by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
In 2006, hope reigned on the Palestinian streets. The populist Hamas movement had won legislative elections against their political rival Fatah (leading secular Palestinian political party), and some in the West wanted to believe that the victory could mold the terrorists into statesmen. In less than 18 months, that hope was dashed as Hamas waged a civil war to kick Fatah out of the Gaza Strip.
Terror group Hezbollah took a similar path to power in Lebanon, starting with a mini civil war and effectively taking power through political allies. Despite the groups’ blood-soaked hands, there remain those in the West who cling to the idea that the “political wings” of Hezbollah and Hamas are distinct from their terrorism activities. Sadly, that misguided view may result in everyone involved missing the real hope for peace.
Since Hamas violently took power in Gaza in 2007, the terror group has fought multiple wars with Israel, launched thousands of missiles at Israeli civilians and carried out other terror attacks. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has used the time to stockpile large amounts of weapons, launch small-scale attacks on Israel and fight extensively in support of brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
According to Dr. Jonathan Spyer, researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a fellow at the Middle East Forum, those in Europe who think the two terror groups have a distinct “political wing” that can be engaged have a “fundamental misunderstanding” about the nature of the Middle East.
“I think they misunderstand the nature of political Islam to a great extent,” Spyer said. “I think they tend to not take ideas and religion seriously in a political context,” perhaps arguing that groups like Hamas and Hezbollah act like some in the West, separating politics from deeply held convictions like driving Israel out of alleged Muslim lands. Misguided Europeans then try to impose that perspective “on a very different Middle East reality where it just didn’t hold.”
Spyer, who grew up in the United Kingdom and later immigrated to Israel, explained that the British political class who made that failed judgment thought that the apparently successful peace process with Northern Ireland—where bombers finally made peace—could be replicated with the terror groups in the Middle East. While Spyer agrees that it can happen “if certain conditions apply,” those conditions aren’t there. Hamas’s foundational charter includes the aim to destroy Israel in its entirety, while Hezbollah is the primary proxy to Iran, whose leaders have openly talked of wiping Israel off the map.
Despite the similarity of seeking Israel’s demise, there are some key differences between Hamas and Hezbollah, differences that could mean hope for a better future. But first, the faux evolution of yet another Palestinian terror group might give a clearer picture of where the conflict could be heading.
The story of the Palestinian Fatah movement could be a tale of two leaders: infamous terrorist Yassir Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. Arafat, despite faking the part of statesman, led Fatah as it sponsored vicious terrorist groups that murdered Israelis during the Second Intifada (uprising). Abbas, meanwhile, has participated in security coordination with Israel to round up Hamas terrorists and presided over a calmer period with the Jewish state. Nonetheless, Fatah still provides cash to families of terrorists in the disturbing “Pay-for-Slay” program, and the security cooperation with Israel is conveniently aimed primarily against Fatah’s rival Hamas. So don’t think Fatah has changed. In fact, according to Spyer, to reach a Western-style peace agreement between Israel and Fatah “would require Fatah to be something other than Fatah.”
In the meantime, Spyer notes that Israel effectively defeated Fatah in the counterterrorism campaign that ended the Second Intifada terror war, deterring it from fighting again. Furthermore, Fatah knows that a futile fight isn’t worth it: old politicians like being in power, even while Fatah hates Israel. “Fatah is run by very old men who are deeply corrupt and enjoy the trappings of power very much, and on a strategic level they are committed to the destruction of Israel,” Spyer explained. At the same time, the current quasi-calm with Israel could continue “for some time” and may even be an early stage of some actual peace agreement similar to the Abraham Accords.
Multiple Arab states, starting with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, made peace with Israel in 2020 without any territorial surrender by Israel. Spyer compared this to a rarely discussed conflict in North America. In its early years, the United States actually attempted to conquer Canada. The US failed and eventually the two sides decided “we’ve got other things to do” rather than wage war. “Pragmatically speaking, the two systems kind of accepted one another and eventually the notion of conflict became ludicrous,” Spyer holds. He believes a similar path may be emerging for the Arab states that tried and failed to destroy Israel and currently value partnership above conflict.
Spyer says “it’s not inconceivable” that this pattern could play out with groups like Hamas, which already has developed a corrupt ruling class that likes power. However, it takes time and decisive military deterrence. Spyer said he can see a scenario in which Islamists are deterred to the degree that while they hold to the principal that Israel should be destroyed, they effectively decide “we’ve got other things to do” instead.
While that offers some long-term hope for Fatah and Hamas, it’s not as possible for Hezbollah—given the key difference between Hezbollah and Hamas. Hamas is a militant terror group fighting for control over territory. Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran, which has its own broader, empire-building goals. That means the deterrence component of possible peace would have to entail deterrence of Iran—which Spyer describes as a much more challenging prospect.
Nonetheless, there is hope for Israel–Arab peace—through deterrence, time and having more to lose than gain by fighting. Sadly, accepting the “political wing” myth and trying to force European history upon the Middle East actually undermines that effort by missing the special dynamics of each unique conflict. There is hope, but as Spyer points out: “You have to look at every situation in terms of its own granular facts, so to say.”
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