Palestinians in Gaza had barely buried their dead and tended to their wounded in the wake of Israel’s week-long assault when Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was doling out concessions on the US mainstream media. The same day a ceasefire was announced last week, Meshaal told CNN’s venomous and condescending Christiane Amanpour that a Palestinian state within the “1967 borders” of the West Bank and Gaza Strip was acceptable. Meshaal sounded more like a broken record of Mahmoud Abbas than that of a resistance leader emerging out of a hard-fought battle (“Mashaal: I accept a Palestinian state on ‘67 borders,” The Jerusalem Post, 22 November 2012).
Since then, the political flirtation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has continued unabated. The latest move was Meshaal’s enthusiastic endorsement on Monday of Mahmoud Abbas’s theatrical bid for virtual statehood at the UN (upgrading the Palestine Liberation Organization’s observer status to that of a state) (“Hamas backs Abbas bid to upgrade Palestinian UN status,” France 24, 26 November 2012). The Hamas-Fatah rapprochement is increasingly depicted by media reports as a preamble for resuming national reconciliation talks between the two factions now that the UN bid is over.
National unity reasonably remains a top demand for most Palestinians. But with the Palestinian Authority unequivocally acting as the de facto native enforcer of Israeli occupation, unity can easily turn into impunity for the occupier and its agents, and co-optation for the forces fighting them. Achieving unity is easier said than done; previous attempts have failed. The future of armed resistance rests on the outcome of such talks, and those in turn will have to take into account the fall-out of Israel’s latest attack on Gaza amid an evolving military and regional political configuration.
Few wars in Palestine have been as spun by all sides for political gain like this latest one. Having alienated many of its supporters due to its backing of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Iran and its allies were over eager to take explicit credit for their military and financial support to Hamas and to reassert that the worthy battle is that of Palestine not Syria. The opposing “moderate” camp was as eager to prove that it is equally capable of siding with Palestinian resistance while fighting its former allies in Damascus.
The fact that Hamas still had one foot in each camp when the attack began played to the movement’s favor. The highest form of support, military and financial, continued to flow from Iran, while diplomatic pressure was exerted by the new Egyptian regime seeking regional legitimacy to prevent a ground invasion and broker a ceasefire.
In the press conference jointly held by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad to announce the ceasefire, Meshaal tried to appease all actors. He thanked those in the “moderate” camp such as Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, while acknowledging the role of Iran (Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent from all declarations of gratitude by Hamas officials).
But it was clear from the press conference that Hamas’ new political patron is Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Even the Islamic Jihad, which still maintains some ties with Damascus and is known for its closer ties to Iran, seemed more aligned with Hamas’ new allegiance scheme when Islamic Jihad’s Secretary-General Ramadan Shallah thanked Egypt but not Iran in his brief interjection (“Resistance says its word: Zionist entity defeated,” Al-Manar, 21 November 2012).
Both leaders made explicit reference to the positive role that Egyptian intelligence reportedly played. Long seen as Israel’s ears and eyes in Gaza and Sinai, it is hard to take for granted that this blemished Egyptian state apparatus has turned into a backer of armed resistance without the necessary purges from its ranks taking place.
Even if the new Egypt, as Hamas claimed, was as firm in warning Israel of a ground invasion and pushing for an agreement favorable to the conditions of the resistance, sooner or later, Israel and the US will demand that Cairo play a more active role in clamping down on the flow of arms. Washington’s push for an increased Egyptian role in the prevention or proliferation of weapon smuggling will increase with the further sidelining of Syria and the search for alternative routes of weapons transport, namely via Sudan towards Suez and Sinai.
With the passage of time, the Brotherhood will have to come clean on where it stands regarding the question of financial and military support for Hamas. If precedence is any indication, it will likely seek to maintain a status quo: no active collusion with Israel in return for pushing Hamas to reign in radical elements and future armed operations rather than supply the financial and military assistance needed.
With Egypt a long way from possibly developing a strong, independent military purged of US influence and capable of replacing Iran, Hamas would be taking a foolish gamble if it placed all its eggs in the Cairo basket. A more reasonable arrangement would be to expect Cairo to overlook weapons smuggling, and to keep channels open with Tehran as a source. An Egypt-Iran arrangement of this sort — minus the corrupting Gulf links and the destabilizing Syria ones — is a new resistance order Hamas can build on should the political will be there. But this will seems to lie somewhere else: eyeing a new round of the dangerous game of national unity.
National unity trap
The Egyptian-brokered deal struck between the Hamas-led resistance factions and Israel suggests that a policy of containment rather than engagement is in the works for Gaza. In the unlikely event that Israel adheres to its provision, there are tangible gains to be won: the end of the siege and extrajudicial killings, as well as the cessation of all forms of land, aerial and maritime aggression.
But in return, the resistance has vowed to cease all military action originating from Gaza. In other words, the agreement is about disengagement, not rules of engagement. The former is in the spirit of a truce and leads to a long-term settlement, the latter in the spirit of a ceasefire and leads to advancing the struggle under new more amenable regulations.
As they stand, the current terms of agreement favor disengagement, linking resistance from Gaza to aggression against Gaza alone. This will further isolate the Strip from the West Bank, which has already disengaged from linking its struggle to aggression on Gaza.
Emotions aside, the shy protests and clashes with Zionist forces that erupted recently in the West Bank fell short of what is expected from the territory where the heart of the struggle is today. Zionists wish Gaza would disappear off the map, but they see the West Bank as the Eldorado of Zionist expansion.
Without full participation of the West Bank in future resistance, Gaza’s deterrence will fall short of turning into a long-term strategic threat. And national unity talks circulating today, as much as unity is needed, flow in that direction. Current Palestinian Authority complicity in consolidating occupation is beyond retribution. According to the 2011 report submitted by Israel to the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee (a 15-member group that includes the European Union, the US, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), the number of joint security operations between Israel and the PA jumped by 118 percent in one year, with close to 3,000 “instances of coordination” and over 600 bilateral meeting at the police and “civil defense” levels taking place in 2010 alone (“Measures taken by Israel in support of developing the Palestinian economy and socio-economic structure,” State of Israel, 13 April 2011 [PDF]).
The report praises the “professionalism and skill” of the Palestinian security force, which managed to “escort” more than 600 Israelis out of Area A — the part of the West Bank nominally under Palestinian Authority control — after the latter had strayed into it. That skill must have been put on hold when Israeli forces conducted an extensive arrest campaign in the West Bank against elected Palestinian officials and Hamas cadres before the ink on the recent ceasefire agreement had dried (“Israeli forces detain MPs around West Bank,” Ma’an News Agency, 23 November 2012). Buoyed by Arab Gulf money and the comfort zone of ruling over a disengaged Gaza, Hamas might easily fall into the faltering footsteps of Fatah, which has transformed itself from a popular resistance movement into the mutated occupation-enforcing apparatus it is today.
Back to resistance basics
Without a clear and uncompromising roadmap to engage the West Bank in the resistance project and end the Palestinian Authority’s stranglehold over it, the Hamas-Fatah rapprochement is bound to lead to co-optation of the worst kind. Arab resistance to Israel has historically been beset by a disappointing leadership that either promises victory and brings defeat or turns military victory into political loss. The verdict is out on whether the latter is the case in this war.
There is no question that Israel’s latest attack on Gaza enhanced the resistance’s deterrence capacity. The coordinated and consistent launch of an average 200 rockets a day and the unprecedented strategic depth of the attacks (Tel Aviv and Jerusalem) reflected a highly disciplined and developed resistance force — credited by some to the efforts of the assassinated Ahmad al-Jabari. The movement’s military wing was also capable of breaching Israel’s broadcasting and telecommunications network and aired propaganda messages on both while releasing more than 300 media statements about the developments of battle.
The resistance is, therefore, slowly morphing into a holistic apparatus that is not dependent on a single person. The active participation of other resistance groups, namely Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Fatah’s al-Aqsa Brigades will make a unilateral decision by Hamas to take a more “moderate” route difficult to implement without the risk of internecine fighting and factionalism within Hamas’ own ranks.
This is why the resistance’s best bet was and remains the successful formula of what may be termed unmediated deterrence and mediated negotiations. The first principle seeks to ensure that deterrence becomes fully reliant on the resistance’s own military and intelligence strength. Deterrence through diplomacy, as was partly the case in this war, is another strategy but cannot be taken for granted or relied on in the long run.
The second principle, mediated negotiations, lays out a strict rule of engagement: that negotiation with the enemy is never made directly but through honest brokers. Whether the brokers are seen as allies (Egypt), or not (Germany brokered prisoner exchange deals between Hizballah and Israel) is not the issue. The litmus test is the reliability of the broker as a mediator and more importantly perhaps the limited objective of negotiations: insisting on making incremental gains in the battle rather than setting an end-game designed to liquidate the resistance.
The resistance, of course, will outlive any attempt to liquidate it so long as Israeli occupation and apartheid exist. The risk is losing its cumulative momentum and progressive strength. For at this critical juncture of the struggle, the loss of another Ahmad al-Jabari would be one loss too many.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly argued that during the CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour, Khaled Meshaal insinuaged that the right of return did not necessarily entail the actual return of refugees. The article has been corrected.
Hicham Safieddine is a freelance journalist and researcher of the Middle East.