Similar to Lebanon's "Hezbollah problem," Hamas' Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades military faction could prove to be a headache as part of the new joint Palestinian interim government.
The Palestinians are, not surprisingly, cheering last week’s announcement by the rival Hamas and Fatah factions to create a joint Palestinian interim government. Also not surprisingly, the Israelis, given Hamas’ track record of grisly violence, are jeering the move. And the White House appears to be content to wait and see, as long as this government refrains from violence and formally recognizes Israel.
But no matter how one interprets the move, the creation of a new government that includes Hamas is fraught with pitfalls. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported last month that the Palestinians appear poised to adopt the Lebanon model of allowing a terrorist entity to exist and operate outside of a weak government’s reach. Hamas leaders have made it clear that the group refuses to disband the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, its primarily Gaza-based militia.
This means that a robust terrorist infrastructure, with tens of thousands of rockets and thousands of fighters, will remain intact. Hamas maintains a state of war with Israel; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has since 2005 made it clear that he seeks to avoid conflict with Israel.
Thus, the Qassam Brigades can put the next Palestinian government one Iranian phone call away from full-scale conflict with Israel. This is reminiscent of Hezbollah in Lebanon, where an Iranian-funded and Iranian-trained fighting force can drag an entire nation into a full-scale war without government consultations.
The lumping together of these two rival Palestinian political factions that have been warring for much of the last three decades also sounds a lot like the politics of Lebanon. While the divisions between Lebanon’s political factions fall along sectarian lines, the country’s problems are reinforced by years of domestic conflict.
The result is a deeply divided and dysfunctional country characterized by political gridlock. Over time, Lebanon has seen the emergence of Hezbollah enclaves that fall beyond the reach of the government.
The Palestinians, of course, are homogenously Sunni. But the hatreds stemming from the Hamas-Fatah rivalry have been similarly reinforced by years of conflict, which began well before the 2007 Gaza War, when Hamas ousted Fatah and gained control of the area. The political gridlock is by now well-established. And Hamas’ enclave in Gaza is by now well-entrenched. A unity government is unlikely to extend the Palestinian Authority’s reach. If anything, it likely will codify the current arrangement.
Finally, the sharp divisions in Lebanon have yielded a volatile system whereby outside actors seek to gain influence through the provision of funds. This has also been the case with the Palestinians, who are heavily dependent upon outside assistance. Washington, with Hamas joining the government, could decide to reduce or cut its financial aid. But this could open up a vacuum for regional actors to pursue their political or military agendas.
Despite these very serious challenges, the Palestinians now appear intent upon pursuing a campaign of recognition at the United Nations. These efforts thus far have been welcomed by 138 out of the world’s 193 recognized countries. But the official inclusion of Hamas, leading to the Lebanonization of Palestine, could change this calculus quickly.
Jonathan Schanzer, a Philadelphia native, is vice president for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. A version of this piece first appeared in the Weekly Standard blog.