Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Pages 14-15
Hamas a Necessary Partner for Peace
By Jan Elshout
The “consensus” that Hamas is a terrorist organization, with which no communication is possible, is rarely questioned in the West. Contrary to public opinion, however, Hamas has proffered positive pragmatic proposals that could have contributed to peace. Moreover, a durable peace requires Palestinian unity, and the refusal of the West to communicate with Hamas constitutes an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.
This misperception is not due to a lack of literature on Hamas (see, for example, “Israel Created Two of Its Own Worst Enemies—Hamas and Hezbollah,” by Donald Neff, November 2002 Washington Report, p. 20). Most is based on recycled secondary sources, however, and the detailed academic studies are not well known.
Hamas’ predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood, which engaged primarily in social and religious work, did not join the resistance against the Israeli occupation until life became unbearable and the first intifada broke out in December 1987. Shortly thereafter Hamas was established (1987). Its military branch, the Quassam Brigades, was formed in 1991, and kept separate from the political wing, now headed by the exiled Khaled Meshal in Damascus.
The evolution of Hamas from a religious to a resistance movement received widespread support in both the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians were disillusioned with the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been unable to end the occupation and was ineffective against Israel’s brutal suppression of the second intifada, which broke out in response to Gen. Ariel Sharon’s September 2000 provocative visit to the Temple Mount. The underlying cause, however, was the aforementioned disillusionment and the Palestinians’ continued dispossession.
Lacking other means of defense against Israel’s massive military machine, Palestinian militants resorted to suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. The largest such attack, in March 2002, killed 30 Israelis. Not only were suicide bombings forbidden by international law, but they created a great deal of sympathy for Israelis and antipathy toward Palestinians.
Hamas opposed the Oslo accords, arguing that they did not address basic Palestinian rights, but realized that, in the end, a political solution was necessary. This resulted in Hamas issuing a number of unilateral cease-fires—in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005-2006. In each case Hamas observed the cease-fire as Israeli violence continued unabated, until Isreal committed such a heinous act—such as the killing of a family picnicking on a Gaza beach in June 2006—that Hamas abandoned the cease-fire. Nor was there progress in the “peace process” during these intervals.
An Elected Hamas Government
As the Yasser Arafat-run PLOand Palestinian Authority (PA) emphasized staying in power, and the West demanded Palestinian “reform,” Hamas offered a welcome alternative to Palestinians voting in January 2006 parliamentary elections.
By its very participation in the elections, Hamas demonstrated that it had chosen a political approach. Suicide attacks within Israel and rocket attacks on southern Israel were halted (later resumed only in response to large-scale Israeli violence). Despite efforts by Israel and the PA to obstruct the polling, Hamas gained a majority of the vote. Winning 76 of 132 seats, it could have formed a government alone, but instead proposed a unity government—which Fatah rejected. This despite the fact that Meshal’s demand for “reconstruction of the PLO to become a real representative of the Palestinian people” was precisely what Western powers had been demanding.
Indeed, the derailing of the peace process in early 2006 despite promising prospects is due to a great extent to the reaction of Israel and Western powers, particularly the U.S. The Israeli government decided to isolate the incoming Hamas government (“put them on a diet”), threatening that Prime Minister-elect Ismail Haniyeh could become a “military target.” On the ground, Israel expanded its illegal settlements, closed off the Jordan Valley, and imposed new visa restrictions, closing off the West Bank to many Palestinians. Military checkpoints were choking the Palestinian economy. A Feb. 20, 2006 editorial in Haaretz titled “Diet instead of wisdom” noted the much more responsible behavior of Hamas, which was working toward a “hudna,” or long-term cease-fire, with the moral obligation to achieve a permanent solution.
But the EU fell in line behind Israel and Washington, declaring a boycott of the Hamas government, and the Quartet (the U.S., EU, U.N. and Russia) reiterated its one-sided demands of Hamas.
Fatah and Hamas prisoners in Israel negotiated a political agreement, later laid down in the February 2007 Mecca Declaration, which actually implied recognition of Israel within the 1967 borders. In a December 2006 interview with Republica, Hamas leader Meshal elaborated: “We accept the need for two countries to exist, but Israel has no legitimacy as long as the occupation exists.”
A unity government based on the Mecca Declaration collapsed within a few months (June 2007), however, when Fatah tried to break the power of Hamas in Gaza. In a July 26, 2007 article in CounterPunch (“The Siren Song of Eliot Abrams”), former CIA analyst Kathleen Christison described how Abrams, deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, acted against the unity government, arming the now-minority Fatah to rob Hamas of its power. The scheme failed in Gaza when U.S.-trained Fatah troops refused orders to attack Hamas. Local Fatah leaders then fled to the West Bank, leaving Gaza in the hands of Hamas.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s successor, proceeded to dismiss the unity government and appoint a new one, recognized by the West as the Palestinians’ sole government, despite the fact that it never obtained parliamentary approval.
Israel’s Siege of and Assault on Gaza
Israel intensified its siege of Gaza, blocking such basic needs as food and medicine. The U.N.’s former special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, Prof. John Dugard, points out the historical uniqueness of an occupied people being subjected to economic sanctions. Advocating that the U.N. leave the Quartet, since the latter had become an instrument of Israeli sanctions and failed in its basic task for the Palestinian population, Dugard cited the Geneva Conventions: “starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited.”
Hamas again announced a unilateral cease-fire in June 2008. Israel accepted the offer, but violated the cease-fire on Nov. 4, killing six Palestinians in air strikes. Hamas offered to renew the cease-fire if Israel lifted its blockade of Gaza. Israel not only rejected the proposal but on Dec. 27 launched a vicious 22-day assault on Gaza, killing 1,400 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians.
A subsequent topic of debate was whether the Israeli attack was “proportional.” Dugard’s successor, Richard Falk, argued that the more important question is whether the war was legitimate at all. He concluded it was “not,” since Hamas had repeatedly offered a renewal of the cease-fire.
A 2009 study by the Dutch Clingendael Institute documented Hamas’ willingness for pragmatic solutions. In its early days, its dominating rhetoric was about “liberating the whole of Palestine” and an “Islamic state.” During the Oslo years, however, and as recently as 2005, Hamas advanced a variety of new proposals. Many Hamas documents refer to “abid[ing] by international agreements” and accepting any negotiated solution approved by a Palestinian referendum. Mention of an Islamic state is nowhere to be found in recent documents.
The Israeli expert Menachem Klein described as “innovative” the manner in which Hamas has solved difficult problems like “recognition of Israel.” Their initial rejection is based on the view Israel has been built on expropriated land. That rejection is sidelined, however, by a very long-term truce (hudna), to be followed later by a formal peace. Many Hamas proposals are counter to its Charter (to which no recent references can be found). Klein goes on to quote Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza: “Hamas seeks to follow the diplomatic route, with the purpose of achieving peace and stability in the region. It is Israel’s actions and aggression that are making it impossible to achieve peace based on a two-state solution.”
Leading expert Dr. Jeroen Gunning, who as author of Hamas in Politics spoke to many Hamas leaders, describes how the thinking of Hamas evolved. The decision in 2005 to follow a political line and participate in the parliamentary elections was not an isolated one. The 1990s saw the development of important thinking on such topics as the strict separation of legislative, governing and legal powers; financial control; equality under the law; adhering to election results; aiming at consensus; and a behavioral code for politicians. The 2006 Hamas platform was based on those analyses.
Hamas clearly opposes religious extremism, Gunning argues, believing as it does that an Islamic state should never be enforced (“then no longer serving principles of freedom, justice and equality”).
Although Western behavior was based on the view of Hamas as a “total spoiler [of peace],” in Gunning’s view this cannot be supported by Hamas’ actual behavior.
Isolating Hamas Counterproductive
Hamas has provided a valuable alternative for Palestinians, with its “reform” agenda and constructive ideas on peace. According to Hamas expert Khaled Hroub, the West, by isolating Hamas, missed a “golden opportunity.” The International Crisis Group agrees: “Security and a credible peace depend on a minimum of Palestinian consensus. Isolating Hamas strengthens its radical wing.”
Senior U.S. diplomats also have recently suggested speaking to Hamas. While one may object that many of the concessions demanded of the Palestinians by the U.S./Middle East Project—whose international board is headed by former U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft—are not in line with international law, the fact that these diplomats recognize the need to communicate with Hamas can be seen as a positive development. The British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee also has proposed opening a dialogue with Hamas.
Hamas’ 2006 victory in free and fair democratic elections indicates that it represents a majority of Palestinians. Moreover, its acceptance of a two-state solution and many constructive proposals make it vital—and logical—that Hamas be recognized as a full partner in negotiations.
Jan Elshout, based in The Netherlands, worked as a business development consultant in several countries, including in the Middle East. He regularly writes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.