Hamas swept into power in the Palestinian Authority via the ballot box in 2006 by promising to root out corruption and secure Palestinian rights. A year later, Hamas violently expelled the Palestinian Authority from Gaza, which the terrorist group has illegitimately – and disastrously – ruled since. A decade of Hamas’s aggression and mismanagement has plunged Gazans into misery and hurled the dream of Palestinian statehood backward.
But it didn’t have to be this way.
Hamas’s entry to Palestinian politics could have been a watershed moment. The Palestine Liberation Organization, begun as an armed revolutionary group dedicated to Israel’s destruction, made the tactical decision to remain relevant by engaging in secret negotiations with Israel that led to the 1993 Oslo Accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Palestinians were closer to statehood than ever before.
Hamas won the 2006 elections because the Palestinian people saw the PA as ineffective and corrupt.
They believed they could trust Hamas to put the good of the Palestinian people above ahead of its own. Global leaders demanded that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past agreements before it received international recognition as the leader of the PA. Hamas could have earned the moral authority to force the Palestinian issue to the forefront of the international stage. It would have had the global legitimacy to lead and the domestic credibility to negotiate and enforce a treaty with Israel.
The Palestinians’ faith in Hamas has been rewarded with Hamas violently separating itself and Gaza from the PA, launching three wars with Israel and squandering international aid intended to rebuild Gaza’s infrastructure. An extensive web of tunnels beneath Gaza’s borders with Egypt and Israel are a reminder that Hamas’s leadership continues to value tactical advantages above the welfare of the Gazan people. Instead of building roads to connect Gazans to hospitals and schools, Hamas has built tunnels reportedly used by Islamic State fighters in the Sinai to receive medical and military assistance in Gaza. Gazans continue to suffer while the peace process remains frozen and the West Bank and Gaza remain politically divided.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas purportedly shifted the Palestinians away from the second intifada and toward a non-violent strategy, but that has resulted in only small symbolic victories while statehood remains elusive. Abbas has also failed to rein in the virulent anti-Israel propaganda emanating from Palestinian institutions. Now the PA faces a financial crisis and a restive Palestinian populace that has grown weary of their leaders’ failures to deliver.
Abbas is seen as a weak leader who can’t extract even the smallest concession from Israel, but yet is now in the eleventh year of a four-year term. The PA is reportedly struggling to avoid collapse and with no clear successor to Abbas, Hamas could well sweep into power in the West Bank as it did in Gaza – whether through elections or through violence.
Hamas may have brought Gaza to ruin but it stands on its reputation of standing up to Israel, something the Palestinian street believes Abbas and the PA may be incapable of doing.
But the collapse of the PA and a Hamas takeover of the West Bank is a no-win situation for Palestinians and Israelis.
Should that happen, expect the major world powers to reevaluate their relationships with the Palestinians, likely resulting in cuts to much-needed financial assistance. Another war between Israel and Hamas would be inevitable – and this time with Hamas on both Israel’s western and eastern fronts.
Israel would have to strike a decisive blow against Hamas, endangering the lives of millions of Palestinians.
Israel would also be forced to reestablish total occupation and administration of the West Bank and Gaza or allow Hamas to hold territory from which to launch rockets and other attacks at will. Israeli settlers in the West Bank would find themselves under constant threat on the wrong side of Israel’s security barrier. And Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion Airport could be easy targets for Hamas rockets.
A two-state solution might be too big a gulf to cross now, but Israel and the PA could find ways to work together to prevent this nightmare scenario through smaller measures.
Some Israeli officials have proposed boosting the Palestinian economy to discourage terrorism. The first planned Palestinian city of Rawabi in the West Bank presents such an opportunity. Unfortunately, Rawabi sits mostly empty, a victim of Israeli bureaucracy that has been slow to connect vital utilities and Palestinian obstinacy that views the builders’ partnerships with Israeli companies as traitorous.
Rawabi could provide housing and economic opportunity for Palestinians, but first Israel and the PA must remove these obstacles.
The PA also needs to take control of the rhetoric emanating from Palestinian mosques and government institutions. As long as the Palestinian people are fed propaganda that knife-wielding terrorists attacking civilians are martyrs or that Israel seeks to destroy the Aksa mosque, the Palestinian people will never accept peace.
Ten years after Palestinians voted Hamas into power, they are a house divided and despair has driven the violence of recent months. Palestinians need to see their daily lives improve and recognize that only diplomacy, not violence, can bring those improvements. Otherwise, Hamas will continue to hold the Palestinian people hostage and Israelis will share in their suffering.
The author is a research analyst with the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), a not-for-profit, non-partisan international policy organization formed to combat the growing threat from extremist ideology. CEP combats extremism by pressuring financial support networks, countering the narrative of extremists and their online recruitment and advocating for effective laws, policies and regulations.