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What is Hamas' strategy for a ceasefire and conditions for the end of war?


Despite months of intense negotiations, a cease-fire in Gaza has proved elusive. Deep divisions in the Israeli government over a deal have been discussed widely. But what about the other side, Hamas? What does it want at this point in the war? Hussein Ibish just wrote a piece on this for The Atlantic. He's a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, D.C. Welcome to the program, Hussein.

HUSSEIN IBISH: Thank you very much.

KURTZLEBEN: So what do you think Hamas' calculus is when it comes to any cease-fire negotiations?

IBISH: I think they're not terribly interested in one. If they could get the Israelis to agree to their absolute terms - an end to the conflict, release of major prisoners that - especially their own senior cadres, being held in Israeli jail and an end to the war on effectively their terms, a sort of a victory, they would take it. But I think they're more interested in having the Israelis stay in Gaza to serve as a lightning rod for a long-term insurgency.

I mean, I believe that this is not so much about attacking Israel as the end, but rather as a means to an end. And the end is power within Palestinian politics and the long-term Hamas goal that has not yet been realized of taking over the Palestinian national movement from the secular nationalists of Fatah, who have dominated it since it was reformed after the 1967 war.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, do you think Hamas is unified in that thinking, or are there divisions over strategy?

IBISH: Oh, I think there are definitely divisions. I mean, you can clearly see that the external leadership who used to run Hamas, but now have been driven out and were in Syria - they had to flee Syria in 2012 and go mainly to Qatar - they are alarmed by, I think - some of them anyway - by the way the war has gone and what the leadership in Gaza has risked in attacking Israel and deciding to launch what they call a state of permanent war with Israel. I think they see the political danger more clearly. I think that the leadership inside Gaza, Yahya Sinwar and the head of the paramilitary, Mohammed Deif, are playing a long game. I think they're thinking in terms of a prolonged insurgency against Israeli troops that has already begun in areas like Gaza City, Jabalia, near the Kerem Shalom crossing, places that were supposedly pacified.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, Iran is a supporter of Hamas. Could they have any influence here?

IBISH: I don't think so, because the alliance between Iran and its allies in the Arab world led by Hezbollah, which is basically a Shiite alliance, is a marriage of convenience with Hamas. Hamas is an unreliable ally for Iran and Hezbollah and the others. It's split with the largely Shiite so-called axis of resistance led by Iran over sectarian issues because of the Syrian war. Really, Iran is not terribly engaged in what happens, except insofar as it promotes Hamas, arms and funds Hamas in an effort to bedevil Israel.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, Palestinians in Gaza are dying in huge numbers. I'm curious, do we have any sense of what their level of support for Hamas is right now?

IBISH: No, we don't. It's clearer that Hamas has gained a lot of political support in the West Bank. But it's very hard to do any kind of credible survey in Gaza right now. There clearly is a strong base of support for Hamas in Gaza and among Palestinians generally that really believe in their religious reactionary politics. The rest of Palestinians, you know, a large number, reaching up to maybe 40% can be induced to support Hamas because of conflict with Israel.

If Hamas poses as the national leaders and the ones who are making the blood sacrifice to fight for the nation, other Palestinians could go along with them. But at the same time, there's a lot of evidence disparate and unorganized resentment and anger against Hamas in Gaza because of what they've done. On the other hand, as long as Israel is there, most of the rage and the panic and the fear and the anger will be directed against them. The day of reckoning for Hamas, politically, in Gaza can only come when the Israelis leave, if they ever do.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, ultimately, what do you think we'll see in Gaza in the next few months? Are we just looking at more and more months of fighting?

IBISH: I think what we're going to see is what has been happening over the past month, which is that as Israel has been wrapping up what they say was the last major stage of their big war to supposedly destroy Hamas in Rafah, which they've been doing in a slower pace in order to placate the Biden administration that was very worried about civilian casualties. At the same time, that's happening, the insurgency is beginning. And I think we'll see the Israeli war more into a counterinsurgency campaign of Whac-A-Mole, which will be a quagmire for Israel, which will become impossible, sooner rather than later, for Israel to extricate itself from. And that will be Hamas' victory in the short run. They will get the war they were looking for, the long-term insurgency that they hope will give them the bloody shirt that they can wave and say, we are the true nationalists, and we are the real leaders.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Hussein Ibish of the think tank the Arab Gulf States Institute. Hussein, thank you for joining us.

IBISH: You're so welcome, Danielle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.