Israel has empowered, not weakened Hamas

With enemies like Israel, who needs friends?

The vast majority of Palestinians approve of Hamas's conduct during the war, writes Nashashibi [EPA]

Although Israel had vowed to deal a decisive blow to Hamas, the Palestinian faction has gained huge domestic popularity, and is in some respects stronger than it was prior to the latest Gaza onslaught.

Meanwhile, domestic approval ratings for Benjamin Netanyahu, who waged the conflict, have plummeted from 82 percent when the ground invasion began, to just 38 percent after he accepted a ceasefire.

“The Israeli prime minister is now facing a war within his own government,” wrote Foreign Policy magazine.

His subsequent threats against Hamas look like a desperate attempt to shore up his position. Acting on them may well be seen by Israelis as flip-flopping, political opportunism, or a lack of a coherent strategy. As such, Netanyahu seems to have painted himself into a corner.

On the other hand, a poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), and published on September 2, reveals a rise in Hamas’s popularity that is “unprecedented since 2006”. This is in stark contrast to a Pew poll published in June this year, in which only 35 percent of Palestinians viewed the faction favourably.

Its resurgence is due to Israel’s devastation of Gaza, not despite it. Netanyahu has achieved the opposite of what he intended: instead of weakening Hamas, he has greatly empowered it. This should come as no surprise.

Netanyahu has achieved the opposite of what he intended: instead of weakening Hamas, he has greatly empowered it. This should come as no surprise. The same happened with previous attacks against Gaza…

 The same happened with previous attacks against Gaza, and the popularity of Hezbollah – now widely reviled at home and regionally for its intervention in Syria – skyrocketed during and after Israel’s last invasion of Lebanon in 2006.

Civilian suffering

Yet Israel seems intent on maintaining the same strategy of inflicting massive suffering on civilians, in the hope that they will turn on their own leaders rather than blame those causing the suffering. Despite being morally bankrupt and a violation of international law, it has been amply proven that this approach is counter-productive for Israel.

The PSR poll reveals the vast majority of Palestinians approve of Hamas’s conduct during the war. However, looking ahead, arguably more important is how Palestinians would vote in legislative and presidential elections if they were held today.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would decisively beat the incumbent Mahmoud Abbas, and even Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader imprisoned by Israel who is widely considered a national icon.

Haniyeh would receive even more votes in the West Bank – where Hamas has been largely driven underground by Israel and the Palestinian Authority over the last several years – than he would in his Gaza stronghold. Regarding parliamentary elections, 46 percent of voters would choose Hamas, while 31 percent would opt for Fatah, compared with 32 percent and 40 percent, respectively, two months ago. Again, Hamas would receive more votes in the West Bank than Gaza.

The poll results suggest an almost impossible situation for Palestinian democracy. Elections are supposed to take place in the coming few months as per the national unity deal signed earlier this year, and 69 percent of Palestinians want them to take place within the next few to six months.

However, in the immediate aftermath of the Gaza onslaught, there is little – if any – talk of elections. The reconciliation process itself in jeopardy, with Abbas threatening on September 7 to end it over the issue of Gaza’s governance.

In any case, Israel would do all it could to stop elections taking place – or failing that, from being free and fair – particularly if Hamas was expected to win. Given its occupation and fragmentation of Palestine, Israel could easily play spoiler, as it has done with previous elections that were held under less severe circumstances than exist today.

Furthermore, Abbas and his Fatah party may not be in a rush to participate in elections if they think they will lose, not least because they have governed the West Bank unchallenged for several years.

If elections do take place and Hamas wins, Palestinians will likely face Israeli and Western sanctions for daring to exercise their democratic right, as happened when the party won the parliamentary vote in 2006. The result could be a renewal of factional tensions and subsequent national division.

These scenarios suggest that Hamas faces an uphill struggle translating popularity into ballot papers, assuming the benefits to its current standing do not wear off by then (this could happen quickly if the situation in Gaza does not improve, or deteriorates further).

Democratic rights

In any case, it would be unwise, indeed self-damaging, for Fatah to be seen by Palestinians as dragging its feet regarding elections – not out of consideration to Hamas, but because the people deserve the long-overdue resumption of their democratic rights, and because both factions agreed to this when they reconciled.

Israel and its allies, too, would do well to realise that interfering in the electoral process, particularly to the detriment of Hamas, would be self-defeating, as it would only add to the latter’s popularity. Having said that, since Israel has not yet put two and two together, it is unlikely to do so anytime soon.

For now, at least, its Gaza attack has inadvertently helped its enemy out of a difficult regional situation that was marked by increasing isolation. Hamas seems to be back in the good books of Iran and Hezbollah, with whom relations became strained after it backed the Syrian revolution against their ally Bashar al-Assad.

Tehran, once a major financier of Hamas, has openly boasted of its military assistance in this latest war, and congratulated the resistance against Israel. Hamas’s ties with Turkey and Qatar have also been solidified. Doha has offered to help rebuild Gaza, and Ankara’s relations with Israel – once warm – have soured further.

These regional developments have played well among Palestinians, some two-thirds of whom viewed the involvement of Iran, Turkey and Qatar over Gaza most positively, according to the PSR poll. Hamas has Netanyahu to thank for its domestic and regional resuscitation. With enemies like Israel, who needs friends?

Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and analyst on Arab affairs. He is a regular contributor to Al Jazeera English, Al Arabiya News, The National, The Middle East magazine and the Middle East Eye.