The consequences of the murders of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank haven’t played themselves out yet, but one thing already seems certain: the killings will reverse whatever progress the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas has made in recent months.
The past two weeks have re-opened the rift between Hamas and the nationalist movement Fatah and drawn Hamas back into open conflict with Israel. Worst still from the Islamist group’s perspective, the West Bank kidnappers potentially scuttled elections in 2015 that Hamas actually had a decent shot at winning, and demonstrated how the pragmatists within the organisation are hostage to its uncontrollable fringe.
It reverses Hamas’s drive towards relative respectability at a time when it can ill afford such a setback. The past two years have been complicated for the Islamist movement, a U.S. and EU-designated terrorist group whose charter calls for the violent annihilation of the State of Israel.
But the war wasn’t a total loss: Hamas fired 1,500 rockets at Israel, hitting both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. In addition to proving Hamas’s military capabilities, the ceasefire document called for Israel to ease its controls over Gaza’s borders. Perhaps most importantly, Hilary Clinton pulled off perhaps her greatest performance as Secretary of State, in pressuring Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammad Morsi to broker a ceasefire and selling this as a sign of Morsi’s moderation and ability to control Hamas. When the flare-up concluded, Hamas had an ally who had apparently proven his value as a mainstream member of the international community.
Morsi’s support was a bulwark against other problems. The increasingly sectarian war in Syria led to a rift between Sunni Hamas and Shi’ite Iran, which provided Hamas with weaponry and funding. The support of the Assad government became such a liability that Hamas had to vacate its longtime headquarters in Damascus. Hamas grew less and less popular within Gaza itself. But none of that seemed fatal as long as Morsi eased restrictions along Egypt’s border with Gaza, or turned a relative blind eye to potential weapons smuggling.
That all ended when the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi in June of 2013. Since then, Hamas has been adrift, with its leadership split between Gaza, the West Bank, Turkey, and the Arab states. It was cut off from its former patrons, left out of the recognised Palestinian government, and widely resented even in the area it controlled.
Then came the April 2014 unity agreement.
When reached for comment yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Edgar Vasquez stressed to Business Insider that Hamas has no role in this government, in State’s view. Even so, the government came about as a result of documents that Hamas signed, and on which Hamas’s name appears. It includes four cabinet-level ministers that Hamas selected.
And it’s a caretaker government that’s meant to pave the way for elections in 2015 — elections in which Hamas would participate. This government was Hamas’s ticket back to respectability. The United States was willing to carefully work around its own laws in order to make this government work. The nationalist Fatah party was willing to rescue Hamas from a potential organizational crisis in the name of national unity.
“This was a workaround,” Jonathan Schanzer, an expert on Palestinian internal politics at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies told Business Insider from Tel Aviv. “It was a technical solution to a political problem. At the end of the day, it was a creation forged by Hamas and Fatah.”
All Hamas had to do was not spoil it, and they couldn’t even do that.
As Avi Issacharoff reported today, the Palestinian Authority is committed to keeping the unity government intact — but he also writes that Fatah blames Hamas operatives for the teens’ murders. A couple of weeks ago, Hamas seemed pragmatic enough to invite into the Palestinian government. Now it appears compartmentalized, self-destructive, and deeply untrustworthy. It behaves like a group that’s incapable of acting out of rational self-interest, or of enforcing its organizational edicts.
And that’s even before Israel launches a response to the teens’ murders.
Israeli officials are not sure how high up the chain of command the kidnapping plot went, but rocket attacks on Israel in recent days were reportedly ordered and endorsed by the organisation’s Gaza leadership. The two sides are at their most dangerous point of confrontation in years — something that was hardly foreseeable just a couple of months ago.
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