Israel Palestinians

Palestinians flee south on Sunday, the third day of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, along Salah al-Din road in central Gaza Strip. Hatem Moussa/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — In 2009, when Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power for a second run as Israel’s prime minister – a job he has held almost continuously since – he was confronted with a major change in the region: Hamas, a militant Islamist group, had been elected to power in the Gaza Strip three years earlier.

From the beginning, Hamas vowed to destroy Israel, and in his 2009 campaign, Netanyahu vowed to destroy Hamas. What happened instead was a decade and a half of uneasy coexistence during which Netanyahu’s serial governments and Hamas’ leaders found each other useful for their purposes.

The odd symbiosis endured – through years of escalations and accommodations, hopes of calm, and periods of chaos – until now, when both Hamas and Netanyahu face a possible end to their respective holds on power.

Israel Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a press conference on Oct. 28. Abir Sultan/Pool via AP, file

Hamas leaders, after directing the attack that killed at least 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7, are being bombed and hunted by an Israeli military that has pledged the group will never rule in Gaza again. Amid devastating attacks that have killed more than 11,000 people in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials, even some Palestinians in Gaza have taken the rare step of publicly criticizing Hamas for the October attack and leaving civilians exposed to military onslaught.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu, who agreed last month to share emergency war powers with his chief political rival, is facing unprecedented public rage for his failure to prevent the October attack and the disordered government response in its aftermath. Polls show that 75% of Israelis want him to either resign now or be replaced when the fighting stops.

“It’s a strange alliance that has run its course,” said Israeli historian Adam Raz, who has made a study of the relationship between the prime minister and the militant group. “Hamas will not be the government of Gaza. And I think we can assume that Netanyahu is nearing the end of his political career.”

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Circumstances are changing rapidly, and neither’s fate is certain. A four-day pause in the fighting that Israel and Hamas agreed to began Friday, and the first of 50 Israeli hostages were released the same day as part of the deal. Netanyahu has vowed to continue the fight after the pause, with the aim of “eradicating Hamas.”

Raz and other observers made clear that Netanyahu didn’t anticipate the Hamas attack and the capture of around 240 Israelis on Oct. 7, the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.

But they say that as soon as he regained power, Netanyahu – who as a candidate had pledged to “knock out the rule of Hamas in Gaza” – instead largely pursued a strategy that didn’t disrupt the status quo of a divided Palestinian population, leaving Hamas to rule in Gaza and the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

That schism served the purposes of Netanyahu and opponents of a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict by hobbling the Palestinians’ ability to oppose Israel’s occupation, analysts said.

“With no unified leadership, Bibi was able to say he couldn’t move forward with peace negotiations,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli pollster and political analyst, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname. “It allowed him to say, ‘There is no one to talk to.’”

The situation allowed Netanyahu to largely sideline the “Palestinian question,” an issue that had shaped the tenures of Israeli leaders over the previous four decades. Instead, Netanyahu focused on Iran and other threats, and on Israel’s development into an economic powerhouse, according to Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer.

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“Netanyahu always felt that the Palestinian conflict was a distraction being used as a wedge issue in Israel,” Pfeffer said. “He called it a ‘rabbit hole.’”

Year after year, successive Netanyahu cabinets approved moves that had the effect of easing pressure on Hamas: Israel agreed to periodic prisoner releases, as well as the transfer of money from Qatar to pay public salaries in Gaza, improve infrastructure and, critics say, fund Hamas military operations.

The prime minister hoped to prevent any reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, even when the two sides came close to rapprochement in 2018.

“In the last 10 years, Netanyahu worked to block any attempt at demolishing Hamas in Gaza,” Raz said.

Netanyahu’s office declined to provide anyone to respond on the record. But a senior government official who spoke on the condition of anonymity denied that the prime minister ever pursued a policy of keeping Hamas in power.

Families and friends of about 240 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza call for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bring them home during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Tuesday. Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

“He is the most cited prime minister in history, and I don’t think you’ll find one statement of his that lobbies for strengthening Hamas,” the official said. “It was the opposite. He hit Hamas harder than any prime minister in history. He led three large-scale military operations against Hamas in 2012, 2014 and 2021.”

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“He didn’t destroy Hamas, which is what his war cabinet directed (Israel Defense Forces) to do after the Oct. 7 atrocities,” the official said. “That is what the IDF is doing right now.”

During those years, a volatile détente emerged. Hamas continued to launch rockets into Israel, most of which were intercepted by sophisticated aerial defense systems. Wars flared, but each ended in negotiated cease-fires. Hamas remained in power, and hopes grew that the group was evolving into a more reliable governing body focused on building Gaza instead of all-out war.

Netanyahu was not alone in seeing benefits in the situation. Israeli moderates began to envision a future besides stabilizing Gaza with a better standard of living. Businesses hailed Israel’s improving relations with Arab neighbors willing to forge stronger ties with the Jewish state.

Exports from Gaza grew. In recent years, both Netanyahu and an 18-month-long government led by less conservative opposition parties granted Palestinians in Gaza increasing numbers of permits to work in Israel. The number had topped 18,000 by Oct. 7.

Now, the strategy that left Hamas entrenched in Gaza is being scrutinized by traumatized Israelis. Anger across the political spectrum has driven Netanyahu’s support to historic lows. Just 25% of voters now tell pollsters he is the most suitable politician to be prime minister, according to Scheindlin.

“The right wishes he had wiped out Hamas, and the center and left wish he hadn’t dropped the negotiations track,” she said.

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In Gaza, where elections haven’t been held since 2006, gauging support for Hamas is more difficult. Before the war, fear of Hamas retribution kept criticism of the regime largely to whispers. Now, the massive disruptions of bombardment and displacement make polling almost impossible.

Some recent surveys show continuing support for Hamas as anger at Israel grows during the ongoing military assault. But more Palestinians in Gaza are willing to criticize Hamas on social media and in interviews with The Washington Post.

“I’m not afraid to say it: We don’t want Hamas, and not just because of the war, but for years,” said Ahmad, 44, a pharmacist from Deir al-Balah in central Gaza. The Post is not using his full name to protect him from possible reprisals. “The lack of competent governance has left us in poverty and misery, exacerbated by this devastating war. Israel’s actions spare no one, regardless of being affiliated with Hamas or not.”

Motaz, 39, said Hamas’ attack on Israel left him in “horror” and left his family exposed to Israeli attacks that destroyed his grocery store in Khan Younis last month.

He doesn’t believe Hamas can survive. But he doesn’t see what difference any change of leadership in Gaza would make to its devastated citizens.

“Even if Hamas remains in power, what will remain for us here?” Motaz asked. “There are no homes to live in and no work to sustain us. I lost my only source of livelihood.”

 

Washington Post writer Judith Sudilovksy in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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