CATF Reports Sep. 29, 2016, 11:28am


Early last week, Hamas militant leader Abu Jamal reminded American travelers that they are unwelcome in Gaza and warned them to steer clear of the area. While Jamal’s comments are unlikely to affect the travel plans of many American families, they do underpin the growing discontentment in Gaza even during an era of a complex, and sometimes ambiguous, U.S. and Israeli approach to countering Hamas.

Jamal’s comments came soon after the U.S. Department of State designated former Hamas interior minister Fathi Hammad as a “global terrorist.” While Washington’s designation of Hammad has clearly upset Hamas, the political implications, both intended and unintended, of the designation and the reasoning behind its timing remain unclear. Coming only days after the U.S. and Israel announced the largest-ever U.S. military aid deal, the designation of Hammad as a terrorist may signal the revival of a more concerted U.S.-Israeli push towards opposing Hamas. The designation, which carries modest geopolitical weight, may also have been intended to ensure the isolation of Hammad from mainstream Palestinian politics into the future. Yet, regardless of the political intentions of the designation and its timing, the announcement underlines the subdued nature of the U.S. and Israeli strategy against Hamas in recent times.

On September 16th, the U.S. Department of State announced its designation of Fathi Ahmad Mohammad Hammad as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist.” The State Department’s statement accused Hammad of using his position as Hamas Interior Minister to coordinate terrorist cells while also establishing a Hamas TV station “with programs designed to recruit children to become Hamas armed fighters and suicide bombers.” Widely viewed as a radical figure even within Hamas, Hammad has predicted Israel’s destruction, been suspected in a series of bombings near the homes of Fatah members, and believed to be in contact with Islamic State and Salafi operatives in the Sinai Peninsula. Under the new designation, U.S. citizens and companies will be prohibited from doing business with Hammad and any property related to the Hamas official in the U.S. will be frozen.

The designation has received mixed reactions from within the Hamas camp. The spokesman of the fundamentalist group, Sami Abu Zuhri, claimed the decision showed the administration’s bias toward Israel. The newly labeled global terrorist was not as restrained in his reaction. After referring to the decision as a “black page” for the American administration in their support of “the biggest sponsor of terrorism in the world”, Hammad announced his pride in being labeled a terrorist and claimed that he did not know why he had been singled out by the Department of State.

Hammad’s claim to ignorance on the motives behind the American announcement is both absurd and logical. In many ways, the designation is blatantly straightforward. As a senior member of a Foreign Terrorist Organization, Hammad is a facilitator of terrorism and therefore worthy of the Department of State’s condemnation and of U.S. sanctions. Yet, Washington has only identified a total of four Gaza-based members of Hamas as global terrorists, excluding Hammad, three of which are known for their close financial or organizational ties to the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades. Strangely enough, the designation of a senior member of a terrorist organization as a terrorist is a rare exception to U.S. rules.

The fact that only one Gaza-based member of Hamas’ Political Bureau, mayor of Deir al-Balah Ahmad Kurd, has previously been labeled a global terrorist by the U.S. gives the impression that the move may be intended to carry weight beyond the stated condemnation and sanctions. Why did the U.S. choose former Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hammad and not the powerful chairman of the terrorist group’s expansive political bureau Khaled Mashal as the victim of the designation?

Only a week before the release of Hammad’s designation from the State Department, the United States and Israel reached a 10-year, $38 billion military aid package deal for the Jewish State. Although clearly of lesser strategic importance than the largest military aid deal in U.S. history, Hammad’s designation may have stemmed from increased American coordination with Israel on countering Hamas. In this case, the designation may be a soft-power approach to ensuring that the anti-Fatah and former PA and Israel prisoner stays on the sidelines of Palestinian politics into the future. While divisions are rife within Palestinian politics, efforts to limit Hammad’s influence in the West Bank would strengthen the PA and serve U.S. and Israeli interests.

There are a limitless number of possible intentions behind the announcement of Hammad’s designation as a global terrorist directed from either Washington or Tel Aviv. What does seem clear, however, is the existence of American and Israeli reluctance to advance its non-military opposition to Hamas to the next level. Although reports have announced the construction of an underground wall to block tunnels from Gaza reaching Israeli soil, the Jewish State has been largely subdued in its approach to Gaza in recent months. While Israel still holds a large non-military arsenal that can be used against Gaza, including strict control of its borders, electricity, and access to the sea, Israel has been relatively restricted in its use of these tools even amid reports of Hamas using the deceleration in clashes to stockpile weapons.

Recent Israeli reluctance to take a more assertive approach to countering Hamas may stem from the delicate balance in relations between Arab states, Israel, and the United States. Having come to the support of Gaza’s public sector workers through the grant of millions of dollars in August, Qatar would not react favorably to a renewal of Israeli attacks - military or geoeconomic - on its Islamist partners in Gaza. For the United States, the return of a more aggressive and potentially violent Israeli approach towards Hamas only serves to further destabilize the region and even further strain already tense U.S. relations with its regional allies. For the time being, the U.S. appears to be uncommitted to more actively countering Hamas and thus only willing to issue lukewarm condemnations and sanctions of limited importance. Barring a breakdown in bilateral cooperation, Israel appears to be onboard, although perhaps unsatisfied, with the U.S. approach for the time being.

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