In the 1960-1980 most social science departments offered a course on “Revolutions.” Many of the courses covered the whole gamut from the Peasant Wars in Germany in the 16th century, through the French and the Russian to the Chinese revolutions and beyond. One of the lectures usually covered the political mechanism of revolution, which consists of the “transfer of power” from one class, group, or elite to another. It was emphasized that revolutions take place when groups are oppressed beyond tolerance, or their expectations are raised and then dashed, but also how every revolution represented the failure of the ruling group, the decline in the loyalty of the population to the state, the crumbling of its armed forces. There was a discussion of alternative types of transfers, coup d’etats, political revolutions, and social revolutions. A particularly central topic was the relationship between the use of revolutionary violence and an attendant political strategy. The “revolutionary era” is gone now and with it the courses on revolutions. This lacuna contributes to the weakness of the most commonly applied analyses to Hamas.
Several analysts saw in the successful break of the Israeli siege and the breakout from Gaza into the Sinai by Hamas last month a strategic improvement in Hamas’s position. But without a strategy no strategic breakthroughs are possible and without a political approach no political gains are likely. Since the June 2007 putsch, Gaza had stopped being a political issue and been transformed into a humanitarian one; in fact, into a terribly sad humanitarian disaster. Hamas, however, cannot transform humanitarian tragedies into political accomplishments because it does not participate in the only political process that matters. As long as violence and politics remain compartmentalized, Hamas is treading water and the people of Gaza pay the price.
If the study of revolutions was more widespread today, analysts would immediately pinpoint Hamas’s lack of a theory of “transfer of power” from Israelis to Palestinians as a fatal flaw in its strategy. For a long time this lacuna did not matter that much. But ever since Hamas agreed to participate in elections and then stumbled into power and subsequently abandoned the path of democracy and carried out its putsch to gain full control of Gaza it is no longer possible to ignore its confusion.
Hamas’s declared goal is to replace the state of Israel with an Islamic state. It’s means of choice–resistance in its lingo- consisted for a long time of terrorizing the Israeli civilian population through indiscriminate acts of terror. There are certain rules that Hamas relies on to regulate those acts of violence. By and large, in the past three years Hamas itself had adhered to a cease fire but allowed other movements, like Islamic Jihad, to do carry out such attacks through the lobbing of Quassam rockets and occasional Katyushas on civilian targets within Israel. When Israeli targeted assassinations with missiles or the use of less accurate artillery take too high a Palestinian toll, Hamas also engages in retaliation of its own. But Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian foreign minister called the rocket attacks “cartonish and comical” and so they are. Firing rockets would make sense if it were accompanied by a political strategy, without such strategy even if the rockets were more effective, as they will undoubtedly become over time, they would bring no benefits for the people of Gaza or the Palestinian cause.
The main weakness of Hamas’s analysis is that it does not have a clue as to how to move from terrorism to transfer of power. And the political goal that Hamas espouses, to replace Israel, is not matched by its modest means of violence: Israel will not collapse under terrorist acts. Hamas needs both a credible political strategy and a more moderate political goal.
The main reason for Hamas’s refusal to adopt such a political strategy is that its leadership is obviously weary and leery of the sell-out of Fatah and PLO and does not plan to advance a political strategy less it be ”co-opted.” But postponing politics makes Hamas ineffective. Occasionally, Hamas leaders state that they will wait until Israel gives them a real offer, one with clear boundaries for example. But such offers are not an alternative to negotiations; they only come out of negotiations, out of a political process. Furthermore, this approach hands to initiative to the Israelis.
In the meantime the Israeli position on Gaza and vis-à-vis its neighbors has hardened as we can see from the actions and pronouncements of several Israeli institutions on issues of great sensitivity in Israel. First, the Supreme Court, using language that comes straight out of the Israeli doctrine of national security, found the limiting of supplies of fuel and electricity to Gaza within certain limits legal. Second, in its final report the Winograd Commission let the Israeli government off the hook for its responsibility for its mindless decision to engage in a full-scale ground invasion of southern Lebanon when the war about to be over. Simultaneously, the Commission gave the veiled hint that Israel should not be as concerned as it is with the loss of life in its warfare with Hezbollah and, by extension, Hamas as well.
Israeli positions have also hardened, though not officially, in a third sensitive respect in the past year and a half. Israel had not been willing to accept the kind of prisoner exchange Hezbollah and Hamas are demanding for the three soldiers in captivity. No one in Israel has or will admit to it, but it is clear from Nassralah’s exasperation that Olmert has changed the Israeli policy and is no longer consenting to the exchange of individual Israeli soldiers for hundreds of Palestinian or Hezbollah captives. He is willing to let the two Israeli prisoners in Lebanon and the one in Gaza remain in captivity, thus taking away what just a few years ago, including during Sharon’s days, was a potent Arab tool. In fact, according to a recent report the two soldiers captured by Hezbollah might be declared dead since no signs of life have reached Israeli since their captivity. This will take away the possibility of the one easy victory Hamas and Hezbollah have been counting on and increase the chance of more lethal confrontations in the future.
Political as well as humanitarian considerations seem to crumble on both sides and give way to more violent approaches.