Optimism about this week’s summit in Annapolis abounds from the Palestinian, Israeli, and American leadership, but the very process now underway appears to be threatened by Hamas, the newest and most radicalized player in Palestinian politics. Hamas has expressed open animosity to anyone involved, most importantly from the Palestinian side. Mahmoud Zahar, a founding leader of Hamas, recently stated that “anyone who stands in the face of resistance, or fights it, or cooperates with the occupation against it, is a traitor,” a clear reference to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas supporters in Gaza City were reported to echo Zahar, shouting “Abbas is a traitor” while waving Palestinian flags as well as the green Hamas banner and black flag of the Islamic Jihad faction. Hamas’s anti-Annapolis stance, however, has not been limited to merely expressing disdain for its rivals in the PA. It has issued statements calling for increased violent activity against Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in order to derail any agreements that may emerge from the Summit’s conclusion. Last Friday, senior Damascus-based Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk was quoted on a Hamas website as predicting a new wave of Palestinian violence in the wake of Annapolis. Precursors of forthcoming attacks have already appeared within Israel, further fueling fears within the country. Last week Israeli security forces uncovered an explosive belt meant to be used by terrorists in Tel Aviv. On Sunday, the cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were put under a heightened security alert after intelligence indicated that two terrorists carrying explosives had entered Jerusalem.
The Annapolis summit is not the first time that Hamas has jeopardized peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Oslo Accords signed in 1993 were disrupted three years later by a Hamas campaign of suicide bombings and Israeli-Hezbollah skirmishes in southern Lebanon. Indeed, IDF officials are now concerned that Annapolis will allow for a similar period of cease-fire that could serve to Hamas’s advantage. Since each party might enter drawn out negotiations, this hiatus will offer Hamas more time to bolster its military arm, while the IDF’s hand will be otherwise tied.
Israeli officials estimate that Hamas is more politically and militarily powerful than it was in the 1990s. After weakening the present Palestinian government through its electoral victory in January 2006 and militarily seizing control of Gaza in June 2007, Hamas is now more deeply imbedded in the Palestinian polity. It has acquired a new patron in Iran, in addition to Syria which currently houses some of the organization’s political leadership. Since coming to power in 2006, Hamas is believed to be approaching a level of full military readiness that deeply troubles Israel. The IDF estimates that in two or three years its military capacity will rival that of Hezbollah in Lebanon, which took over a decade to develop. Hamas’s continual development of its rockets capabilities, whose range is steadily increasing, is expected to reach twenty kilometers in the future.
Over the past several months IDF soldiers who fought against Hamas’s terrorists said that they faced a terror organization that resembled a regular army more than a guerilla militia. IDF sources have also hinted that Egypt’s insufficient action against the tunnels in areas under its control allows advanced weapons to be smuggled into Gaza. Thus any IDF course of action is complicated by the fact that Hamas is nestled in the midst of a civilian population, and the IDF seeks to avoid civilian causalities as often as possible.
According to reports in the Israeli daily newspapers, the IDF has not yet come up with a plan that is widely viewed as likely to succeed. At present, Israel has been able to prevent terror attacks against its civilians, but has not been able to destroy Hamas’s growing military infrastructure in Gaza nor stop its rocket fire on its cities.
Even while the specter of violent clashes looms over the Annapolis summit, it still remains to be seen if Hamas will choose to attack Israel, which will then be forced to respond, or the PA, which is too militarily weak to defend itself. If a significant attack happens, the timing and the nature of it may be in line with the interests of Hamas’s patrons in Damascus and Tehran. The U.S., in its efforts to resume negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as foster a tacit alliance between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the Arab league against Iran, may find itself in a situation more complicated than it had anticipated.
— Meyrav Wurmser, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.