover, the members of the new emergency government have even less of a domestic following, which stands in contrast to the continuing support for Hamas.
Another difference between these two plans actually suggests that the “West Bank first” policy is even more likely to fail than the village league initiative. Although the earlier Israeli effort aimed to improve conditions for all Palestinians, the current policy only rewards the West Bank and excludes Gaza. If Fatah accepts preferential treatment for the West Bank, it will be vilified for abandoning its brethren in Gaza and further dividing the Palestinian territories. Hamas has already accused Fatah of working for Israel. If an effective separation plan is implemented, aspersions like these will proliferate, destroying what credibility Abbas still has.
A more viable strategy begins with Israel and the international community removing the pressure on Hamas and encouraging the creation of a new power-sharing agreement. Palestinian unity is necessary to restore security in the territories, and to resurrect the peace process with Israel. If excluded from official Palestinian decision-making, Hamas will almost certainly launch attacks against Israel in an effort to subvert negotiations, or to precipitate an Israeli crackdown in the West Bank.
Although the resumption of international aid to the PA is a positive move, the US should not use this incentive to further poison relations between Fatah and Hamas. Given the present circumstances, Hamas’ intentions must be tested by removing the sanctions and giving it a chance to act responsibly. Hamas’ behavior should then be judged by whether or not it imposes order in Gaza, ends the Qassam attacks against Israel, secures the release of hostages, institutes a comprehensive ceasefire, and eventually authorizes Abbas to negotiate with Israel. If Hamas fails to reach these benchmarks, the international community will be justified in reinstituting a policy of isolation and pursuing negotiations with Abbas.
Ideological and physical divisions within Palestinian society make the current situation potentially explosive. The PA has already lost control over Gaza, but there may be even more disastrous and far-reaching repercussions if a “West Bank first” policy is implemented. In all likelihood, Abbas and Fatah will be permanently tainted by participating in a plan that intentionally excludes Gaza. Additionally, Gazans may further radicalize, turning the strip into a haven for groups like Al-Qaeda, which make Hamas appear moderate by comparison. If the international community wishes to stabilize the Palestinian territories and restart the peace process, it must help mend the split between Hamas and Fatah.
A policy of conditional engagement could induce moderates within Hamas to cooperate without first requiring the movement to undergo an unrealistic and sudden transformation. The failure of this policy would provide the international community with a clearer picture of Hamas’ intentions
For the US and Israel, even indirectly dealing with Hamas is an unpalatable option. Nevertheless, a policy of isolation and coercion has only led to increased violence and disorder. Viewing the current situation as simply an opportunity to weaken Hamas will only compound earlier mistakes. To avert more devastation, the international community needs to deal with reality.