When Hamas won the Palestinian elections, a highly successful Fourth Generation entity became a state. No doubt that was one of Hamas’ highest aspirations. But by becoming a state, it became far more vulnerable to other states than it was as a non-state entity. How Hamas deals with this problem may say a great deal about the future of Fourth Generation war.
Hamas may have presumed that once it won a free election, other states, including the United States and Israel, would have to recognize its legitimacy. Great expectations are seldom fulfilled in the amoral world of international politics. When the Washington Establishment calls for "free elections," what it means is elections that elect the people it wants to deal with. Hamas does not fall in that category. Washington therefore greeted Hamas’ electoral victory with a full-court press to destroy the new Hamas leadership of the Palestinian Authority, a "state" that bears a state’s burdens with none of a state’s assets. Both Machiavelli and Metternich were no doubt delighted by this act of Wilsonian hypocrisy, a variety that often exceeds their own and does so with a straight face, an act they could never quite master, being gentlemen.
In cooperation with Israel (can Washington now do anything except in cooperation with Israel?), the U.S. imposed a starvation blockade on the Palestinian territories. Instead of British armored cruisers, the blockaders this time are U.S. banking laws, plus Israeli withholding of Palestinian tax receipts. As the government of a quasi-state, Hamas found itself with no money. PA employees went unpaid and PA services, such as they were, largely collapsed. The burden, as always, fell on average Palestinians.
In the past week, Israel has upped the ante by threatening a full-scale military attack on Gaza. The Israelis had already been escalating quietly, a raid here, a missile there, artillery shells somewhere else. With Palestinian civilians dying, Hamas had to respond. It did so with a raid on an Israeli army post, a legitimate military target. (Attacks on military targets are not "terrorism.") The well-planned and brilliantly conducted raid (so well done as to suggest Hezbollah assistance) killed two Israeli soldiers and captured one.
Normally, that captured Israeli would be a Hamas asset. But now that Hamas is a state, it has discovered Cpl. Gilad Shalit is a major liability. Israel is refusing all deals for his return. If Hamas returns him without a deal, it will be humiliated. If it continues to hold him, Israel will up the military pressure; it is already destroying PA targets such as government offices and arresting PA cabinet members. If it kills him, the Israeli public will back whatever revenge strikes the Israeli military wants. Hamas is now far more targetable than it was as a non-state entity, but is no better able to defend itself or Palestine than it was as Fourth Generation force. Fourth Generation forces are generally unable to defend territory or fixed targets against state armed forces, but they have no reason to do so. Now, as a quasi-state, Hamas must do so or appear to be defeated.
Does the sign really say "No Exit" for Hamas? It may so long as Hamas remains a state, or has aspirations to be one. Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s obvious goal is to push the Hamas government to the point where it must choose between a humanitarian catastrophe for the Palestinian people and resignation, with the return of corrupt and complaint Fatah to power. Either way, Hamas will have suffered an enormous defeat, to the point where it is unlikely to be a serious alternative ever again.
There is, however, another way out for Hamas. It can call and raise Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s bets. How? By voting to dissolve the Palestinian Authority. Ending the PA would dump the Palestinian territories and their inhabitants right back in Israel’s lap. Under international law, as the occupying power, Israel would be responsible for everything in the territories: security, human services, utilities and infrastructure, the economy, the whole megillah (oy!). Israel could try to restore the PA in cooperation with Fatah, but if Fatah joined Israel in doing so, it would destroy what legitimacy it has left. Hamas could meanwhile return to a 4GW war against Israel, unencumbered with the dubious assets of a state, and with lots more targets as Israel attempted to run the Palestinian territories itself.
Hamas faces what may be a defining moment, not only for itself but for Fourth Generation entities elsewhere. Does it want the trappings of a state so much that it will render itself targetable as a state, or can it see through the glitter of being "cabinet ministers" and the like and go instead for substance by retaining non-state status? To be or not to be a state, that is the question for Hamas and soon enough for other 4GW entities as well.