After six trips to the Middle East and tireless shuttle diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry somehow convinced the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel last week to agree upon "a basis" to hold peace talks. Kerry has a long road ahead if he is to bridge the gap between the two sides. He may not know it yet, but he has a secret weapon. He can help cripple Hamas.
The PLO and the Israelis cannot agree on much, but their hatred for Hamas is mutual. And the United States can leverage this by attacking the violent Islamist faction while it is at the most vulnerable point it has been in years.
The downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt earlier this month has been widely described as a blow to Hamas and its de facto government in the Gaza Strip. But the real damage has been to the Islamist group's pocketbook. The Egyptian Army's ongoing operations against the subterranean tunnels connecting Egypt to the Gaza Strip, which have long served as key arteries for bulk cash smuggling, are wreaking havoc on Hamas's finances. One senior Israeli security official told me that, in the current environment, an additional reduction of 20 to 30 percent in Hamas' revenues could "destroy" the movement.
Hamas's budget for running the Gaza Strip, which it violently took over in 2007, is estimated to be $890 million this year (Hamas doesn't submit to an outside audit, so consider this a ballpark figure). Until last year, the faction relied heavily on Iran and Syria for a great deal of its cash, but the civil war in Syria prompted Hamas to loosen its ties to the "Axis of Resistance." Funding from Tehran has dropped off precipitously since then, forcing the faction to turn to the Muslim Brotherhood bloc to make ends meet.
Qatar pledged $400 million to the group last year, when the emir visited Gaza. Turkey is believed to provide additional support -- as much as $300 million, according to some estimates. However, it is unclear how much of these funds are earmarked for the Hamas government bureaucracy, and how much is slated for the building of mosques, hospitals, and other Gaza Strip infrastructure that has been badly damaged during skirmishes with Israel over the years. It is also unclear how much of this is funneled to Hamas' military arm, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
In addition to these funds, a whopping $1.4 billion per year reportedly flows from the Palestinian Authority (PA) to Gaza. Hamas and the Fatah movement fought a bloody civil war in 2007, but that has not stopped the PA from earmarking these funds for the people of Gaza, whom they still purport to rule. The PA has been careful not to provide any funds directly to Hamas, for fear of invoking the ire of Congress. These funds primarily pay the salaries of "civil servants" who lost their jobs after Hamas overran the Gaza Strip. In essence, the PA pays these former bureaucrats not to work for Hamas. The PA also directly subsidizes Gaza's electricity production and reportedly underwrites other municipal services. Nevertheless, it is a fair assumption that Hamas, which rules Gaza with an iron fist, pockets a portion of the PA funds anyway.
Hamas has also augmented its income over the past decade by taxing goods that come through the tunnels connecting the Gaza Strip to Egypt. The tunnels were first created as a means to smuggle weapons to the coastal enclave, but after Hamas conquered Gaza, prompting Israel to impose a blockade, the tunnels became a key artery for a wide range of goods necessary to keep the economy running. Hamas, as Gaza's de facto rulers, reportedly took in at least $365 million a year from the tunnel trade.