Hamas' Pyrrhic Victory in Gaza

Fatah ministers suspended their participation in the National Unity Government due to Hamas' 'coup' in Gaza. The possibility that an efective Fatah-led Palestinian address will be established in the West Bank may present an opportunity for Israel to escape the political stalemate.

Hamas seems to have gained full control over Gaza in what Abu Mazen has described as a 'coup'. Meanwhile, Fatah ministers have suspended their membership in the National Unity Government.

The Reut Institute contends that Hamas' control in Gaza may present Israel with an opportunity to escape the political stalemate by establishing a Palestinian address in the West Bank under Fatah rule and operating vis-à-vis this address.

What is the Issue?

Since Hamas' victory (1/06), the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been paralyzed by a constitutional crisis caused by an overlap of powers and authorities between PA Chairman, Abu Mazen, and the Hamas Government headed by Haniyeh. Moreover, Israel and the international community imposed a political and economic boycott on the PA placing three demands of recognition of Israel, reaffirmation of existing agreements and stopping terrorism. ('The Three Demands Policy').

The establishment of a National Unity Government following the Mecca Agreement (2/07) did not change the 'Three Demands Policy' and the boycott continued.

The battle over powers and authorities in the PA and the continuing economic and political pressure raised the tension between Hamas and Fatah and caused renewed fighting.

Fatah's defeat in Gaza will bring about complete Hamas control therein and a de-facto division between Gaza and the West Bank.

Why is this Important? Why Now?

The main reason for political stalemate since the Taba talks (1/01) has been the absence of a Palestinian 'partner' or 'address'.

The Constitutional crisis in the PA has effectively prevented the creation of an address. This crisis was created by the reform of the Palestinian Basic Law (3/03) in light of international pressure on Arafat. The primary change transferred some of the Chairman's authorities to a new position of Prime Minister.

The Mecca Agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian National Unity Government had apparently settled the battle between Hamas and Fatah and between the PA Chairman and Prime Minister over the division of power and authorities.

Collapse of Palestinian Democracy – The Palestinian political system ostensibly underwent a process of institutionalization founded upon basic democratic rules. Hamas won elections and ascended to power. However, the events in Gaza have thwarted Palestinian democracy and constitute a critical set back to the process of institutionalization.

During the recent fighting, Hamas effectively 'shattered' the political framework of the Palestinian National Unity Government and dismantled the PA's constitutional framework.

This new political and constitutional reality may provide Fatah with an opportunity to use its control over the PLO to change the PA's Basic Law, undo the 2003 changes, abolish the position of Prime Minister, and establish a new government controlled by PA Chairman Abu Mazen with effective control in the West Bank. Determined action by Abu Mazen in this vein coupled with the unification of Fatah forces may create a congruence of power and authority in the West Bank under the leadership of a potential partner for the political process for the first time in years.

Moreover, Hamas may realize that its victory in Gaza could work against it in the following ways:

  • Responsibility in Gaza – The collapse of the PA and the defeat of Fatah in Gaza will force Hamas to assume full responsibility for the security and wellbeing of Gaza's population. For the first time, there will be congruence between its responsibility, powers and authorities.

  • Confrontation with the International Community – The 'military coup' in Gaza is expected to outrage the international community and make it harder for Hamas to lift the boycott. Henceforth, recognition of Hamas control in Gaza will be tantamount to 'sacrificing' Abu Mazen (a darling-of-sorts-of-the international community).

  • Deepening divisions within Hamas – Even before the most recent round of Gaza fighting, differences of opinion had erupted within Hamas. A drastic event in the form of a 'coup' in Gaza can be expected to deepen divisions within the movement even further.

  • Confrontation between Hamas and Egypt Hamas was initially an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Egypt and continues to maintain close ties with it. The Muslim Brotherhood opposes the Egyptian regime. Hamas' association with the movement and its all-out battle against Fatah is liable to cause Egypt to single Hamas out as an enemy and act accordingly.

  • Collapse of the Rafah Agreement – The Rafah Agreement set up the arrangement of movement between Gaza and Egypt and de-facto allows for movement through the border crossings between Israel and Gaza (Karni, Kissufim Erez etc). The Rafah Agreement is based on the presence of Fatah forces at the crossing. Hamas control over the Rafah crossing is thus likely to cause the cancellation of the agreement and result in the closure of the crossings to Israel.

Policy Options

Should Israel seek a return to the status quo ante or allow Hamas to 'win' in Gaza? – On the one hand, Israel's natural inclination is to prevent a Hamas victory and return the situation to the status quo ante. On the other hand, prior to Hamas' victory in Gaza, Israel was faced with a stalemate vis-à-vis the Palestinians. This new situation presents both opportunities and threats to Israel.

Division between West Bank and GazaEven prior to the recent events, de-facto division existed between Gaza and the West Bank with Israel relating to the two areas differently. However, Israel could not distinguish politically between Gaza and the West Bank in a way that would undermine the principle which was established in Oslo (9/93) that the West Bank and Gaza Strip are a Single Territorial Unit. Therefore, even after the Disengagement from Gaza (8/05), Israel was unable to transform the political and economic arrangements in the two areas.

Hamas' victory in Gaza and the consolidation of Fatah control in the West Bank may effectively create two separate territorial-political units with a congruence of responsibility, power and authority: A 'Hamastan' in Gaza and a 'Fatah-land' in the West Bank. This reality may allow Israel to formulate different policies towards the two areas.

What will the constitutional situation in the West Bank be? There are a few possibilities:

  • Collapse of the PA in the West Bank – Ongoing crisis in the PA’s ability to provide basic services to the Palestinian population in the West Bank will lead to a humanitarian crisis and renewal of Israeli Civilian Administration.

  • Political Vacuum – Fatah ministers will not be members in the National Unity Government, which will solely comprise Hamas members. At the same time, the PA will not be able to hold new elections. In spite of the government neither meeting nor functioning in the West Bank, basic civic services will be ensured through the office of the Chairman and international organizations.

  • Abu Mazen leads a constitutional process consolidating a Fatah controlled PA in the West Bank – In such a situation Abu Mazen would use his position as the PLO Chairman and the Fatah majority in the PLO to change the Basic Law of the PA, cancel the position of Prime Minister and establish a new government with himself as the Chairman of the PA.

Future of the 'Three Demands Policy' – The new situation allows Israel to consider continuing the economic and political boycott on Gaza while lifting it in the West Bank. This option would be influenced by the constitutional situation created in the West Bank.

If Abu Mazen consolidates Fatah's control in the West Bank, Israel should consider strengthening him through transferring funds, renewing the free movement of trade and lifting all constraints on cooperation with Fatah representation in positions of authority for providing services to the population.

Political Process – In the new reality, it's clear that as long as there is no political change in the PA, any political process can only take place in the West Bank. Therefore, there are increased prospects of a political process whose aim is either a Palestinian State in Provisional Borders based on the Roadmap or the separation between the signing of a Permanent Status Agreement and its implementation.

Relations between Israel and Egypt – Recent events may influence Israeli-Egyptian relations. For example, if Israel continues the boycott on Gaza and prevents movement into Israel, it may create Palestinian pressure on the Egyptian border that may even lead to a refugee problem.

This reality may undermine Israeli-Egyptian relations or prepare the ground for a deal in which Egypt will commit itself to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza in return for the opening of the border between Israel and Gaza to movement.

International Involvement – The pressure on the international community to intervene is expected to increase. However, in the new situation, an international force is dependent on the agreement and cooperation of Hamas. Increased anarchy in the PA will decrease the prospects of the introduction of an international force.

Policies vis-à-vis Fatah in the West Bank – Until now, Israel and the US balanced their limited support for Fatah with certain respect for Palestinian institutions. Currently, with the collapse of Palestinian democracy, Israel should reconsider this policy and support Fatah in the West Bank as much as it would require.