Hamas in the back seat--for now

Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons/Marsmet543

Jerusalem is Israel's Achilles Heel and Palestinian resistance may have moved into a new phase. Hamas's involvement in this has been minimal so far. Its ability to affect politics remains, however.

Hamas has been one of the main drivers of violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since the 1990s. Events in the past decade and, especially, in the past few months seem to be changing this. The replacement of suicide bombing attacks with rockets and the subsequent deployment by Israel of its Iron Dome missile defence system have dramatically reduced Hamas’s violent effect on Israelis’ everyday lives, not just when compared to the horror of the early 2000s, but also when compared to the 1990s. In addition, since the most recent round of conflict between Israel and Hamas, there has been a surge of violence from within the Israeli side of its security barrier. This violence has been carried out by Palestinians (with gruesome reprisals from Jewish vigilantes) who live on that side of the barrier. It is also notable that these latest attacks are mostly not carried out at the behest of Hamas or any other militant group. Has the threat from Hamas receded? Is the new threat from within the ‘wall’ now greater?

Jerusalem is potentially Israel’s Achilles Heel. Palestinians living there are not separated from Israelis by a security barrier. They are not coordinated by a governing authority that could be targeted in the same way that Hamas in Gaza can. ‘Civil’ measures like policing and intelligence are the only possibilities for deterrence. These, along with Jerusalem Palestinians’ separation from those in the rest of the Occupied Territories and their generally better quality of life, seem to have worked thus far in keeping violence originating from Palestinians in Jerusalem and from Arab Israelis to a minimum. Punitive measures, like imprisonment and home demolitions, can actually undermine deterrence as the situation escalates, however: If security at holy sites intensifies to the detriment of Muslim worshippers and punitive measures damage Jerusalem Palestinians’ way of life, they may feel they have less to lose by turning to violence. Such a move would have little to do with Hamas.

Palestinian resistance has gone through several phases, but it has appeared recently to be settling on pushing for international pressure. As the Jerusalem specialist Michael Dumper points out, the sheer density of holy sites in Jerusalem ensures that there is constant international attention on the city. Israel is limited in the harshness of measures it can implement there without incurring international opprobrium. Escalation in Jerusalem would further increase international attention and reinvigorate drives to resolve the situation by establishing a Palestinian state that would incorporate majority-Palestinian portions of Jerusalem.

As attention focuses on Jerusalem, then, might Gaza and Hamas slip into the background? This is unlikely. The confrontation cannot be resolved without addressing the issue of who controls Gaza and its relationship to any future Palestinian state. As long as Hamas remains in power there, it will therefore remain relevant and be capable of influencing, and quite possibly scuppering, any deal. No solution can thus be found without dealing with Hamas. Hamas has so far always acted as a spoiler in the peace process and rejects two states as a final solution to the conflict. Violence undermines the moral force of Palestinian demands for statehood upon which much of current international actions by Palestinians are predicated. Rising violence in Jerusalem could have this effect, or it could come from Hamas. Hamas may therefore seem less important at present, but it remains in a position to influence events in the larger conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and no solution could succeed that ignored it. It is not irrelevant yet.


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