Encountering peace: Let’s talk to Hamas now

When it comes to dealing with the Gaza Strip, this is our only option.

Hamas soldier 311 R (photo credit: Israel Picture Service/REUTERS)
Hamas soldier 311 R
(photo credit: Israel Picture Service/REUTERS)
I am writing this in the first hour after a truce has been announced. If Hamas is successful in preventing rocket fire into Israel, Israel will formally agree to honor the cease-fire. In the meantime, Israel has reportedly agreed not to attack Gaza and to allow Hamas to deploy its forces along the border to prevent the shooting of rockets from Gaza into Israel.
One hour after the cease-fire was supposed to begin, there were reports of mortar and Kassam rocket fire. I spoke with one of the Hamas leaders to whom I have spoken about 100 times over the past days, who said to me that all of the Hamas leaders, including Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mashaal, had given direct orders to all of the factions to cease all rocket fire. Hamas strongman Ahmed Jaabri deployed his troops throughout Gaza to stop and arrest any violators of the order.
As strange as it sounds, Hamas has become the moderate force in Gaza today. Yes, Hamas is still ideologically committed to the elimination of Israel. It has not changed its belief in the legitimacy of using terrorism against Israel, but the burden of governing, the need to provide basic services – electricity, healthcare, education, welfare, food, employment, accountability to the public – these have all had an impact on the general outlook of Hamas’s political leadership.
Yes, of course, there are other factors – Cast Lead is most definitely burned into its consciousness, and it doesn’t want to repeat the horrors of that calamity.
Most definitely the situation in Syria is having a deep impact, especially after Palestinian refugee camps were targeted by Bashar Assad’s military hooligans and Palestinians were killed and forced to take refuge once again. Even Iran seems to be reprimanding Hamas for not standing behind Assad and his brutal regime. The Hamas political leadership might be searching for a new base of operations, and Egypt may be a candidate.
Certainly Egypt’s emerging identity is taking shape while it maintains a firm strategic commitment to preserve the peace with Israel, but is no longer willing to implement Israel’s siege policy on Gaza. The growth of Islamic forces in Egypt will have an enormous impact on its future relations with Hamas.
For the moment, there is no siege on Gaza, but Egypt has not allowed the Rafah border to be freely opened. Movement in and out of Gaza is still very limited – only a few hundred people per day – and the Egyptians have still not allowed a commercial border crossing to operate.
They have not closed down the tunnels, and some, such as the fuel pipeline from Egypt to Gaza, operate almost legally. The Egyptians are concerned with the possibility of the more radical Palestinian groups setting up bases of operations in Sinai, and here they have a partnership with Hamas.
The terror attack near Eilat last Thursday was ascribed by Israel to the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC), a rogue Palestinian group that has cooperated with Hamas in the past, even in the abduction of soldier Gilad Schalit. The PRC, however, is no friend of Hamas, and quite often over the past two years, Izzadin Kassam, the armed wing of Hamas led by Jaabri, has had to use threatening force against it.
But when Israel retaliated for the terror attack and killed six PRC military leaders, Hamas responded with anger. A senior Hamas leader asked me: Why did they attack and kill them without any proof that they did the attack? More than one Hamas leader with whom I spoke said their group had no prior knowledge of the attack, and if it had, it would have opposed it – not out of ideology, but because of its own current interests. Indeed, Hamas denies that the terrorists came out of Gaza.
I spoke with a senior Egyptian official who refuses to believe that they could have been Egyptians. He did confirm that it was more than possible that Hamas did not know anything about the attack. He said the terrorists could have conducted it without much strategic planning. They didn’t necessarily have allies or formal assistants in Sinai. They could have paid for services there from Beduin, including the use of normal taxis for transportation, with no questions asked. A little bit of cash goes a long way in Sinai.
Because of the attack Thursday, one of the conditions for a cease-fire that Hamas posed to the UN and to Egypt was that if there is another attack over the Sinai border, Israel must first investigate the case and provide proof for Gazan involvement before attacking Gaza and killing suspected perpetrators. It is hard to imagine that Israel would wait for some third party to carry out an investigation before taking action.
Israel was rightly angry after Thursday’s attack. Its civilians and military personal were killed, and its sovereignty was violated. Israel had a right and a responsibility to respond. There is also little doubt that the six PRC military leaders were guilty of killing Israelis in the past and planning to kill a lot more in the future.
There may, however, be no proof that they were responsible for Thursday’s terrorist attack. It was quite clear that the result of the successful Israeli kill in Gaza would lead to escalation and heavy rocket fire.
From the very first hours after the terror attack, Hamas declared that it did not want to escalate the situation. Hamas did not fire rockets. There is an argument over four rockets fired on Ofakim on Saturday night and whether or not Hamas militants fired them. What is not in question is that the Hamas political leadership and even the head of the military wing did not give the order.
I SPENT much of the past 48 hours trying to advance the cease-fire that started tonight (Sunday night).
Every minute that went by raised the risk of it being more difficult to achieve, and of more human life being needlessly lost. The deadly grads that fell in Beersheba could have been avoided if our leaders had acted with a greater sense that achieving a cease-fire and preventing rockets holds more benefits and strategic interest than creating a “renewed sense of deterrence in the consciousness of the Hamas leadership.”
A senior Israel security official said to me, “They are the sovereign in Gaza; they have to be held responsible.”
In principle, that sounds nice, but they are hardly sovereign when they cannot deploy their forces without Israeli agreement, when they have no control over their borders, when they have to rely on tunnels for their economy, etc. I am not coming out in the defense of Hamas, but I am clearly saying that a ceasefire is preferable any day and every day to renewing the consciousness of deterrence and risking the loss of innocent human lives on both sides of the border.
I have been in contact with Hamas people for more than five years now. Our contact has provided a human face in place of what was an enemy face.
There is no love between us, but there is a growing sense that finding a way to live in relative peace next to each other may actually be possible.
Now we just have to bring Schalit home.

The writer is the founder and co-director of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, and hosts a weekly radio show in Hebrew on All for Peace radio.