Hamas Faces a Rude Awakening

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Hamas may have hoped to spend its first months running the Palestinian government focusing on such domestic concerns as fighting corruption and improving the local economy, while ignoring the political challenges of its relationship with Israel. And the Israelis and Americans may have hoped that simply starving the government and Palestinian people of money would somehow force a reversal of Hamas's policies or a removal of it altogether.

But as new Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh presided over his first cabinet meeting Wednesday, three crises already competed for attention: Government coffers are, quite literally, empty; so are food stores and bellies in Gaza; and gunmen affiliated with Hamas's rivals are fomenting chaos. Taken together, the series of economic and humanitarian crises may well force both the Islamist party, as well as its adversaries, to alter their previous plans and diplomatic positions. In other words, it isn't going to take long for the realities of Hamas holding power to sink in, both for the movement itself and for Israel and the U.S.

Putting Food on the Table

Israel is withholding Palestinian Authority tax and customs duties that make up the bulk of the PA's budget because of Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel and embrace existing peace agreements. That, together with cuts to U.S. and possibly other Western funding, leaves the PA unable to pay the salaries on which one third of its subjects survive. The mounting hunger in Gaza, meanwhile, is created by Israel choking off the border crossings through which basic foodstuffs enter Gaza — closures the Israelis say are a necessary response to terror threats. Arab countries have ignored U.S. appeals to join a financial blockade and have vowed to raise $55 million a month for the PA — although Hamas officials say $170 million a month is needed just to pay salaries. And only Saudi Arabia, so far, has delivered on its pledges. But with U.N. officials warning of a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, pressure is growing on Israel to open the border crossings.

Drawing Borders

The Arab regimes, and many European officials, know that collective punishment is unlikely to persuade the Palestinian electorate to reverse its choice of Hamas. But they are, at the same time, pressing Hamas to moderate its positions. The Arab League, for example, remains committed to a negotiated, two-state solution based on recognizing Israel inside 1967 borders. That's a position Hamas formally rejects, though it has lately begun suggesting a "long-term truce" if Israel withdraws to its '67 borders and is reportedly asking U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to begin negotiations that would allow "your people to live a dignified life in freedom and independence, side by side with our neighbors." Yet, spokesmen still deny any suggestion that this implies Hamas might be ready to accept a two-state solution. Victory appears to have created an ideological crisis for Hamas: the reality of power dictates that it pursue a two-state solution on the lines of 1967 — however it chooses to phrase it — but its founding ideology, like the PLO's before Oslo, precludes that.

Controlling Chaos

The more immediate challenge, of course, is for Hamas to ensure that other Palestinian factions comply with its own desire to avoid a violent confrontation with Israel. Its interior minister has said Hamas would not act against Palestinians attacking Israel even though it would try and persuade them to support its truce. But, already, rocket fire in Gaza and a suicide bombing in the West Bank — authored by militants associated with Fatah, precisely to challenge the authority of the new government — are prompting Israeli retaliation. The Palestinian electorate expects Hamas to end the violent chaos that allows armed bands in Gaza or the West Bank to make its own foreign policy while ordinary Palestinians bear the consequences. Local Fatah warlords have flatly rejected Haniyeh's call to stop brandishing weapons in public. But domestic political concerns may soon require Hamas to assert its authority in ways that suit not only its own interests, but also Israel's security.

—With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem