Israel and Hamas Need Each Other

Jul 17, 2014

In her fascinating book A History of God, Karen Armstrong posits that the reason people believe in God is because God "works for them." That is to say, God is compelling because the idea of a divine being serves a useful purpose in people's lives. That utilitarian argument may be masked beneath a deep layer of spiritual devotion -- but it's a pragmatic decision all the same.

The same logic works, to a large degree, in explaining the motives and interests of Israel and Hamas toward one another. As the current Gaza conflict proves once again, these two actors -- in a perverse way -- need each other.

That's not to deny the enmity that marks the ties between Hamas and Israel, or the existential rhetoric that drives the tone of their public accusations. It's perfectly reasonable to assume that if Israeli and Hamas leaders had one wish, it would be to destroy the other. But in the practical world of Israeli-Palestinian politics, getting rid of one another is neither achievable -- nor perhaps even desirable. Indeed, because it's not an option, Israel and Hamas have not only made do with each other's existence, they have tried to figure out how to derive the maximum benefit from one another.

The Israeli-Hamas bond goes back to the very inception of the Palestinian Islamist organization. Israel didn't create Hamas in 1987, but in an effort to counter the more secular Fatah and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s, it gave a variety of Islamist groups political space and leeway. It even granted an operating license for an organization created by Hamas's founder, Ahmed Yassin. Paradoxically, Hamas's very reason for being depended on the existence of Israel -- even though its main aim was to destroy it.

One way to look at this is as a Middle Eastern form of mutually assured destruction. Hamas cannot destroy Israel, and Israel knows that it cannot reoccupy Gaza and eradicate the Islamist organization at a cost that it is willing to bear. So each actor uses the other for its own purposes.

For Israel, Hamas is a convenient address to achieve many of its short-term goals. In the strange world of controlled military confrontation, when it wants a ceasefire, it goes to Hamas, not to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. When it wants Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit released from captivity, it goes to Hamas, not Abbas. And when it needs to strike out in response to the brutal murders of three Israeli teens in the West Bank, it cracks down on Hamas -- whether or not the movement's leadership authorized the action. Hamas is a convenient target of attack -- and having applauded the kidnapping of the three boys, it is probably deserving as well.

Second, Israel needs Hamas in Gaza. Of course, it doesn't want a militant terrorist organization launching rockets at its cities and citizens. But a Hamas that maintains order there and provides a hedge against even more radical jihadi groups is preferable to a lawless vacuum. Indeed, fewer rockets were fired from Gaza in 2013 than in any year since 2001. I've often pondered why al
Qaeda has never been able to set up shop in an effective manner in Gaza, or undertake a terrorist extravaganza in Israel. The absence of an al Qaeda presence is not only a result of the Israeli security presence -- it's due to the determination of Palestinians not to allow the jihadists to hijack their cause.

The last thing Israel wants is a vacuum in Gaza. In fact, Giora Eiland, former head of Israel's National Security Council, argues that it's in Israel's interest that Gaza be stable, with a strong economy and central authority. Indeed, Eiland argues, a state-like structure can be held responsible in the event of a confrontation: Israel could attack national infrastructure, not just rocket launchers.

Third, Hamas presents a wonderful bogeyman for those Israelis looking to avoid dealing with the questions of how to make the two-state solution a reality. Hamas's hostile and frequently anti-Semitic rhetoric is a gift to Israeli right-wingers, and providing them with any number of talking points about why Israel can never trust Palestinians.

The problem posed by Hamas is not just a piece of propaganda by the Israeli Right. The fact is that the absence of a monopoly over the organized use of violence in the Palestinian territories poses a legitimate threat to a two-state solution. What Israeli is going to make what are regarded as existential concessions to Mahmoud Abbas -- a Palestinian leader who lacks the power to silence all the guns and rockets of Palestine?

Finally, Hamas -- particularly its military wing -- also thrives on the existence of Israel. Hamas's very legitimacy is derived from an ideology and strategy steeped in confrontation and resistance. However self-destructive the ideology may be, the movement represents to many Palestinians an effort to preserve their national identity and to resist Israel and its ongoing occupation. Abbas has his peace process -- or what's left of it -- and his international campaign to drum up recognition of Palestinian statehood. Hamas has its resistance. It's in the nature of its very reason for being.

There is a good chance that the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is going to escalate, perhaps to include an Israeli ground incursion as well. But even if that's the plan, the odds don't favor Israel's success in breaking Hamas as an organization or ending its control over Gaza. More than likely, it will only mark another bloody phase in a long struggle between two parties who can't seem to live with one another -- or apparently without one another either.

This article was originally published on Foreign Policy.

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