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Conversation with… Dr. Donna Divine

Hamas had several reasons to instigate its current conflict with Israel, says a Mid-East expert…and Israel wasn’t one of them
By Judie Jacobson

HARTFORD CONN. – Dr. Donna Robinson Divine is Morningstar Family Professor in Jewish Studies and Professor of Government at Smith College, where she has been recognized several times for her scholarly achievements and excellence in teaching.

Dr. Donna Robinson Divine

Dr. Donna Robinson Divine

An expert on Middle East politics and cultures, Divine is the author of three books including Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine. She has held visiting appointments at Yale, Harvard and Hebrew University, as well as fellowships from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and several Fulbright grants.
Upon returning from Israel last month, where she attended the Association of Israel Studies Conference at Sde Boker, Divine spoke with the Ledger about the underlying factors that led to the conflict…and where it might be headed.

Q: This latest conflict began when Hamas started – and refused to stop – firing a relentless barrage of rockets into Israel. What was the group’s motive? What lies at the core of this conflict?
A: The upheavals in Egypt – the removal of Mubarak, then several elections that brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood – and also the Syrian conflict, have a role in this conflict. Hamas’ position in Gaza was both strengthened by its connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, when it was in power in Egypt, and weakened by the beginning of protests in Syria, where Hamas was forced to identify with the protesters who were largely Muslim. So, eventually Hamas’ external leadership left its headquarters in Syria and initially came to Egypt, putting a lot of stress on developing connections through its border with Egypt in Sinai. It was able to increase its military capacity significantly and also increase its access to funds, particularly from Qatar, which is a strong backer of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the region for its own particular reasons in trying to oppose the dominance of Saudi Arabia in the Gulf.
The Hamas leadership in Gaza was becoming more and more powerful, strengthening its position. When the Muslim Brotherhood were overthrown in July of 2013, the new leadership in Egypt declared them to be a terrorist organization, and began to crack down on the tunnel system that was a source of great revenue and a source of gaining access to weapons for the Gaza leadership led by Hamas. And so, with that coup, Hamas was both brought almost to the point of bankruptcy and devoid of important Arab backers. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have provided important revenue to sustain the new Egyptian leadership. The Saudis oppose the Muslim Brotherhood.
Because Hamas couldn’t pay even its military wing, let alone the people who worked for its civilian wing, it decided to try to sustain some measure of power by joining a unity government with the Palestinian Authority, thinking that it would then gain access to the funds over which the Palestinian Authority has control. But since those funds come largely from the U.S. or Europe – and for many of those countries Hamas is a terrorist organization – the Palestinian Authority was not going to help pay the salaries of people affiliated with Hamas.
So, Hamas was losing its central backing in the Arab world, was on the ropes financially and, given the developments on the West Bank after the kidnapping of the three Israeli teens, its affiliates in the West Bank were being re-arrested or arrested for the first time. For all those reasons, Hamas decided to launch massive attacks against Israel, thinking that, in effect, showing resistance would help it develop its popularity in the Arab world and among Palestinians, and it would demonstrate how weak the Palestine authority has been in providing Palestinians with a state and a better life.
So, really the decision-making by Hamas that provoked this confrontation had much more to do with the borders being closed, the tunnels being stopped, its loss of access to some operatives in the Sinai peninsula and to a land bridge to Egypt, which is far more important to it in the short term than the sort of closure that Israel has imposed. What Hamas really wants out of this is an opening to Egypt – and Egypt shows no sign of giving Hamas that opening and doesn’t care how long this battle goes on, as long as there are no protests in Egypt to do anything about it. [Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah] al-Sisi, has made it clear he sympathizes with the suffering of the Palestinians, but he doesn’t even mention Hamas by name when he talks about what is going on in Gaza. He has kept that border closed and has, in fact, shot and killed people who have attempted to fire rockets into Israel from Egyptian territory.

Q: Could this backfire on Hamas or is it going as they had hoped?
A: Well, Hamas’ big victories are in public opinion. In the media. The media is reporting the casualties that are reported by the UN – and the UN is being handed the information on the casualties by Hamas officials. Generally, CNN and some of the other media who are reporting from Gaza are reporting from the point of view of the civilian casualties – only the civilian casualties; they don’t understand why Israel is shooting at building x or y. The reporting of CNN’s Ben Wedeman is a classic example: he’ll say something like “The Israeli military said this [target] was next to a place that was firing mortars at Israel, but we see no sign of any of that.” Then, he’ll interview people who say, “My house has been destroyed and I’m not a fighter and there were no tunnels.” So, the narrative that drives cable TV and the mainstream press is of just Palestinians as victims of major Israeli aggression – and aggression for no reason. They don’t put it into any context.

Q: Israel was very critical of the U.S. when it backed the Palestinian Authority’s unity government with Hamas. Would you expect that unity government to continue to stand?
A: When Israel completes the military tasks it has set for itself – that is locating, dismantling, destroying these tunnels, degrading the rocket making factories as much as they can, killing or arresting or destroying many of the people in the military wing of Hamas – when they do what they think they can do, eventually there needs to be some political process, and everyone wants to bring the Palestinian Authority into the picture. If they’re brought in as a unity government with a very weak Hamas and there’s at least the principal commitment not to resupply Hamas with weapons, it would be reasonable for Israel to accept that at this point. I don’t know whether they will – I can’t predict — but [Israel Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is someone who calculates both the benefits and risks of military and diplomatic activities, so I don’t think he would rule that possibility out under certain conditions.

Q: Netanyahu’s initial restraint at the outset of this conflict earned him a fair amount of criticism in his own party. Is he in trouble politically?
A: It’s not yet clear. Look at some of the politicians to the right of Netanyahu: I think that Avigdor Lieberman [of the Yisrael Beiteinu party], by breaking the alliance with Likud and not showing particular astuteness during this conflict, has lost a lot of ground as the challenger to Netanyahu. On the other hand, Naftali Bennett from the Bayit Yehudit party has probably gained some stature because he’s been out in the field; he’s been speaking supportively and he hasn’t challenged Netanyhau. At this point, he seems to be trying to support Israeli unity; talking about what might be the economic consequences and not saying anything that seems outlandish or too far afield. But Netanyahu’s stature and political position will depend on how this war is brought to an end and what Israelis think of the achievements, of the gains and losses. So, it’s too early to tell.
Politically, what has impressed me quite a bit is, with so many of the rockets hitting different towns and different cities like Ashdod and Ashkelon, you’ve had several mayors who’ve been on the front lines and on the firing lines, and some of them have emerged in these last several weeks as extremely competent; as people who have responded to the needs and complaints of citizens that, for example, the public shelters weren’t adequately prepared, etc. I think there is the potential here for a new generation of political leaders who know how to get things done; who seem responsive to the needs of the citizens. Those are the kinds of people who may emerge in the next few years to challenge what will be an older leadership.

Q: In the early days of this conflict, when Hamas was bombarding Israel with rockets, there were also several rockets launched from Lebanon. Can we assume that was Hezbollah? And, if so, was this in any way a coordinated effort between the two groups?
A: In fact, even though Hezbollah is a Shiia and Hamas is a Sunni, Hezbollah has provided technical and military training to Hamas. The Iranians also have helped to design those tunnels; and have provided some of the engineering expertise to improve their rockets. So, there are connections and, in fact, when Hamas joined the unity government it consulted with Hezbollah leaders about how to protect its weapons and how to have a resistance movement that doesn’t have responsibility for governance but can shape policies from outside the government through intimidation; because it has control over the means of violence. So in many ways, Hezbollah is a model for Hamas.
But Hezbollah is bogged down in Syria, so it can’t join in this war against Israel right now. But it’s watching this war and whatever happens between Israel and Hamas is going to affect Lebanon War number three. Now, Hezbollah has rockets that are much more accurate; they have payloads that are much more lethal and that are much more damaging. You’re going to have massive destruction from rockets. The only way to minimize that is to carpet bomb a country, and that’s what Israel might have to do to Lebanon should it start firing rockets at Israel.
There were some rockets that were fired, perhaps by Hezbollah affiliates. But, whenever there was a rocket fired from the north, I believe Hezbollah made it clear to Israel that it didn’t fire that rocket.

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