How has Hamas kept its strength for so long without giving in to mediation pressure?

Op-eds / The Gaza Campaign

It is possible to suggest several explanations for the inability of the mediators to persuade Sinwar or to force his hand until now.

How is it that Hamas, not a particularly large or strong organization, is refusing to bend to the pressure from the United States, the main global power, and two major states in the Middle East, Egypt and Qatar?

Despite being under heavy military pressure from Israel, suffering large-scale casualties, and having lost most of its territorial strongholds, as well as its Philadelphi Corridor tunnel lifeline, Hamas remains unwilling to accept proposals that would seem to be relatively generous, considering its current situation.

To answer this question, one needs to go into Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s mind – a difficult, if not impossible, task, as the events of October 7 proved. Even if some psychologists might categorize his personality as psychotic or narcissistic, there is an element of rationality to his decision-making, even if this rationality is different from ours.

Despite this challenge, it is possible to suggest several explanations for the inability of the mediators to persuade Sinwar or to force his hand until now. The first explanation is that none of the mediators has sufficiently strong leverage against Hamas.

Of the three, Qatar would seem to have the three most significant assets: halting the financial aid it provides to Hamas (which in any case would seem not to be arriving at present); freezing the organization’s assets in Qatar; and closing Hamas’s offices in Qatar, which would mean exiling the organization’s leaders from its territory.

Qatar has threatened to expel the Hamas leadership from its territory, but this threat has not yet been carried out because Qatar understands that such a step would jeopardize its ability to mediate between Israel and Hamas.

Losing this role would damage Qatar’s regional and international status. In any case, hurting Hamas’s leadership’s standard of living is not of concern to Sinwar.

Egypt has even weaker leverage than Qatar. Though Egypt is considered in the Arab world as the “big sister,” it has few resources to deploy in mediation. It has even lost its last leverage – control of the Philadelphi Corridor.

Though its General Intelligence Service, responsible for relations with Hamas, provides a form of “bear hug” of the organization, there are more opposing than shared interests between the two.

US plays important role as mediator

The importance of the United States as a mediator lies in its ability to offer guarantees against any violation of the agreement by Israel after signing. Beyond this, President Joe Biden has no direct leverage against Hamas. The main, and perhaps only, indirect leverage at his disposal is to apply pressure to Qatar, a US ally that houses the largest American military base in the Middle East and enjoys special status as a non-NATO-member ally.

But the United States has no interest in harming itself by harming Qatar. In this context, it is possible that the United Nations has stronger leverage in the form of applying sanctions, under the terms of Article 7 of the UN Charter.

A second explanation relates to the fact that sanctions against uncooperative actors in the international arena are ineffective when those actors’ survival is at stake.

In other words, those in danger of being wiped out are not deterred by threats made by their allies or by mediators. Thus, any proposal that does not entail an unequivocal promise to end the war will be rejected, even at the cost of further casualties – which in any case, are not a factor for Hamas in considering whether to continue or end the fighting.

And finally, the pressure being applied to Israel by the international community, the military pressure being applied by Hezbollah on the northern border, and the pressure from Israeli society to reach a deal for the hostages have led Sinwar to conclude that his goals will be achieved eventually, even if it takes a long time. This policy involves risk-taking and brinkmanship, characteristic of leaders who are impetuous or extremely courageous.

What are the options?

If this assessment is accurate, then what can be done? There are three options:

The first is simply to accept Hamas’s demands. The advantage of this course of action is that it will bring the end of the war and the release of the hostages, and perhaps allow Israel to focus on the northern theater, which in any case requires a more robust policy, whether by diplomatic or military means.

The disadvantage is that Israel will be seen as not having achieved its military goals of toppling and removing Hamas, and Hamas will receive a boost to its self-image as having defeated Israel by surviving. In this sense, the war will be similar to the Suez War and the Yom Kippur War, which ended with military victories for Israel but with diplomatic victories for Nasser and Sadat, respectively.

The second option is to start working seriously on plans for the reconstruction of Gaza under alternative leadership – not an Israeli civilian or military administration, but on a body enjoying international legitimacy, such as the Palestinian Authority, albeit with a different leadership, enjoying local legitimacy. The return of the PA to Gaza, with backing from moderate Arab states, would be a real threat to the remnants of Hamas rule in Gaza.

This possibility also involves promoting normalization with Saudi Arabia, which in turn would be a catalyst for further security and economic integration of Israel in the region.

The third option is to continue the war until Hamas surrenders unconditionally, though presumably this goal is unattainable as long as Hamas continues to hold hostages.

The war in Gaza is asymmetrical: it is a war between a state and a non-state actor, between a large military deploying massive forces and advanced weaponry against an organization using limited (and sometimes primitive) means and guerrilla tactics.

In many ways, it is reminiscent of the Vietcong’s war against the United States in Vietnam, and we all know how that ended. Israel needs to choose a realistic option – that is, a combination of the first and second options described above.

The article was published on June 29th, 2024, at The Jerusalem Post.

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