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What about Hamas?

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The end of the Israel-Hamas cease fire and the subsequent fallout has led to a lot of discussion about what Israel can or should do, and why it's doing what it is. There's speculation about what the other Middle Eastern states' official and unofficial positions are, and about what Europe, the U.S., and the rest of the world should do and why.

What I haven't seen is any discussion about Hamas' point of view. They seem to be regarded only as a pawn or a random actor. Surely they have motivations?

I think understanding Hamas is simple. Their goal is the betterment of the Palestinian people in the face of an Israeli economic blockade. To achieve that goal, they have only two tools:

(1) rocket attacks on Israel that, while not being capable of doing real military damage, can exert some pressure and is a tool that can be used repeatedly;

(2) recognition of Israel, a tool which can be used only once.

Given that recognition of Israel can only be done once, doing it early would be foolish: it should only be done after Hamas has gained confidence that it will result in a permanent and satisfactory peace agreement. That leaves the rocket attacks.

Previous rocket attacks resulted in the recently expired six month cease fire. Hamas no doubt saw the cease fire as the first step towards a more permanent armistice. Hamas had an opportunity to demonstrate sufficient control to cut off the attacks when promised, which they largely did, as the first step towards future easing of the economic blockade.

Unfortunately for Hamas, Israel apparently saw the cease fire as just a way to procrastinate for six months, and all they offered was a renewal on the same terms. While living without adequate food, fuel, and medicine for six months might have been acceptable to Hamas, doing so forever is not.

Thus the present situation.
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On January 10th, 2009 04:19 pm (UTC), harrock commented:
I mostly agree with this, excepting the "simple" part. On the Israeli side, we have lots of data on the various factions and influences that are driving policy...and we also know that even in a democratic country with a free press, it can be darn hard to figure out what's going to happen next. On the Hamas side, as you've noted, the popular assumptions about those influences are quite simplistic, hence probably inadequate.

My point is, while I agree that this appears to be a plausible take on Hamas's strategic situation, I think it's hard to tell what we're missing there. (Perhaps something that can be remedied by talking to them, at whatever level we find appropriate...)
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On January 10th, 2009 07:32 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
The Israeli side is complex because, as you say, there are multiple factions and institutions that compromise and interact to affect policy; having a free press with unpredictable alignment with the government does tend to obscure things further. Any one faction is not that difficult to predict, though; Likud, for example, can be pretty much counted on to take the hard line position, even to the point of splitting with their own leader when he started taking positive steps towards an actual solution.

You would be right to say that Palestinian politics are complex. As in Israel, there are multiple factions. Unlike the Israeli factions, though, the two main Palestinian factions don't tend to compromise; rather, they make independent policy, Hamas for the Gaza strip, and Fatah for the west bank. Instead of having one unpredictable interactive policy, the complexity on the Palestinian side is divided into two separate policies, making each individual policy more predictable.

Here I am only addressing Gaza and Hamas. As Hamas is a single faction, and as they currently exercise Palestinian authority in Gaza, their actions are far more predictable than that of the Israelis, or of the Palestinians as a whole.

Edited at 2009-01-11 06:28 am (UTC)
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On January 11th, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC), harrock replied:
My point here is that I think we need to unpack the Hamas box and better understand what factions and influences are inside it. In general, like most countries, we'd prefer to deal with the larger unit of organization (the PA) and make Hamas the PA's problem. That would allow us the twin advantages of a simpler negotiation and not having to dirty our hands by directly dealing with Hamas. But we're now asking ourselves what Hamas wants and needs, and is going to do, because it has demonstrated the ability to act independently.

I think one of the biggest dangers of looking at Hamas (or anything else) too monolithically is that you can construct a model of what they want/need which is essentially correct (or at least a viable option), but you can fail to understand the timing constraints for coming up with a workable agreement. There are other problems too, but timing constraints to get sub-actors aligned is one that tends not to be very visible, and hence very frustrating, unless you work hard to get that visibility. (In which case, it's still frustrating, but at least you can plan for it, and try to manage your own sub-actors accordingly.)
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On January 12th, 2009 06:35 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
I understand your point; I just don't agree. If negotiations are to be used, the Palestinian Authority is no longer the appropriate negotiating partner for Gaza, as they have no power there; any negotiations will have to be with Hamas. Anyone negotiating with Hamas should respect their own control of their internal affairs, and refrain from meddling in them.

Failure to do that with the Palestinian Authority is what led to this situation in the first place. If the U.S. and Israel had respected the democratic election of Haniyeh and the Hamas cabinet, then negotiations with the Palestinian Authority would have covered both Gaza and the West Bank. Instead, the U.S. meddled with internal Palestinian Authority affairs by encouraging Abbas to unconstitutionally replace Haniyeh. That predictably caused the Palestinian Authority to lose most of its legitimacy and much of its power, especially in Gaza, making negotiations with it pointless.
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On January 12th, 2009 06:11 pm (UTC), harrock replied:
I seem to have persuaded you somehow that I advocate meddling in Hamas's internal affairs, and that I think that breaking the PA by trying to cut Hamas out of it was a good thing, but that's not what I'm suggesting. Perhaps you could point out the language that convinced you of that.

By "unpack the Hamas box" did you perhaps infer that I meant physically going after Hamas with a staple remover and dismantling it?
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On January 13th, 2009 06:06 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
Sorry, there are a lot of missing steps between my sentences. That will teach me about posting when in a hurry.

I read you to say that you think knowledge of Hamas' internal organization and influences is a necessary next step - thus, "need to unpack". I don't think that's true; Hamas behaves in a sufficiently unified and predictable way that internal knowledge is a bonus, and not a necessity for either negotiations or attempts at destruction.

Then, starting with my second sentence, I went off on a tangent about how internal knowledge can tempt people to manipulate things they are better off not manipulating.
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On January 10th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC), treptoplax commented:
think understanding Hamas is simple. Their goal is the betterment of the Palestinian people in the face of an Israeli economic blockade.

Is it?

They've stated unambiguously, if discreetly in certain audiences, that their mission is to reunite all Israeli-occupied territory (in which they include, say, Tel Aviv) under an Islamic government. You're assuming that this is a bargaining position only.

Now, it's no doubt a dangerous oversimplification to say that "Hamas" is trying to destroy Israel, or help the Palestinian people, or maximize their own power... there are individuals and factions trying to do various aggregations of those three. Israel seems to think they can push Hamas out of power and negotiate with the more moderate and secular Fatah instead. I personally am very dubious about this; I think Fatah is probably hopeless.

I suspect that as long as Israel and the West are trying to play Fatah vs. Hamas, peace will probably be infeasible for much the same reason that Sharon was (ironically) the Israeli leader best positioned to achieve a durable peace; only a government with a clear right flank can make the necessary concessions.
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On January 11th, 2009 08:05 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
I do believe that Hamas would ultimately be willing to recognize Israel, but it's not so much an assumption as a conclusion. For example, Haniyeh's statements on this matter seem to me to be lip service to what's essentially a plank in the party platform, rather than strongly held organizational or personal beliefs.

Perhaps more importantly, I don't think Hamas would have a choice if they reached a point where it would be reasonable for them to negotiate on the issue. Their broad popular support is not based on destruction of Israel; it is based on providing a government for Palestinians that is more effective and less corrupt than Fatah. If they reached a point where their economy was safe, stable and self supporting, throwing it away by attacking Israel would simply not be an option.

To put it another way, retaking all of what was Palestine under the British is not a realistic goal.

I also think that Hamas would be behaving differently if they seriously wanted to destroy Israel. In particular, they would be coordinating better with the expatriate Palestinian groups - particularly Hezbollah, with whom they could coordinate two fronts.

I don't think Israel is trying to play off Fatah and Hamas; I think they actually do want to eliminate Hamas, and would like to establish Fatah as a puppet government. This ties in to Sharon's concessions, and I think it's interesting enough to justify a brief tangent.

Likud's nominal objective has traditionally been to add the West Bank and Gaza to Israel. Immediate annexation was not an option only because it would make a lot of Palestinians citizens of Israel, which would give them too much voting power for Israel to remain a comfortably Jewish dominated state. The strategy, then, was to establish Israeli settlements, and presumably to outbreed the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

It has been clear for quite some time that this strategy was not working, to state things mildly. Seen in this light, Sharon's concessions were not so much concessions to the Palestinians as concessions to reality. The Gaza was abandoned because of the extremely high Palestinian population density there. The strategy in the West Bank has been to establish a new de facto border by building a border fence located in a way that balances the objectives of annexing land to Israel and of minimizing the number of new nonjewish citizens. I believe these are the official policies of Kadima, though they don't seem to be widely advertised outside of Israel, and Kadima's actions are consistent with following those policies.

There remains the question of safety from the Palestinians. I believe the idea is to establish a disarmed government compliant to Israel - essentially a puppet government. Fatah has been exceptionally compliant; Hamas has not. From this point of view, it makes sense to try to destroy Hamas, allowing Fatah to fill the vacuum.

There remains the question of whether Israel can actually achieve that. Destroying popular support for Hamas would likely be sufficient. That would explain the widespread bombing of civilian targets in Gaza, presumably an attempt to contrast that situation in Hamas dominated Gaza with the less terrible conditions on the West Bank.

Whether that's what the Israeli government is actually trying to do is unclear, let alone whether they can actually achieve it.
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On January 10th, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC), my_lady_aria commented:
One of my best friends went to that high school that had its grad. night bombed, the night club, a few years back. Her friends were late picking her up and she was so mad, and when they got there, parked, and started heading to the club, it exploded. Thankfully they were late. She'd probably be dead.
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On January 10th, 2009 09:48 pm (UTC), readsalot commented:
There are times when I think that the government of Israel hasn't advanced beyond my understanding when I was 14 (which was that Israel was the only good actor, and the Palestinians should just give up and leave.) It seems that every time Israel decides to be aggressive, they're thinking, "This time for sure! We'll just keep bombing, and they'll give up." You would think that after 60-some years, they would have figured out that that's not working.

However, I also fault Hamas, because I can't remember any instances of their rocket attacks leading to any useful concessions by Israel. What am I forgetting?
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On January 11th, 2009 08:08 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
"This time for sure! We'll just keep bombing, and they'll give up."

Okay, that got a big laugh out of me. I have to say, though, that I suspect you might have been as smart at 14 as most politicians are at 64.

Hamas might feel that they achieved the recently expired cease fire on the basis of rocket attacks. From a practical standpoint, Israel has used the cease fire to tighten the blockade, and Hamas might feel - not necessarily correctly - that they could restore or improve the practical terms of the next cease fire by insisting on improved nominal terms.

Israel may feel that their 2006 action against Hezbollah was a success, as rocket attacks subsequently stopped on the northern border - and indeed Hezbollah is taking great pains to disavow the three rockets recently fired from Lebanon. The Israeli government might think they can achieve the same result with Hamas in Gaza.

Neither of those seem to me much more convincing than "This time for sure!", though.
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