Governing Gaza: Hamas’s Dilemma

Now that Hamas has taken complete control of Gaza by force, what will result? Mogadishu on the Mediterranean? Or will the sole responsibility for governing 1.5 million Palestinians force Hamas to moderate its militancy?

The most prominent exponent of the theory behind the latter hope—i.e., the notion that governing forces radicals to become more reasonable—is, ironically, none other than George W. Bush. It was that conviction that led Bush to insist in December 2005 that the Palestinians go ahead with elections, though Palestinians and Israelis warned him Hamas could win. Bush argued that it would be good for Hamas to govern and be held accountable to the people.

But things haven’t worked the way Bush expected. Elections in the Palestinian territories did not produce transparent and accountable government. Hamas never followed the democratic rules of the game; instead, when power sharing became tiresome, its militia launched a putsch.

As a result, the West Bank is now controlled by Fatah and Gaza by Hamas. What Hamas does next, however, needn’t be determined by its bloody past. The group wanted sole control of Gaza; now it has it, and must show the people what it will do. The whole region will be watching, since this is the first time a Muslim Brotherhood party—after years of opposition, especially to Cairo—has taken control of an Arab territory.

Hamas’s first challenge will be to establish order after two years of anarchy. But bringing to heel Gaza’s tribes, warlords, smugglers and jihadists won’t be easy. Already, the Qaeda offshoot that is holding a kidnapped BBC journalist has defied Hamas’s demand to release him. Palestine Islamic Jihad takes its orders from Tehran. And some of the Fatah fighters who remained in Gaza when their leaders fled may try to destabilize the territory.

An even bigger challenge will be managing Gaza’s relations with Egypt and Israel. Gaza has no port or airport. People entering or leaving the territory have to cross the Egyptian border. Electricity, fuel and water come from Israel, as do most goods that keep Gaza on life support. Hamas must decide what kind of relationship it wants with its powerful neighbors. Israel does not want to strangle Gaza’s residents, but it will not tolerate Qassam rocket fire from the territory. Hamas must therefore somehow resolve the tension between its commitment to destroy Israel and its need to keep Gaza afloat. When it shared power with Fatah, Hamas avoided this dilemma by letting Mahmoud Abbas deal with Israel. Now the group has no choice but to reach some kind of accommodation with Jerusalem.

Unless, that is, Hamas turns to Egypt instead to supply Gaza’s basic needs. This strategy won’t be much easier, however, since Hamas has a complicated relationship with Cairo. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is already facing a challenge from Egypt’s own Muslim Brotherhood, and will be leery of the success of its Palestinian branch. Yet he’ll also fear Hamas’s failure, since this could have destabilizing spillover effects. So long as Hamas and Fatah shared power, the Egyptians were willing to turn a blind eye to cross-border arms and money smuggling, in the hope they could build influence with Hamas and reduce its dependence on Iran. Now Mubarak will likely demand that Hamas maintain order and prevent radicals from crossing the border if it hopes to get his help.

These are massive challenges, and it’s far from clear that Hamas will manage to surmount them. If it botches the job, Gaza—located on the highly sensitive seam line between Israel and the Arabs and between the West and the Muslim world—may wind up a failed state home to all sorts of terrorist groups. Should that happen, it won’t be long before the Israeli Army, with Egyptian and international acquiescence, steps in to restore order.

Given that threat, Hamas’s leaders may soon come to rue the day they let their militants overturn the power-sharing deal with Fatah. If the international effort (represented by Bush’s nomination of Tony Blair as Middle East envoy and the Egyptian-sponsored Sharm el Sheik summit with Abbas) helps the West Bank make progress while Gaza regresses, Hamas may soon realize that its only chance for holding on to power is to strike a new deal with Fatah. Then again, it’s possible that faced with the responsibility of governing and the need for external assistance, Hamas could actually come to terms with its sworn enemy, Israel. That might seem unlikely now. But in Gaza’s upside-down world, responsibility could end up emerging from the barrel of a gun rather than a ballot box.