There may be many reasons but one is absolutely key: to isolate Hamas and sabotage Palestinian reconciliation efforts. Perhaps this is why Israel recently warned both Fatah and Hamas that it would cut water and electricity to Gaza should a unity government be formed. Palestinian unity is something both Israel and the US especially have worked long and hard to preclude. In fact, the Oslo peace process was directly positioned against reconciliation. The resulting severing of the two territories, which was a policy goal of Oslo, undermined the Palestinian national movement and eliminated the geographical basis of a Palestinian economy. The West Bank essentially dissolved into a fragmented, incoherent entity and the Gaza Strip was converted into an imprisoned and impoverished enclave now home to 1.65 million people.


In 2007, Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, wrote: “To believe that we ended the occupation in Gaza [after Israel’s 2005 disengagement] while still occupying the West Bank is to assume that Gaza is not part of a Palestinian entity.” It is precisely this assumption that has long informed Israeli policy toward Gaza, particularly after Hamas’s 2006 electoral victory and 2007 takeover.  In this regard Israel has successfully recast its asymmetrical relationship with Gaza from one of occupation to one of two (equal) actors at war, a recasting the international community has largely embraced. Consequently, Israel reshaped its conflict with the Palestinians to center on Gaza and on Israel’s hostile relationship with Hamas, restricting the Palestinian “state” to a dismembered and increasingly annexed West Bank.
The separation of the West Bank and Gaza has another critical, unseen dimension: excising Gaza—as the principal source of resistance to Israeli occupation—from the dominant political paradigm. Gaza is the political heart and strategic core of Palestine and Palestinian nationalism, the center of resistance in the past and present. As such Gaza represents a political threat that goes well beyond—and long precedes—Hamas. Israel well understood this, which is why Gaza was cut off—marginalized, demonized and punished with a crippling siege now in its sixth year. It is also why Gaza continues to be attacked.

Hence a key feature of the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement signed last May is the return of Gaza to the Palestinian cause after years of isolation. Despite the difficult challenges that remain, the political re-engagement of Gaza and its repositioning back into the center of the struggle is key to reconstructing a national movement, which is why Palestinian unity will continue to be opposed by Israel, the US and certain Arab states. Promoting negotiations that reject Hamas’s participation is one way of keeping Palestinians internally divided and vulnerable. Although national unification will not come from a Fatah-Hamas agreement alone, it is an essential prerequisite.

Hamas, furthermore, has come under enormous pressure from its population in Gaza for its political and economic failures including: the futility of firing rockets into Israel and its inability to defend Gaza against Israeli military attacks and end the debilitating siege. Gaza’s economic devastation is a key constraint on the Islamist government. Conservatively, unemployment hovers around 30 percent and could easily return to the much higher levels of the past. Nearly 40 percent of Gazans live in poverty, a percentage that would be far greater without donor aid.  In fact, 70-80 percent of the population remains dependent on some form of humanitarian assistance. Ten percent of all children are stunted, “so undernourished before the age of two,” writes the former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, “that they never grow to their full potential.”
These problems have weakened Hamas’ legitimacy, which is not lost on its leadership who also are concerned about the potential for civil unrest in Gaza especially in light of regional changes and the unpopularity of various Hamas policies, notably the growing Islamization of society. This is not only a potentially dangerous situation for the government in Gaza but for its counterpart in the West Bank.
While there is no guarantee that engaging Hamas politically would result in diminished violence and greater moderation, its history of political pragmatism and long record of social service provision and community development (coupled with the regional ascendance of Islamist parties especially in Egypt) strongly suggest that it is worth putting Hamas to the test. Without question, Palestinian stability and future peace efforts depend upon it.
Sara Roy is a senior research scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard, and the author of Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector (Princeton University Press, 2011).