Help the PA Push Out Hamas


Jan 16, 2004

By Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson

This commentary originally appeared in Wall Street Journal, European Edition on January 16, 2004.

In spite of this week's suicide attack by Hamas and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in Gaza, there have actually been some positive developments in the Middle East lately. Bloodshed in Israel and the Palestinian territories has abated over the past four months. And Syria and Israel have moved, albeit with trepidation, toward dialogue on territorial issues.

These subtle but significant shifts in the Middle East scene present better conditions for augmenting the existing peace plan and moving forward. And yet the primary obstacle for doing so became clear again this week: Hamas.

Unlike the Irish Republican Army, Hamas — the largest and most powerful of the religiously based Palestinian terrorist groups — cannot be tamed by political compromise. Hamas's radical Islamist doctrine indicates that even in a new Palestinian state, Hamas will try to use the state as a platform first to defeat its secular rivals and ultimately to extinguish the state of Israel. Hamas, then, must be coercively disarmed. If it is not, any new state will be doomed to instability and probably civil war.

The PA's unwillingness or inability to disarm Hamas feeds Israel's reluctance to advance the peace process. But Israel's attempts to combat Hamas on its own over the last three-and-a-half years have failed to neutralize the group, angered the Palestinian people further and bolstered Hamas's political support on the ground. What is to be done?

U.S. military intervention is out of the question — U.S. forces are massively overstretched and, for political reasons, would face greater constraints than Israel's efforts and therefore stand an even smaller chance of success. Worse, U.S. intervention would refocus the intifada on the U.S. It would also make the PA appear weak and unworthy to the Palestinian people. In any case, there is a better option than the blunt instrument of military force: a renewed U.S. and Israeli effort to help the PA to disarm Hamas.

Doing this, of course, is highly problematic, but given the lack of alternatives it is worth the attempt. The Bush administration, based on solid evidence, perceives PA President Yasser Arafat as an unreconstructed terrorist who has been complicit in Palestinian violence. Washington and Jerusalem have indicated that they will not deal with any incarnation of the PA over which Arafat enjoys substantial control. Two supposedly moderate Palestinian governments have been tortuously formed. There was hope in Washington and Jerusalem that they would rein in Hamas, but neither has been able to wrest control of the agencies responsible for security — in particular, the Interior Ministry — from Arafat. Absent his demise, however, a PA functionally independent of Arafat may be impossible.

At this point, direct pressure on Arafat is probably useless. But the U.S. could go around him. Selective investment in equipping, training and advising Palestinian security forces would provide a real incentive to ambitious and forward-looking Palestinians to distance themselves from Arafat, thus nudging him further towards the political margins — a key U.S. objective. To make security officials themselves ripe for effective U.S. assistance, the U.S., along with the other members of the Quartet (the U.N., the European Union and Russia), must opt for bold, comprehensive re-engagement. Israel, for its part, would officially have to suspend targeted killings.

To render a post-Arafat world more vivid and concrete to his captains, it is imperative that the Quartet avoid the customary European mistake of kowtowing to Arafat. For starters, they should involve Arab states more meaningfully in the peace process. Broader Arab involvement and a less aggressive Israeli security posture would facilitate Quartet efforts to cut off Hamas's funding, root out corruption in the PA and render it better able to fulfill Palestinians' welfare needs. This is key to curtailing Hamas's ability to win popular support through its charitable works.

It would also make at least some PA security chiefs feel politically freer to separate from Arafat. After carefully determining which officials were most likely to act independently of Arafat, the U.S. could offer them low-profile counterterrorism assistance in disarming Hamas. Washington and Israel did, of course, discreetly help the PA suppress terrorism during the Oslo process. This time around, though, the assistance would have to be more broadly based and more principled than it was in the 1990s.

Given that weapons and bomb-making materials are everywhere in the West Bank and Gaza, the conditions for assistance should include general confiscation of small-arms and heavier weapons. During Oslo, Washington was powerless to stop the PA's use of bribery, extortion and extrajudicial murder, as well as its practice of detaining suspects one day and releasing them soon thereafter. This time around the U.S. would have to make sure that the new authorities eschewed the coercive measures of the previous regime and that “revolving door” for suspected terrorists stayed shut. Otherwise, the result would be a repressive, manipulative and ultimately untenable state, lacking the political legitimacy required to prevent a collapse into civil war.

There's still a need for a Plan B, however. All these efforts might fail to quell Hamas's terrorist threat, making U.S. military intervention the only option for stopping an insurrection from a Hamas-led coalition. But outside military intervention would make sense only after a Palestinian state, led by a secular PA, had been established. The political terms of any such arrangement should call for the United States to move strictly at the invitation of the new Palestinian government. Intervention would then occur only if necessary to prevent political chaos, terrorism and the consequent failure of the nascent state. The U.S. presence — and the political influence it provided — would also serve to preserve democracy and the rule of law in the new state of Palestine, pre-empting any temptation within the new PA to resort to repressive methods to maintain order.

The preferred outcome should be for re-energized U.S. political engagement in the Middle East peace process, coupled with counterterrorism assistance to an enlightened PA. But should intervention prove necessary, the U.S. must ensure that it is not merely to protect an elected Palestinian government but also to secure a fair and honorable Palestinian administration that could stand as a democratic example for the entire Middle East.

Mr. Simon is a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation and co-author of The Age of Sacred Terror. Mr. Stevenson is senior fellow for counter-terrorism at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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