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How Hamas Fell Into The Arafat Trap

The current war of attrition between Hamas and Israel proved one thing to the average citizen of the region beyond all doubt: Hamas is weak. Its claim to be the sole broker of moqawama (resistance) to the Israeli “occupier” is falling on deaf ears.

Hamas’ problem is one of legitimacy — quite like the one Yasser Arafat struggled with in 2000 when he met with Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton in the famous Camp David talks. Everyone knows how that turned out. And while there are different versions as to which side was to blame for the talks’ failure, it’s clear now that Hamas is experiencing what Arafat was going through at the time.

In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PA Chairman Arafat met with President Clinton in an effort to resolve the age-old Arab-Israeli conflict. The idea was to finalize a two-state solution — a progression on the Camp David Accords in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter was able to broker a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.

The negotiations were based on an ‘all or nothing’ approach — nothing was considered agreed and binding until everything was agreed. The proposals were, for the most part, verbal.

In the deal, Arafat was offered over ninety-seven percent of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem, with Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of that state (including the holy place of the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary), an international presence in place of the Israeli Defense Force in the Jordan Valley — and with the unlimited right of return for Palestinian refugees to their state, but not to Israel. This was nearly everything Arafat had wanted.

However, Arafat faced a political dilemma. His whole raison d’être was to “resist” the “occupier” in order to create a Palestinian state. And he had Hamas — over which he had loose control at the time — breathing down his neck. Should Arafat falter, he knew he’d have civil war with the Islamic militant organization. Had Arafat accepted the Camp David deal, he’d be assassinated … literally or politically. So Arafat chose to reject the deal — because he wanted to be seen by his people (and the diaspora) as a symbol of resistance — and to keep Hamas in its box.

Fast-forward roughly 14 years, and Hamas finds itself in the same unhappy spot that Arafat once occupied. Hamas has been governing Gaza since 2007 with an iron fist. The Gazan economy is suffering immensely, due in large part to poor governance. As a result, other, more extreme factions are beginning to operate and win support within Gaza — including Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) and Islamic Jihad (who are behind some of the recent rocket attacks on Israel). To complicate matters further, Hamas’ has been constantly coping with internal fractures; its political and military wings don’t always see eye to eye.

In 2012, Hamas thought it had found a way out of its misery when the Muslim Brotherhood — Hamas’ parent organization — was elected in Egypt. However, after Abdel Fattah al-Sissi removed Muslim Brotherhood head Mohammed Morsi from the presidency and succeeded him in power, Hamas’ fortunes declined. The current regime in Cairo despises the Brotherhood and is only slightly inclined to tolerate its Palestinian offshoot. And on a regional level, the states that are friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood — including Qatar and Turkey — now appear to have relinquished their support. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries have taken a harsh stance against the Brotherhood and now seem to be supportive of the new regime in Cairo. Meanwhile, the Egyptian military has gone to great lengths to destroy the networks of tunnels connecting Gaza and Sinai used by Hamas to transport both civilian goods and weapons.

As Hamas finds its options restricted by a hostile Egypt, an Israeli naval blockade and its own poor governance, it also has to face the same awkward situation that pushed Arafat into a corner in 2000. Should Hamas begin legitimizing itself and negotiating with Israel in order to bring about a future Palestinian state, or should it remain the moqawama against the Israeli occupation? Hamas has been tilting back and forth between these two roles since it came to power in 2007, pivoting between unifying with its political opponent — Fatah — and launching rockets from Gaza. However, it seems that Hamas is beginning to realize that governing and helping its people is more important than maintaining its moqawama status.

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy had this to say recently: “(Israel has) coined a new method of diplomacy in the twenty-first century. (Israel doesn’t) meet with (Hamas), (Israel doesn’t) talk to (Hamas), but … each one listens to the other side. Somehow, in the end, an understanding is crafted.”

Reports have emerged that Hamas has offered Israel a 10-year ceasefire. Maybe it’s a deal Israel should pursue. This could be the moment to regain the trust that has been lost and get back to the negotiating table with a Palestinian Authority unifying both Fatah and Hamas. For Israel, the alternatives are far worse.

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