GAZA CITY—Since the bloody coup in which Hamas seized power in Gaza from Fatah party rivals, Hamas officials want so desperately to be liked and respected by Westerners that meetings with them seem like uncomfortable first dates, with one side awkwardly eager to please.
The charm offensive can be both superficial, as in the case of the giant neon banner outside my hotel that calls (in English) for an end to threats against “our foreign visitors and guests,” and substantial, such as the group’s pitch-perfect application of diplomacy and military pressure that led to the release of the BBC’s Alan Johnston early Wednesday morning after 114 days in captivity.
After months of ineffectual rhetoric by both Fatah and Hamas against the kidnappers—a small, but effective, group of al-Qaida-style jihadis called Jaysh al-Islam that’s part of a much larger and well-armed clan—Hamas made freeing Johnston a top priority. And over the last week, they performed with near elegance.
First they exerted pressure on Jaysh al-Islam and the large Dagmoush family by arresting or shooting anyone even remotely involved in the kidnapping. Then hundreds of its police encircled the family-dominated neighborhood in central Gaza City. All of Gaza was convinced that negotiations had failed and the time had come to settle both the kidnapping and a more complicated feud between Hamas and the family with violence. But even as black-masked members of Hamas’ elite Izzidine Qassam Brigades could be seen entering the area for a final showdown—one that could easily have killed Johnston—Hamas paused long enough to talk it out.
For a week, Hamas leaders had been saying on background that maybe they should just storm the place: Better to look strong, even if it meant a bad outcome for Johnston. But as the pressure mounted, and it became clear that Hamas might just be frustrated enough to attack, moderates in the Dagmoush family forced the militants into a face-saving dialogue. At their request, Hamas delivered a neutral Islamic cleric, respected by both sides, to issue a ruling that the kidnapping was un-Islamic. And Johnston was freed.
But besides proving that they could be firm and nuanced at the same time, Hamas did something else that was widely overlooked in the understandably joyful coverage of Johnston’s release: They failed to disarm Jaysh al-Islam, and they even released all the prisoners that had been taken in the campaign to pressure the family.
Why? Ask Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured just over a year ago in a joint operation between Hamas and, you guessed it, Jaysh al-Islam. Hamas might need to prove it can control Gaza, but it also has to maintain its street credibility among militants, at least for now. They are torn between guns and butter.
This tension between armed militancy and good governance is hard to reconcile. Hamas might have won the war to control Gaza, but it also finds itself more vulnerable to outside pressure than ever before in its 20-plus-year history. Hamas officials know that after their violent rise to power, they have to deliver more than rhetoric and martyrs. And Gaza is sick of both. It needs money, jobs, and security. In the past three weeks, despite the awful way they came to power, Hamas has delivered on the security. But to supply more, they need the help of their sworn enemies.
What is often overlooked about Hamas is that although destroying Israel is certainly high on its to-do list, the group represents the much broader agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, or “Ikwhan,” is a Pan-Arab movement out to prove that most Arab regimes are corrupt, brutal, and ineffectual—a point that’s hard to dispute when you’ve visited a few of them. The Brotherhood solution is to combine religious discipline with technocratic know-how to build a better society for the Arab world. Some consider them a moderating influence on the al-Qaida types, others point out that both groups share the same sources of intellectual inspiration, and many scholars make a reasonable argument that the Muslim Brotherhood is just radical Islam in a competent bureaucrat’s cheap suit. That debate won’t and can’t be solved here.
But Hamas now runs Gaza, and it wants to succeed. They’ve delivered security, but they also know that if the economy doesn’t pick up and wages aren’t delivered, they’re likely to be thrown out of power. If that were to happen, Gaza would descend back into chaos, and the best chance they’ve had to prove to the rest of the Arab world that they could meld Islam and modern governance will be lost.
Does this mean the United States, Israel, and President Mahmoud Abbas should suddenly embrace Hamas and help them prove their experiment could succeed? I doubt any of the three think that’s such a good idea. But they should note that for the first time in Hamas’ existence, the group desperately wants to be taken seriously as Palestinian political figures. It might be a risky gambit in light of Hamas’ refusal to accept Israel’s right to exist—it’s not unreasonable that negotiating partners start with a premise that one side has a right to live—but shrewd, or even brutal, negotiations could eventually force Hamas to deliver things that the region certainly needs.
Take Islamic Jihad. The militant group has stayed out of inter-Palestinian politics, preferring to concentrate on killing as many Israelis as it can. Talk to any Islamic Jihad leader and you’ll come away impressed—on some level—with their single-minded devotion to fighting Israel. They never negotiate with Israel or anyone else. They also ignore calls to halt rocket attacks against Israel from Gaza.
But since the Hamas takeover, some funny things have been happening. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have conducted a few rocket and mortar attacks on Israel, but most of them have been aimed at military instillations or have been responses to Israeli military incursions. At least two top Islamic Jihad commanders have been called into meetings with Hamas officials and told to halt rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. One categorically refused. The next day, his car exploded in what Hamas and Islamic Jihad called an Israeli airstrike. The Israelis—who tend to openly admit killing IJ commanders—denied responsibility. I saw the car, and after years of experience in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza, I believe a bomb had been planted under the driver’s seat.
Other Islamic Jihad commanders are getting nervous. Every few days, confrontations between Hamas forces and IJ rocket teams almost turn into shootouts. Fatah—for all of its peaceful rhetoric—never actually tried to stop Islamic Jihad or Hamas from conducting attacks; they lacked both the means and the will.
There’s also the matter of the quiet rise of al-Qaida-type groups within parts of Gaza. Jaysh al-Islam is only one of them, and, without a crackdown, more will appear. For now, Hamas has little in common with these groups, but until Hamas leaders are sure that they can hold onto power, it’s hard to see them expending energy to completely destroy such groups. Still, the Alan Johnston incident has Hamas convinced that if they’re going to run the place successfully, a bunch of guys who look to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for inspiration aren’t going to make life easier.
It’s not hard to imagine that with some small carrots and big sticks—such as freeing up some money to pay the salaries of Hamas-appointed civil servants; easing some travel restrictions; or reducing the number of armed incursions into Gaza, which inevitably produce rocket responses—could force Hamas to deliver a semblance of peace around the strip.
By allowing Jaysh al-Islam to keep its weapons and failing to crack down completely on Islamic Jihad, it’s also clear that Hamas isn’t sure how this whole thing will play out. They cannot, or will not, openly come to peace talks with Israel. But both sides would benefit from an end to the nonstop, bloody drama in and around Gaza. And for once, Israel and America have someone to talk to that could actually deliver a version of peace. We’re a long way from Hamas removing the stuff about destroying Israel from its charter, and we may never reach that point. But in the ministries and police stations of Gaza, there’s a near pathological desire by Hamas officials to prove they can govern, and this could be turned into a long-term cease-fire, which Hamas admits they’re willing to discuss.
The alternative—currently being pursued by Israel, the United States, and Abbas—is to refuse to talk and to increase pressure on Hamas and other militants, not for the sake of concessions but to push for outright collapse. On Wednesday, salaries were paid for the first time in over a year—but only to Fatah civil servants, who have refused to show up for work since Hamas took over. The intention is to strangle the new Hamas government until it collapses and is replaced with another Fatah regime that talks peace but can’t even control crime, let alone clamp down on well-trained and motivated terrorists. Such a “victory” would send a tough, well-armed fighting force back underground with nothing left to lose. And alliances with Jaysh al-Islam, Islamic Jihad, and other militants can easily be repaired once this experiment in going legit fails. Throw in some more al-Qaida-types and suddenly the devil that is being called “Hamasastan” could be replaced by something much worse.