Hamas must sooner than later decide whether it wants to genuinely join the political process and become a positive political force in Palestinian lives or continue the violent struggle against Israel and destroy itself in the process. This, ultimately, is the choice because sooner than the organization’s leaders believe, they will find themselves between Israel’s crushing hammer and the Palestinian Authority’s hard-hitting rock.
The explosion of a truck loaded with live rockets that killed 15 Palestinians while Hamas was parading its weapons in a densely populated area in Gaza was, in and of itself, a consequence of recklessness. To blame Israel and then fire scores of rockets in retaliation to cover for its egregious and irresponsible behavior is, however, a much worse offense, in that more innocent Palestinians lost their lives resulting from the Israeli severe retaliation. If Hamas is bent on self-destruction, this is a sure way to go about it: provoke ever more deadly Israeli retaliations while alienating increasing numbers of Palestinians who will demand an end to the senseless slaughter. Before the situation gets out of control, Hamas should carefully assess the reality in Gaza in the wake of the Israeli pullout and not push its luck because the political dynamics have dramatically changed, and not in its favor. Here’s why:
First, the whole world is watching Gaza and how the Palestinians conduct themselves now that there is no Israeli presence. Although the emergence of a respected central authority may have to await the elections, the lawlessness and chaotic situation that pervades Gaza must be brought under control now. The future of economic development, including the prospects for foreign investments so Gaza’s shattered infrastructure may be rebuilt, making it a growing and thriving nascent Palestinian state, depend on political stability and an end to violence. Hamas must understand that violence against Israel and economic progress simply will not go together. And the Palestinian public will hold Hamas accountable if the first real opportunity to live in dignity in more than five decades is squandered.
Second, Prime Minister Sharon’s decision to withdraw from Gaza was premised on the assumption that continued occupation negates the principle of peaceful coexistence and that the Palestinians must be given a chance to govern themselves. Having executed the withdrawal against tremendous odds, and at the cost of alienating his political base and risking his political fortunes, especially as he faces the prospect of new elections, Sharon is determined not to allow Hamas to undermine such a monumental undertaking that holds so much promise for the future. Hamas should expect merciless Israeli retaliation for any provocation emanating not just from Gaza but also from the West Bank. Hamas should also disabuse itself of the notion that it can force Israel out of the West Bank through violence. As a high Israeli official told me, with the change in political dynamics in Israel and the Palestinian territories, persistent violence at this juncture will only accelerate Hamas’ demise.
Third, for the Palestinian Authority, and especially, the future of its President Mahmoud Abbas, only progress and stability in Gaza offer a real prospect for further withdrawal from the West Bank, leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Although Mr. Abbas would like to lure Hamas into the political process, he is unwilling to sacrifice the future of the Palestinian people to its whims. Thus, however hard he tries to avoid a showdown, Hamas may force his hand if it continues to use violence as a strategy. Moreover, as the Palestinian national elections scheduled for January near, the PA desperately needs Israeli cooperation to conduct it in an unimpeded fashion, so it is imperative to demonstrate in the interim that it has the capacity to govern and maintain order, particularly in Gaza. This is precisely why the PA condemned the violence of the past few days and placed the blame for violating the ceasefire squarely on Hamas.
During a recent trip to the Middle East and Turkey, I had an opportunity to meet in Ankara with Turkish academics and officials, and much of our discussions centered on how Turkey can contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israeli and Palestinian officials both see that Turkey’s contribution to the economic development of Gaza can be extremely significant, whether in building the infrastructure – for example, seaport, airport, hospitals, schools, highways – or in the development of industrial parks that could create thousands of jobs for Palestinians. More immediately, Turkey can help keep things calm, both as mediator within the Palestinian community and between Israel and some of the Palestinian factions, including Hamas. Because it can give assistance with no strings attached and without being wedded to previous positions, Turkey enjoys greater freedom than even the United States in some instances to act in this vital capacity.
Hamas as an organization faces a critical crossroad: it must either choose the political path and become a builder of a new Palestinian life or continue along its violent path, destroying the chances for its own people to live in peace and in the process destroying itself. Will Hamas’ leadership see the light or remain blinded by arrogance and false pride and so perhaps miss the last chance of redeeming itself?