This summer’s 51-day war on Gaza left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead, over 11,000 injured, and vast areas of devastation that will take years to rebuild.
After the third Israeli war on Gaza in less than six years, many Palestinians are questioning the purpose of continuing to fight — and hoping for a solution that does not increase their suffering. Can Hamas, with its newly acquired position at the forefront of Palestinian politics, provide such a solution?
Before the latest war erupted, Hamas was politically isolated. It had lost traditional allies in Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. Most damaging, the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government had deprived Hamas of its lifeline of supplies and armaments.
Egypt’s military regime, led by Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has been unrelentingly hostile toward Hamas, blaming it for the fighting in Sinai between the army and insurgent groups. Egypt even mounted an operation to destroy the tunnels between Gaza and Sinai, isolating Gaza completely.
Hamas faced an intensifying crisis. Unable to pay the salaries of more than 40,000 public employees in Gaza, it was being slowly strangled by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities. And the unity government that it established with the Palestinian Authority in June brought no relief.
With nothing to lose, Hamas decided that another round of fighting with Israel was the only way to shake things up. Despite its modest military capabilities, Hamas managed to hold out for 51 days — and, in the process, place itself at the center of Palestinian and regional politics.
Israel, by contrast, failed to achieve any of its goals — beginning with restoring its deterrent capacity. Indeed, despite Israel’s best efforts, Hamas continued to launch long-range missiles at major populated areas from Haifa in the north to Ashkelon and Dimona in the south, and it repeatedly crossed Israeli lines using underground tunnels.
Such achievements shattered the indomitable image of the Israeli Army, exposing a weakness that other radical Islamist groups may attempt to exploit. Against this background, it is perhaps unsurprising that Hamas managed to compel most Israelis living in areas adjacent to Gaza to flee, with many Israelis accusing their government of failing to protect its citizens adequately.
In short, the war in Gaza shook the status quo. It did not, however, bring about any progress toward resolving the outstanding issues underlying the dispute between Israel and Hamas, or change the conditions that spurred the latest conflict in the first place.
Israel did agree to terms much like those that ended its last assault on Gaza in 2012; but that agreement was never implemented.
Israel is now expected, for example, to ease its blockade of Gaza and allow the transport of humanitarian and construction supplies. But more complicated issues, such as the release of Palestinian prisoners and the establishment of a Gaza airport and seaport, will be left for next month’s discussions. And there is no guarantee that Israel will accede to Hamas’ demands without disarming Gaza.
The stakes for Hamas could not be higher. By breaking Gaza’s political isolation, the cease-fire has fueled hope of relief from economic and financial deprivation. Given Hamas’ leading role, it will be held accountable not only for the success of Gaza’s reconstruction, but also for any further delays in Palestinian reconciliation.
Hamas also faces pressure from the international community, which, despite supporting the Palestinians’ demand for an end to the Israeli siege and blockade, is adamant that Israel’s security concerns also be addressed. As United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned, “Any peace effort that does not tackle the root causes of the crisis will do little other than set the stage for the next cycle of violence.”
In other words, achieving a lasting peace deal will require compromises from both sides — the kind of compromises that Hamas has long resisted. For its part, the international community must embrace Hamas’ involvement in the pursuit of a peaceful settlement of the Palestine-Israel conflict.
Former Israeli President Shimon Peres once said, “The real challenge is to transform any crisis, however large, into new opportunities for action.” It is time for all of the relevant actors in the conflict between Israel and Palestine to address this challenge, and to take concrete, productive and creative action to bring peace to Gaza at last.
Hamas has proved its staying power. After decades of standoffs and stalemate, perhaps it can focus less on its own survival and more on helping to achieve a just and lasting peace.
Mkhaimar Abusada is a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University-Gaza. © 2014 Project Syndicate