Unilateralism of the Desperate: The Israeli and American Way to Confront Hamas

Menachem Klein



According to Israeli Ha’aretz correspondent Zeév Schiff [‘What to do with Hamas’, Ha’aretz 7 April 2006] Israeli strategists provided four options on how to confront the Hamas- led Palestinian Authority (PA), none of which included direct negotiations with Hamas leaders. While the first two options (of which there is the slightest chance Israel will endorse) call for coexistence with Hamas, the third and forth support Israel’s dismantling of the new Palestinian government. Immediately following the Palestinian election results the Israeli cabinet decided that the new PA is neither a partner nor a legitimate ruler. Israel, therefore, cut off all relations with the PA and are looking for ways to demolish the Hamas administration. Furthermore, this policy, according to Schiff, is preferred not only by Israeli officials but also by senior Fatah members who hope to come back to power riding on the Israeli and American horses. 

The first option is to base Israel’s reaction on Hamas’ pragmatic deeds rather than its extreme ideological declarations. The main advocates of this line are moderate Palestinians and several European officials. They even identify a common ground between Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s plan and Hamas’ politics. Both are opposed to making the territorial and ideological concessions necessary for anchoring their coexistence in a long- term agreement. Both sides are interested only in unilateral, ad hoc arrangements, whereby Israel will carry out partial withdrawal in exchange for cessation of the violent armed struggle. These arrangements may reduce the hostility and the violence to a tolerable level enabling the populations to lead relatively normal lives, unlike the periods of Palestinian terror attacks and Israeli incursions in the years 2000-2005.  Unlike these European and Palestinian voices, the Israeli political and security establishment can see no substantial difference between Hamas ideology and politics. Members of this faction are afraid that, upon implementation of this strategy, Hamas will solidify its power, strengthen its terrorist capabilities and let Iranian agents enter into its territories. In a simplistic method the Israeli establishment characterizes Hamas as an Iranian operative arm, the extension of the existential Iranian threat to the state of Israel and to the world peace [Ha’aretz 5, 23, February, 17 March, 17 April 2006]. 

The second option is to let the European Union (EU), international agencies and NGO’s to channel aid to the Palestinian public and, in particular, the 140,000 establishment workers. Few support this approach, but unlike the first option they belong to the Israeli establishment. They argue that preventing humanitarian catastrophe in the Palestinian territories and solving acute daily life problems are major Israeli interests. In their cost/benefit analysis, limited third party coordination will not help Hamas nor hurt Israel compared to Israel letting the Palestinian people to starve. However, this option does not enjoy much support in the Israeli establishment that rejects it on the same ground as it rejects the previous one.

The third option calls for sheer force by launching a massive army attack to destroy Hamas institutions, kill its leaders and arrest its activists. In the eyes of the Israeli ‘hawks’ pushing this option the sooner Hamas is cracked the better. Compared to this view, the next option seems moderate and balanced, thus preferred by the Israeli cabinet. 

The fourth option aims to achieve the same goal as the third but with less brutality. By cutting off aid crucial to the PA’s functioning and building an international boycott, Israel hopes that the PA seizes to function and collapses. Supporters of this option do not care about the suffering of the Palestinians and/or want to teach them a lesson: punishment for their wrong election results. Senior officials favoring the second option criticize this policy alternative as counterproductive. They argue that collapsed social services, massive collective punishment and other aggressive acts will not only help Hamas to root itself in power by blaming Israel but also evoke international criticism. They reason if at the end the international community will force Israel to halt its policy, why not begin with restrained acts implemented carefully? For this purpose Ministry of Defence officials prepared a collapse-index such as Palestinian medicine and food inventory, its level of savings in the banks, the population's purchasing power and sanitation conditions. A four-level ranking system has been established to prevent the PA to collapse completely. Ministry of Defence officials have asked for authorization to put their fingers on the Palestinian society pulse and react when needed.  

However, on 9 April Prime Minister Olmert endorsed the forth option as a tool that will prevent Hamas from becoming an established government [Ha’aretz 10 April]. He ordered to sever all ties with the PA including security coordination, and views it as a "hostile" entity. Contact with Palestinian security forces will be maintained only to save Israeli lives - to extricate Israelis who have entered Palestinian areas or to prevent a terror attack. Israel will act to isolate the Hamas government, while taking care to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the territories. Such a collapse would force Israel's Civil Administration to take responsibility for the territories in order to prevent international criticism while careful punishment will keep Israel in remote yet with a clear massage regarding Hamas. When Israel made its decision it did not realize the near impossibilty to tunnel international aid to the Palestinian population outside the government services under Hamas' jurisdiction. In addition, Olmert decided that Israel will refuse to hold official meetings with any public figures from abroad who meet with Hamas officials, renewing the boycott policy Israel imposed on officials who met with the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat. Israel, according to Olmert, views the Palestinians as "one authority, and not as having two heads," one in the cabinet and the other in the president’s office, but would refrain from a "personal disqualification" of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Thus, Abbas and his entourage will be able to travel between the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Palestinian security officials will no longer be allowed to do so [Israel already prevented the Hamas Prime Minister and cabinet members to travel between the West Bank PA headquarters and their homes in Gaza Strip].

Succesful  implementation of Olmert’s policy depends on Israel’s ability to walk carefully on the brink. Can Israel walk on the precipice for a long period of time? Probably not, especially when you consider the pugnacity of the ‘hawks’ in the Israeli security establishment, their interest in escalation and modus operandi in combating the Intifada. The involvement of large Israeli forces in the violent acts and in the control of the Palestinian territories on the one hand, and the disintegration of the Palestinian establishment into disparate political and military units on the other, make it difficult for Olmert to prevent his proxies from carrying out acts of violence on their own initiative. Moreover, Olmert’s initiatives – completion of the separation wall, closing the Jordan valley to Palestinians, the expansion of the West Bank settlements and the roads serving Jews only – are all actions that may evoke Palestinian attacks followed by unrestrained Israeli reactions.

The calls by Olmert’s government for total boycott of the Hamas government and punish the public that elected them shows that it understands that it failed on this point. And what solutions does Olmert propose? First, as mentioned above, he views the PA as a "hostile" entity and, second, returns to the unilateral path on a much larger scale.



By 2010, Prime Minister Olmert promises Israel will have a border on the east. “Convergence” – that’s the name of the new game, following the end of the “disengagement.” Parties that fail to “converge” will not enter the government. It sounds convincing. Who needs the agreement of the Palestinians and the approval of the world when Israel alone has been determining the facts on the ground since 1967? The important thing is that the United States is on its side. According to Olmert, the recent elections were a referendum on his unilateral disengagement plan giving him a green light for implementation. Minister of foreign affairs, Tzipi Livni went even further stating that Palestinian President Abbas is irrelevant.

Let us assume that it is only Israel and the US who determine the political reality. Let us flow with the idea. Is this going to be a regular border that is a clear line with walls and fences beyond which there are no Israeli forces? Absolutely not. The very fact that Israel alleges there is no Palestinian partner obliges the Israeli army and General Security Service to be present on the other side of the “convergence” line.

Conclusion: it is not Israel that is “converging,” but the settlers. Israeli forces will be present in territories that are defined partly as “enemy territory” and partly as “hostile territory,” which serve as a base for hostile actions and terrorism. The control of the territory and the gathering of intelligence will remain in the hands of Israel.

Olmert also declared that Israel will keep the Jordan Valley as a security strip. Thus we are speaking practically about three border lines: the one with the fences and the wall, across which there will be no settlers but only security forces; the one that separates the Palestinian population from the Jordan Valley; and the exterior one, along the Jordan River. The length of this threefold line is 929 kilometers, three times the length of the Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Caught between the wall to the east and the June 4, 1967 border will be 375,000 Palestinians, including 200,000 in East Jerusalem. Approximately 5,000 are Israeli citizens. Due to its concern to preserve a massive Jewish majority, Israel is unwilling to give full citizenship to such a big number – indeed more than 10 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel will continue to see them at best as a ‘hostile’ population that needs to be controlled. In other words, between the wall and the 1967 line Israel will continue to have a Palestinian “other.”

Secondary lines must be added to the main lines. The roads that link the Jordan Valley to the territory on which Olmert calls for “convergence” as well as roads in the Palestinian territories used by Israeli forces that control the imprisoned population are a kind of border. Such roads separate the Israeli forces from the “hostile” territory.

According to Olmert’s plan, Israel must deter about 2 million Palestinians from rebelling, press the PA to eject terrorists, recruit collaborators and informers from its ranks, ensuring the continuation of encirclement, enforcing closures, checkpoints, arrests for the purpose of intelligence gathering, recruitment of collaborators, night-raids and assassinations of junior and senior activists. In other words, the settlements will converge behind the fence, but the military occupation will continue outside it. There will be a certain amount of relief for the Israeli army, because its soldiers will not be obliged to escort settlers to their aerobic dance classes or to evacuate buildings in illegal outposts in the face of resistance from the settlers and their supporters. But in terms of the security burden, nothing substantial will change.

The Palestinians will not reconcile themselves to this situation for long, all the less when ruled by a Hamas government. If Hamas cannot fulfil its election slogan (“In one year of Kassam shelling we achieved what the Fatah could not achieve in ten years of talks”) very few Palestinians will remember its charity and welfare agencies as well as the integrity of its leaders. Since its inception, Hamas has been attentive to the desires and yearnings of the Palestinian public. It stands to reason that Hamas will continue to heed its public and not ignore Israel’s actions.

The use of advanced technological methods such as cameras and sensors to control the long border lines may produce a certain economy in the manpower enforcing the occupation, but the change will not be dramatic. There will still be a need for army and General Security Service forces to enhance and enforce the occupation. Electronic equipment can monitor but it cannot fire, arrest people, or recruit collaborators. Additional forces will be required to enforce the occupation on Palestinians who find themselves between the fence and the 1967 lines. The presence of many security forces in hostile territory and long border lines convert every soldier, vehicle and installation into a target for the guerrilla warfare that Palestinian forces will conduct. The tunnels that were dug in the Gaza Strip and the Qassam missiles fired from there before and after the Israeli disengagement exposed the weak points in Israeli superiority. Many more such weak points can be expected in the West Bank, where the length of the Olmert- proposed border lines and the level of friction are much greater.

Olmert’s proposal shows that he did not learn from the experience of unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The credit column shows the achievement: Israeli soldiers and settlers are not present in the Gaza Strip. However, the debit column is much longer. Most Israeli and US expectations did not materialize because the withdrawal was a unilateral process. And in contrast to the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon, it was not made back to the international border. According to the relevant international documents, including the Oslo accords, Gaza Strip and the West Bank are considered to form one territorial unit. 

Unilateralism obliges Israel to employ force in a variety of ways, and that in itself motivates the Palestinians to respond, sometimes with terrorist attacks and sometimes through the ballot box. Thus Israel finds itself in a state of strategic fragmentation.

But it was not only the experience of the withdrawal that failed in Gaza; the policy of targeted assassinations was also a searing failure. Israel assassinated many Hamas leaders and activists but what was seared into the Palestinian consciousness was the opposite of what Israel wanted as the Palestinians democratically brought Hamas to power. And the US strategy of containment and management of the conflict was shattered with the rise of the Hamas government.



This is a problem the US faces in its overall Middle East policy. Since President Clinton tried to use conflict resolution strategy and failed, George W. Bush hoped to succeed by implementing a conflict management strategy as well as supporting Israel to contain the Intifada flames by army operations. Instead of orienting himself to final status goals in a better way then Clinton did at Camp David 2000, Bush invented the ‘Road Map’ which is no more then a process policy document with vague ends. Though Bush succeeded in having the EU and Russia support his Road Map, it was futile. Neither the Israelis nor Palestinians substantively implemented the Road Map in addition to Bush’s containment strategy being severely damaged by Hamas coming to power.

Bush’s prevention from imposing the Road Map on Israel was not made by default. Rather it has to do with his alliance with former Prime Minister Sharon. Bush and Sharon share the same strategic view: using massive force and preemptive strikes against terrorism and preferring unilateral acts through which the powerful side can impose its will without negotiations, compromises, or concessions. Consequently Bush accepted Sharon’s argument that the Road Map must begin with Palestinians disarming their militant groups and fighting terrorism rather than evacuating Israeli outposts. Bush also supported Sharon when the latter insisted that Gaza Strip settlements evacuation be done unilaterally. Bush did not help Abbas when he begged to advance the Road Map through bilateral and coordinated steps which would have allowed Abbas to show his people that the political track is fruitful. Bush agreed with Abbas only when the Palestinian leader decided unilaterally for general elections in the Palestinian territories as well as encouraged Hamas into the political system. Thereafter the US played a key role in forcing Israel to accept Abbas’ decision and to let the Palestinians in Arab Jerusalem to participate in the elections. However, electing Hamas in free and democratic elections – as far as elections under occupation can be free and democratic – the Palestinians voted for a government that promised to resist any US/Israeli unilateral dictate. The Palestinian public saw Fatah failing to stop the Israeli separation wall, an operation that harms daily life of hundreds of thousands Palestinians. Fatah’s failure to achieve anything through political dialogue brought to the fore its poor performance in the PA as well as the rampant corruption. The Palestinian public decided to call upon a party that promised to manage both the PA and the relations with Israel differently. In short, both the Israeli and Palestinian elections were referendums on unilateralism but with opposite results. In Israel, Prime Minister Olmert continues to declare that the coalition he leads enjoys the voters support for his unilateral platform.  Moreover, he hopes for the continued support of the Bush administration. Shortly after the Israeli elections, Bush envoys’ Abrahams and Weltech reacted positively to Olmert’s West Bank “conversion” idea. They told him that the US can not recognize the border that Olmert plans to impose, but the US will not force Israel to stop expanding settlements inside the separation wall boundaries creating irreversible facts on the ground that the US will eventually recognize [Ha’aretz 2 April 2006]. 

Israel and the US see eye in eye on the need to internationally isolate the Hamas-led PA and cause its collapse. They want to achieve this by cutting off all foreign aid and assembling a political boycott. The US and Israel prefer using a stick without offering Hamas a political carrot. They do not plan to encourage Hamas to change by showing what it can get in exchange. Worse, they do not present any political incentive to Abbas. Israel and the US hope to abolish the Hamas government without offering to end the occupation by political talks with the successor regime or with the current Palestinian regime. Rather than acting like a colonialist power, Israel and the US should respect the Palestinian vote and challenge Hamas with a diplomatic plan attractive to all parties. Such a plan already exists and enjoys the support of the Palestinians as well as the region. Abbas was elected in January 2005 on the same ticket as the Arab League peace plan of April 2002. From then on up to the recent Arab summit in Khartoum, March 2006 each summit reassured this plan. The principles of the plan are based on UN Security Council resolution 242 which calls on Israeli to withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. The Palestinians will establish their independent state with Arab Jerusalem as its capital, and based on UN General Assembly Resolution 194 from 1949 an agreed-upon and just solution to 1948 Palestinian refugee problem will be found by the sides. In exchange, Israel will achieve full and secured peace not only with Palestine but with the rest of the Arab states.

Armed with Israeli, US and Arab consent to negotiate along these lines, Abbas can approach the Palestinian people and challenge Hamas. If Hamas refuses to swallow and digest this move, it will loose its domestic and Arab support. However, Israel and the US refuse to move from unilateralism to negotiations. They encourage Abbas to confront Hamas. Unfortunately, without putting in Abbas’ hands a political carrot he will fail, and the next Palestinian president will be a senior Hamas leader. Alternatively, the US and Israel will face a more strategic problem if Hamas finds a way to endorse the Arab League peace plan and challenges US/Israeli unilateralism. Israel will lose its excuse for unilateralism, and the US will lose Egypt, Jordan and Saudi support for its Middle East policy.           


Menachem Klein, professor of political science at Bar-Illan University, Israel, is currently a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was a negotiator of the Geneva Agreement (2003) – a detailed proposal for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. His book on that is forthcoming by Columbia University Press.