Trying to Understand Hamas, Part 2

The New York Times published an article on Sunday called “Despite Gains, Hamas Sees a Fight for Its Existence and Presses Ahead”. I read it in an effort to understand Hamas’ motivations, given the likelihood that attacking Israelis – justified or not – will always result in greater injury to Palestinians. The first Palestinian quoted is a professor of political science at a university in East Jersualem. He thinks Hamas is acting in order to achieve some concrete benefits for the Gaza Strip, most importantly an end to the trade and travel restrictions imposed by Israel. Presumably referring to Hamas’ relatively minor military achievements, the professor says:

All these achievements of Hamas, if they strike a deal without achieving something for the people of Gaza, they will lose everything and will bury themselves….It’s a very critical moment; Hamas is to be or not to be. If they don’t reach what they promised to reach, it will be like a balloon, just punctured.

Everyone seems to agree that Hamas’ overall position has weakened in recent years. In the words of the Times reporter:

Politically isolated after breaks with Syria, Iran and especially Egypt, and its effort at reconciling with the Palestinian factions that rule the West Bank having failed to bear fruit, Hamas has all but given up on governing Gaza to focus on the battlefield…In Gaza, where many see violence as the only language that works. 

Though weary of war, many Gazans see the so-called resistance as the only possible path to pressing Israel and Egypt to open border crossings, and to ending Israel’s “siege” on imports and exports and naval “blockade.” Hamas and its backers in Qatar and Turkey have also been calling for a seaport and airport in the coastal enclave.

Two other Palestinians are then quoted. According to a former Hamas official:

The only option left for us was to defend ourselves and to make Israel bleed the way that we have been bleeding all these years. It is not acceptable to go back to a situation where we are being squeezed to death and where the whole society is being paralyzed.

A plumber shopping for vegetables is said to echo the feelings of other residents that “life is so miserable” in Gaza that they are “willing to suffer the high costs of war” if it can bring change:

We want a cease-fire, of course, but it has to be based on the demands of the resistance. If they refuse to open the crossings, then we’ll all become martyrs, God willing.

Finally, a political analyst based in Jordan, is quoted:

When Israel started attacking the Gaza Strip, Hamas saw an opportunity not only to stand up to Israel but to seek to resolve … broader issues. This conflict for them is a struggle to lift the blockade of Gaza more than anything else.

Assuming the statements of the three Palestinians and the Jordanian analyst are representative of Hamas’ thinking, Hamas’ actions don’t seem so mysterious.

From all accounts, Gaza is a hellhole: almost 2 million people (13,000 per square mile) living in the desert, with 50% unemployment, heavy restrictions on travel, imports and exports, widespread malnutrition, a contaminated water supply and a spotty electrical system (made even worse today by Israel’s destruction of Gaza’s only power plant). Attacking the country they view as their tormentors may not be the best solution, but it doesn’t seem crazy either. (I recommended non-violent resistance in an earlier post, but I’m not sure how feasible that is for people in an enclave like Gaza.)

The Times article also quotes three Israelis, giving one of them the last word on the subject.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is quoted as calling for the demilitarization of Gaza, including enforcement of that demilitarization by international authorities (a view some in Hamas would consider unilateral disarmament). A former chief of Israeli military intelligence is skeptical: “This is their ideology, this is what they believe in; it’s the resistance. To ask Hamas to demilitarize Gaza is like asking a priest to convert to Judaism”. Or to ask a rabbi to convert to Islam? (By the way, this is the same former officer who wrote an op-ed column for the Times a couple days earlier calling for the destruction of Hamas: “Israel has every right to intensify its campaign until Hamas’s leaders agree to a cease-fire”. Or until they’re all dead?)

An Israeli political scientist is also quoted:

The way to understand the Hamas decision-making calculus is not by Western perspective but by their own perspective. Hamas, the leadership does not care so much about the civilian casualties; what he looks at is the military balance. They think they can gain more. They do not feel pressure as much as we perceive.

These last remarks are especially problematic. The speaker contrasts a “Western” perspective, presumably held by reasonable people like Israelis and Americans, according to which life is precious, with a foreign perspective that we probably shouldn’t even bother to understand. That’s the perspective that was frequently attributed to the American Indians, the Japanese in World War 2, and the Viet Cong. What it boils down to is the idea that our enemies are somehow less than human. That, of course, makes it more palatable to kill them in large numbers.

But in light of the massacre that’s occurring in the Gaza Strip (some 1200 Palestinians killed so far, mostly civilians, vs. 53 Israeli soldiers and 3 civilians), which side in this conflict is behaving as if life is precious? Not Israeli or Palestinian life, but human life in general?

It isn’t good enough to insist that “they started it”.

Update from the NY Times:

Israel’s aerial assaults on targets in Gaza broadened on Tuesday, with barrages that destroyed Hamas’s media offices, the home of a top leader and what Palestinians said was a devastating hit on the only electricity plant, plunging the enclave of 1.7 million into deeper deprivation with no power, running water or sewage treatment.

The shutdown of the power plant … threatened to turn the situation in Gaza into a major humanitarian crisis. The facility powers water and sewage systems as well as hospitals, and it had been Gaza’s main source of electricity in recent days after eight of 10 lines that run from Israel were damaged.

“Today there is no electricity in Gaza,” said Jamal Dardasawi of Gaza’s electricity distribution company, noting that the power supplied by Egypt is not even enough for the southern city of Rafah. Rafiq Maliha, director of Gaza’s power plant, said it would probably take “months or a year” to repair it. Mr. Maliha said the shells had hit the main fuel tank, the fuel-treatment facility and two turbines.

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