So many people have opinions on the Gaza war. So few understand it. To help with understanding, here are two of the most important books published about the Hamas terrorist organization that until now controlled Gaza: Matthew Levitt’s Hamas: Politics, Charity, and Terrorism in the Service of Jihad and Jonathan Schanzer’s Hamas v. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.
Levitt, who worked on terrorism financing issues at the Department of the Treasury, has written a book based on open source documents but inescapably influenced by his immersion in more highly classified information. He carefully analyzes the inner workings of Hamas and its external fundraising operations. Levitt exposes the unreality of the distinction often drawn in media coverage between Hamas’ “military” and its “social welfare” operations. For Americans, Levitt offers this sobering thought:
While Hamas’ ideology is at least as anti-American as Hezbollah’s, Hamas unlike Hezbollah has refrained from attacks on US targets. It is sometimes suggested that Hamas for this reason should not be considered a direct danger to American security. Levitt points out, however, that Hamas’ main motive for abstention is financial: Hamas raises much of its money inside the United States, through a variety of front groups. Hamas will wish to avoid a direct clash with the United States only so long as this condition holds. For that reason, the US too will emerge a big winner if the Gaza war cripples Hamas’ ability to launch large-scale terrorist operations.
Schanzer’s book relies entirely on the outside record, and focuses on the two-decades long struggle between Hamas and Fatah for supremacy within the Palestinian national movement. Palestinian Arabs have badly suffered from the murderous factionalism of their politics, extending all the way back to the 1930s. During the 1936 Arab uprising, Palestinian Arab factions inflicted far more casualties upon each other than upon the British or the Jews. The feuds spawned by these grudge killings influence Palestinian politics to this day.
The emergence of Hamas in the 1980s unleashed another round of hatreds within the Palestinian Arab world, and Schanzer details them minutely.
Some American readers may wonder if they really need to go quite so deeply into the details of Palestinian politics. Answer: This kind of detailed knowledge is the only way to inoculate oneself against all-prevailing myths.
The greatest obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinian Arab population originate from within the Palestinian side. Hope that an outside intermediary can negotiate or impose some kind of deal – that there are some set of concessions from Israel and aid from outside that will suffice to bring peace – has been repeatedly disappointed by experience. Yet the hope itself lingers on, invulnerable to all disproof, no matter how painful, no matter how repeated, no matter how predictable.
True, some regional experts have laid this hope outside. I conducted a Bloggingheads exchange yesterday with Amjad Atallah of the New America Foundation. (To be posted shortly.) One of Amjad’s themes is the incapacity of the Palestinian side to govern or police itself. (He would add “under conditions of occupation,” but that is an expression of sympathy whereas his conclusion is an assessment with political implications.) He argues that American policy has to be built around this great Palestinian incapacity. That seems accurate as description – and as a map of the true obstacles to a resolution of this unresolved and perhaps unresolveable conflict. Such assessments suggest that even autonomous Palestinian areas will have to be put for many years or decades under some kind of international trusteeship. Whether Palestinian leaders can summon in themselves the wisdom – and inspire in their followers the moderation – to make a success of such a project is very uncertain. After reading Levitt and Schanzer, the question will seem to you even more uncertain still.