Separating aspirations from realities

Hamas is in the process of grounding itself in reality - something Israel should not hinder.

mashaal 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
mashaal 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
It was disturbing that Hamas did not condemn the April 17 suicide bombing in Tel Aviv carried out by Islamic Jihad. Citing the Palestinian people's right to self-defense, Hamas instead called the suicide bombings "a natural reaction to the continued Zionist crimes carried out against Palestinian people." Were these the words of an immovable hard-line militant government or is the rhetoric worthy of more subtle reading? My own contact with the leadership of Hamas in Beirut on two occasions, the last one being since their electoral success, suggests a more nuanced reading of what lies beneath the surface. Western governments refuse to talk with Hamas until it fulfills certain preconditions such as renunciation of violence, recognition of Israel and to rewriting its charter which calls for Israel's destruction. But Hamas will not and cannot metamorphose overnight. That would clearly negate the basis on which it has been elected. Hamas calls for the right to resist while under occupation, justifying this by reference to international law. From their perspective, any immediate end to resistance would be seen as a betrayal of the communities who have elected them. Hamas leaders need to show they are more potent than Fatah, who were seen as unable to protect the needs of the Palestinian people in the conflict with Israel. Paradoxically, Hamas's electoral sweep has curbed its freedom of action far more than defeat would have done. The prevailing view in the United States is that attempts to destabilize the new regime will deliver a more moderate reform-oriented Fatah back in power. But Washington's demand for Hamas to change its behavior could actually make it more strident. It does not want to be seen as giving up on its ideology without receiving any economic or diplomatic benefits. ISOLATING THE Hamas government will ultimately hurt ordinary citizens: doctors, nurses, policemen, social workers and government officials. Indeed, the policy is based on the idea that citizens who elected Hamas and who now stand to suffer as a result will put pressure on their elected representatives to moderate their policies. This is a misunderstanding of the psychology of the situation, and likely to cause the opposite reaction by consolidating the influence of the more extreme groups. THERE IS evidence that Hamas is undergoing a process of transformation from a paramilitary organization with a social wing to a key political player. It is in the interest of Israel to support this progression, not obstruct it. In a sense, Hamas presently carries the hopes of millions of Arabs and Muslims all over the world. On one hand, it provides the opportunity for Palestinians to show that they can govern themselves with more transparency and for the benefit of the people while potentially managing tough negotiations with Israel. On the other, if successful, it could provide other Islamic groups in the Arab world with an example of a viable Islamic state model, to propose to their own people as an alternative. In the first instance, Hamas is less concerned about entering into a political dialogue with Israelis. This is because is recognizes its own position of weakness at this point. It intends to focus primarily on the domestic agenda, recognizing that stability is unlikely without improvement in the conditions of the people on the ground. Even so, Hamas has given some positive signals as far as talks with Israel are concerned. Ismail Haniyeh, the newly appointed prime minister, recently said that "everything was on the table" including demands that Hamas effectively recognize Israel by accepting previous accords. Khaled Mashaal, one of Hamas's leaders in exile, said his movement would hold talks with Israel if the Jewish state recognizes the rights of the Palestinian people. Hamas leaders have said that "the charter is not the Koran"; it was written by one individual without broad consultation, and many of them (reportedly including Ahmed Yassin) have avoided quoting from it. Recently, interlocutors with connections to the senior Hamas leadership have made it clear, privately, that the process of reviewing the Hamas charter is under way. Anti-Semitic elements are likely to be replaced by a more purely nationalist agenda. A new charter is unlikely to completely surrender the dream of a Greater Palestine; but it may place that dream on a more distant footing, and enshrine the possibility of coexistence based on 1967 armistice lines. Hamas is now calling for a long-term reciprocal armistice, potentially for a period of 30 or more years. This initiative deserves serious consideration and examination by the international community, as it could lead to future negotiations and create space to find an accommodation based on coexistence. As in Northern Ireland, rather than demanding that they be abandoned, it could allow for the aspirations and hopes of both sides to be separated from the practical realities, thus enabling certain thorny questions to be left to the next, less traumatized generation. The writer, a human security consultant, is director of the Middle East Policy Initiative Forum, a British think-tank. She was recently in Beirut for talks with the leadership of Hamas.