For years, Israel has been accused of secretly supporting Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, as a way of undermining the Palestinian Authority and preventing the emergence of a viable Palestinian state.
According to a recent report by the New York Times, Israel has not only tolerated but actively facilitated the flow of millions of dollars in cash from Qatar to Hamas, despite the group’s repeated attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers.
The report, based on interviews with current and former Israeli, Palestinian and Qatari officials, reveals how Israeli security forces would escort Qatari representatives into Gaza to deliver the cash to Hamas, bypassing the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations.
The money, which amounted to about $1.2 billion over the past decade, was intended to pay for humanitarian aid, fuel, salaries and infrastructure projects in the impoverished and besieged enclave, where nearly two million Palestinians live under harsh conditions.
But the cash also helped Hamas maintain its grip on power, buy weapons and rockets, and fund its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, which has fought three wars with Israel since 2008.
The report suggests that Israel’s covert support for Hamas was part of a strategy devised by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ruled Israel for 12 consecutive years until he was ousted in June by a diverse coalition of parties.
Netanyahu, who opposed the creation of a Palestinian state and the peace process with the Palestinian Authority, saw Hamas as a useful tool to divide and weaken the Palestinians, and to justify Israel’s occupation and settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
By keeping Hamas alive and isolated in Gaza, Netanyahu hoped to prevent any reconciliation or unity between the rival Palestinian factions, and to convince the international community that Israel had no partner for peace.
Netanyahu also sought to exploit the regional rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which backed different Palestinian factions, and to align Israel with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt and other Arab states that opposed Iran and its allies, including Hamas.
However, Netanyahu’s Hamas policy backfired in several ways, according to analysts and critics.
First, it failed to deter Hamas from launching rockets and incendiary balloons at Israel, or from digging tunnels and launching cross-border raids. In fact, Hamas increased its arsenal and capabilities over the years, posing a growing threat to Israel’s security and stability.
Second, it alienated and marginalized the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, who has cooperated with Israel on security and intelligence matters, and who has renounced violence and recognized Israel’s right to exist.
Third, it eroded Israel’s international legitimacy and reputation, as it faced widespread condemnation and criticism for its disproportionate use of force and its violations of human rights and international law in Gaza, where thousands of civilians, including children, have been killed and injured by Israeli airstrikes and shelling.
Fourth, it undermined Israel’s democracy and social cohesion, as it fueled extremism, racism and violence among some segments of the Israeli society, and as it sparked protests and clashes between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, who make up about 20 percent of the population.
Fifth, it jeopardized Israel’s relations with its allies and partners, especially the United States, which has provided Israel with billions of dollars in military aid and diplomatic support, but which has also urged Israel to resume negotiations with the Palestinians and to end its occupation and settlement activities.
The new Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-wing nationalist who also opposes a Palestinian state, has inherited Netanyahu’s Hamas dilemma, and has yet to formulate a clear and coherent policy toward the Gaza Strip and its rulers.
Bennett, who faces a fragile and diverse coalition that includes left-wing, centrist and Arab parties, has vowed to maintain Israel’s military edge and deterrence against Hamas, but has also signaled a willingness to ease the blockade on Gaza and to improve the humanitarian situation there.
Bennett has also expressed interest in engaging with the Palestinian Authority and restoring some of the cooperation and coordination that was severed by Netanyahu. However, he has ruled out any political dialogue or compromise with the Palestinians, and has continued to expand and legalize Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, Hamas, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this week, remains defiant and determined to resist Israel’s occupation and siege, and to pursue its vision of liberating all of historic Palestine, from the river to the sea.
Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union, has also rejected any recognition or normalization of Israel, and has insisted on its right to armed struggle and resistance.
Hamas, however, has also shown some pragmatism and flexibility, as it has participated in several rounds of indirect talks with Israel, mediated by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations, and as it has agreed to a series of ceasefires and truces with Israel, albeit fragile and short-lived.
Hamas has also expressed its support for a long-term hudna, or truce, with Israel, based on the 1967 borders and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Hamas has also sought to mend its ties with the Palestinian Authority and to achieve national reconciliation and unity, based on holding free and fair elections and forming a consensus government.
However, these efforts have been repeatedly thwarted by mutual distrust, political rivalry, external interference and Israeli obstruction.
The latest round of Palestinian elections, which were scheduled for May and July this year, were postponed indefinitely by Abbas, who cited Israel’s refusal to allow voting in East Jerusalem as the main reason, but who also feared losing to Hamas, as he did in the 2006 parliamentary elections.
The fate and future of Gaza, and its relationship with Israel, remain uncertain and unpredictable, as the region faces multiple challenges and crises, and as the prospects for peace and justice remain dim and distant.