If you're like me, / you've been horrified / by the images you've seen / coming out of Israel and Gaza. And, reluctantly, you've decided to engage with a difficult topic you’ve long avoided confronting, watching a number of videos, reading a handful of articles, and coming away with a better understanding of the terribly messy situation. But, for all the things I read and watched, one important question seemed unanswered. How did Hamas, a terrorist group intent on Israel’s destruction, end up the government in Gaza? So we dove deeper, spending dozens of hours researching this one episode in 2006 that says a lot more than you’d expect about the current conflict. If Hamas won an election, does that mean Palestinians support them? / If they seized power, do the people disapprove of their violence? / And if bumbling outside powers like America accidentally propelled them, could / so much bloodshed have been avoided? Well... let's get into it.
It may be hard to believe that a charity-turned-paramilitary in the 1980s could, within 20 years, become the government in Gaza and Israel’s most feared enemy, but that’s exactly how Hamas began during the first Intifada, or Uprising, against Israel. While many desired self-rule and an end to harsh Israeli occupation in the existing territories, Hamas rejected the leading Palestine Liberation Organization’s secularism and growing willingness to negotiate. What they wanted was Israel’s destruction.
But for now, Hamas wasn’t in charge. And in 1993, to their dismay, the intifada came to an end when the PLO and the Israeli government signed the Oslo Accords, granting Palestinians a measure of self-rule in exchange for the PLO’s renunciation of violence and acknowledgement of Israel’s right to exist. The hope was that the Accords would lead to a two-state solution: Israel for the Israelis, and Palestine for the Palestinians.
But deep, / essential disagreements persisted. / Israel rejected the prospect of a Palestinian military, alongside other key Palestinian conditions. Most Palestinians supported some form of two-state solution, but they didn’t accept Israel’s terms. On top of this, / Israelis continued to settle in the occupied territories, chipping away at Palestinian land, while Hamas sought to provoke Israel / with suicide bombings targeting Jewish civilians.
In 2000, violence erupted again, in the Second Intifada. Hamas was in their element: firing rockets and conducting suicide bombings. In turn, Israel pursued retribution, imparting incredible violence on the territories and killing countless civilians. In turn, more Palestinians desired retribution, and support for Hamas’s radicalism grew, as the country’s leading party, Fatah, continued negotiating and cooperating with the enemy.
While Israel gained the upper hand, the country’s leaders also realized the situation was becoming untenable. In 2003, they prepared to do something massive, something that would change the dynamic of the conflict and pave the way for Hamas’s seizure of power.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was universally seen as a hardliner to the core. But in 2003, he offered a radical proposal: an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Pull out the troops, pull out the settlements, no more occupation.
What was Sharon thinking? A later quote from one of his advisors sheds some light:
“The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process, and when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state…the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.”
In 2005, Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza. But it wasn’t a step toward Gaza’s independence. Rather, according to Sharon’s adviser, it was a move to put such discussions indefinitely on ice.
For Hamas, however, the withdrawal was seen as a major victory, proof that its bombings and rocket attacks had worked to force Sharon’s hand. And, as the Second Intifada wound down alongside the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas’s message—that it could be trusted more than the corrupt and Israel-friendly establishment—was resonating with Palestinians.
And now, Hamas wanted a seat at the political table, to run against Fatah in the Palestinian elections which were demanded by Israel’s American allies.
Under George W. Bush, the United States believed that Fatah was a shoe-in, and insisted on Hamas’s participation. It wouldn’t be seen as fair if they weren’t allowed to compete, and, hey, democracy means progress; the voters won’t support terrorism! The Israelis meanwhile were wary and made no promises they’d recognize or work with Hamas if they won.
On January 25, 2006, the day of the election, the results were clear. Fatah, divided and corrupt, won only 41% of the vote, and 45 of 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament. Hamas, unified and energized, won 44% of the vote, and a majority of 75 seats. This wasn’t its extraordinary takeover yet, but it was inching closer.
Still, Hamas knew that no matter what the vote said, America and Israel—who had espoused support for Palestine’s democratic process—would never accept its victory as legitimate. The fight had only just begun.
First came the excuses. Fatah insisted they lost not because of their corruption or their inability to manage the situation with Israel successfully. No, the real reason was a bunch of vote-splitting independents.
Not far behind came the punishments. After Israel had withdrawn from Gaza it / stayed in control of the border, / collecting customs duties on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and forwarding them along. But now, seeing as the Palestinian Authority was headed by a group sworn to annihilate Israel, Tel Aviv said, / “no way,” / and began withholding all this money, about $50 million a month. Similarly, / the US, EU, UN, and Russia issued a statement, telling Hamas essentially, / “Look, we can’t give you guys aid, unless you promise not to spend it on rockets.” Hamas refused, arguing that renouncing / violence against Israel / would betray their democratic mandate, even / though polls showed most Palestinians favored continued negotiations.
But whatever the polls said, suffering deepened in Palestine, particularly Gaza, as Israel’s constriction of the economy tightened, and tensions rose between Fatah and Hamas, with Palestinian / President and leader of Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas expanding his Presidential guard, prompting / Hamas to create their own paramilitary force. The US even / got involved, training Abbas’s men in urban combat techniques, in a rather hypocritical attempt to reverse the results of the election it had demanded take place.
Then came the fighting. After Abbas made a constitutionally dubious attempt to call for new elections in December, Fatah and Hamas supporters / clashed, killing at least 33 people between December 2006 and January 2007, until in February the / two sides signed a ceasefire in Mecca, agreeing to form a / unity government, which took shape by mid-March.
For a moment, it seemed as though peace—even a united front—might be possible, but this pause on violence was just the calm before the storm—the storm which would mark Fatah’s final days in Gaza, before Hamas’s total victory.
Because by May, the fighting hadn’t just resumed — it was worse. In two weeks, more than 50 Palestinians were killed in further clashes between Fatah and Hamas. By June, there was no turning back.
On June 10th, Hamas seized several Fatah members and threw one of them off the top of a 15-story building in Gaza City. Fatah militants responded by killing the imam of the city's Great Mosque and opening fire on the home of Hamas-aligned Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.
The next day, Haniyeh’s and Abbas’s residences each were targeted in further volleys of gunfire and shelling.
On the 12th and 13th, Hamas executed a series of assaults on Fatah bases around Gaza. In many cases, they faced negligible resistance, quickly routing Fatah defenders, but in Gaza City, the battle for control of Fatah’s headquarters was particularly brutal and drawn-out.
Still, it wasn’t as fierce as the combat in the Tel al-Hawa neighborhood which lasted nearly four days before Hamas finally secured victory in the area and gained control of Abbas’s residence there. It wasn’t until this point, several days into what was obviously an irreconcilable confrontation, that Abbas and Fatah — ever behind the curve throughout Hamas’s rise to power — saw fit to disband the so-called unity government and proclaim a state of emergency.
By the next day, Fatah had lost Gaza. Its forces were routed, its representatives banished or executed. Hamas wasn’t just in charge; they now stood alone in Gaza; the only remaining political factions were similarly radical and largely compliant.
It’s a tragic story just on its face: / the infighting, / the civilians—Palestinian and Israeli—suffering in the games / played by the powerful, / the needlessness of it all.
But perhaps more tragic is the tremendous hubris of each actor and the apparent futility of pursuing progress.
America, for its part, was certain / that democracy would deliver the outcomes it wanted, peace and progress on its terms even as local elections foreshadowed Hamas’s triumph: / a total failure to realize that, in essence, democracy remains a tool which people will use to solve their most pressing problems however they see fit.
And futility / doesn’t even begin to describe Israel’s relationship with Hamas, which at every turn was characterized by violence and retribution that only gave credence to Hamas’s radicalism, bolstered its ranks, and brought yet more violence. When Hamas was elected, many were voting in protest of Fatah more than anything, and opinion polls showed most Palestinians preferred peaceful negotiation to provocative violence. Regardless, after Hamas’s takeover, Israel responded with a full blockade of Gaza, depriving all inhabitants of basic human dignities, in an effort to lay siege to Hamas. In turn, recent polls, taken just days before Hamas’s brutal attack, showed support among Palestinians for a return to violence. It’s no surprise that violence has begotten violence, that suffering has only allowed Hamas to grow stronger, launching its latest, most violent and far-reaching attack in response.
There may have been a time when both Israeli and Palestinian leadership earnestly desired to reach a peaceful resolution. But now, two things are certain.
The first is that neither side has any interest in that today. The second is that it’s nothing other than a vicious cycle of violence, naive retribution, radicalization, and more violence which has rendered peace, for now, essentially inconceivable.
Tareq Baconi, Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance (Stanford Unity Press, 2018), 20. ↩︎
Ibid., 22-23. ↩︎
Ibid, 30. ↩︎
Ibid., 36. ↩︎
Mark Tessler and Jodi Nachtwey, “Palestinian Political Attitudes: An Analysis of Survey Data from the West Bank and Gaza” in Israel Studies 4 no. 1 (1999), 38, “CPRS Public Opinion Poll 27”, Palestine Center for Policy and Research, Question 2, 1997. ↩︎
Baconi, 44. ↩︎
Ibid., 48. ↩︎
Ibid., 72. ↩︎
Ibid., 63-64. ↩︎
Ibid., 63-64. ↩︎
Avi Sharit, “The Big Freeze,” in Haaretz, 7 October 2004. ↩︎
Baconi, 89. ↩︎
Ibid., 66. ↩︎
Ibid., 73. ↩︎
Ibid., 85. ↩︎
Ibid., 95. ↩︎
Hamas Contained, 98. ↩︎
Lydia Saad, “Gallup Palestinian Survey Reveals Broad Discontent With Status Quo,” Gallup, 27 January 2006. ↩︎
Saad, “Palestinian Survey Reveals Broad Discontent.” ↩︎