When Hamas took over Gaza in 2006, I wrote in The International Herald Tribune that, perhaps, it was a blessing in disguise: “Things might now become much clearer. There will be no whitewashing, no Arafat-style double-talk or endless Abbas impotence. It’s better to deal with a pure enemy: Fight him ruthlessly while he is your enemy, and sit down and talk to him when he is genuinely willing to cut a deal.
“History has seen such things happen.”
Indeed, in the 12 years since, Hamas rotated between being Israel’s enemy and a de facto partner. Three times Israel fought Hamas, trying to stop the harassment of its south with rockets. In 2008-09, it was Operation Cast Lead; in 2012, it was Operation Pillar of Defense; and in 2014 — Operation Defensive Edge.
In between, Israel found itself forced to deal with Hamas, because it was the true ruler of Gaza. Israel and the rest of the world declared Hamas to be a terror organization and therefore didn’t have any formal relations with it. However, huge sums of money poured into Gaza during the years. They were funneled through the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, but eventually landed in the hands of Hamas, which practically governs Gaza. This masked ball helped alleviate the living conditions of the poor Gazans, while officially not recognizing Hamas.
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For Israel, this situation was even more problematic. For instance, Israel is the main supplier of electricity to Gaza. Paradoxically, even when the Israeli Air Force bombed Gaza, the Israeli Electricity Corporation continued to supply power. And who handles this electric power once it reaches Gaza? Hamas bureaucrats, of course.
The Gilad Shalit affair is another case in point. This Israeli soldier was abducted by Hamas in June 2006 and eventually released in October 2011 in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. Since Israel wouldn’t deal with Hamas directly, negotiations were conducted with the Egyptians, who then negotiated with Hamas.
Then, enter the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to makes all this ambiguity worse. Since Hamas broke away from the hegemony of its brothers and sisters in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, tried in vain to bring them back. Among other means of coercion, the Palestinian Authority asked Israel — listen to this! — to cut the power supply to Gaza.
Clearly, there is no love lost between Ramallah and Gaza, and only last week, Abbas blamed Hamas for orchestrating the attack on the convoy of Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah as he entered the Gaza Strip. Abbas, who obviously lost his patience, said the “[t]he Gaza Strip has been hijacked by Hamas … They must immediately hand over everything, first and foremost security, to the Palestinian national consensus government.”
Nothing of the sort will happen, of course. Hamas will not relinquish power and, anyway, according to Halil Shikaki, the leading Palestinian pollster, few in the West Bank trust Abbas. If elections were held there today, Hamas would have won in a landslide.
Israel should therefore take off the mask and deal directly with Hamas. Dealing with it directly means not only fighting it fiercely when necessary, but also collaborating with it when it is ready. Earlier this week, retired IDF Gen. Giora Eiland, no naïve “peacenik” but former national security adviser to several Israeli prime ministers, advocated in Yedioth Aharonot newspaper that Israel and Western countries should work together with Hamas — not behind its back — to boost Gaza’s economy. The more power stations and desalination plants built, he reasons, the more restrained Hamas will become.
Needless to say, strict control measures should be taken to ensure that these investments are not used for hostile purposes, like building attack tunnels (which, by the way, Israel finds and destroys).
On Friday, thousands of Gazans will demonstrate and attempt to storm the fence with Israel. These are people who are crushed between Israel and Egypt, who are unemployed and who are feeling betrayed by their brothers and sisters in Ramallah. By turning the tables on everybody involved, Israel might find itself in a new role, where Hamas would be interested in cooperating with it in creating jobs for the people of Gaza, instead of sending them unto missions of despair.