Analysis: What does Hamas really want?

The movement is as defiant as ever, and is far from making any concessions that could end the boycott.

hamas destroys Israel fl (photo credit: Channel 1)
hamas destroys Israel fl
(photo credit: Channel 1)
More than two years after Hamas came to power following the January 2006 parliamentary election - and nearly a year after the movement took full control of the Gaza Strip - its main goal remains to gain the recognition of the international community. Hamas's argument is simple: We won a free and democratic election, and that's why we are entitled to recognition. But Hamas knows that without accepting the conditions set by the international community - recognizing Israel's right to exist, renouncing violence and accepting previous agreements between the Palestinians and Israel - it would be difficult to persuade the world to change its position vis-á-vis the movement. Hamas appeared to have scored a symbolic victory in the past few days, when former US president Jimmy Carter met with its leaders in Ramallah, Cairo and Damascus. For some Hamas officials, the fact that a former American president is willing to talk to Hamas unconditionally is tantamount to recognizing the movement's legitimacy and future role in any political process. Their hope is that the meetings with Carter will mark the beginning of the end of the international boycott of Hamas and the blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip. The officials expressed hope that Carter's talks will pave the way for other prominent figures from the West to meet with Khaled Mashaal and top representatives of Hamas. Yet, as it emerged from the results of Carter's talks, Hamas remains as defiant as ever, and is still far from making serious concessions that could lead to ending the boycott. The only concession Carter managed to extract from Mashaal was a promise to allow kidnapped IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, who has been held in the Gaza Strip for almost two years, to send another letter to his family. Otherwise, Hamas's position regarding the major issues, such as a truce with Israel and recognizing its right to exist, remain unchanged. The Hamas leaders rejected Carter's proposal for a unilateral 30-day truce, insisting that any cease-fire must be "mutual and simultaneous." Hamas's long-standing policy has been that a cease-fire must include the West Bank, not only the Gaza Strip. The movement claims that in the past, when it declared a unilateral cease-fire, Israel did not abide by it, and continued to target its members. Had Carter done his homework before making the proposal, he would have discovered that the Egyptians and other Arab countries had already failed to convince Hamas to accept the same offer. With regard to Schalit, Hamas believes that time is on its side, and that the longer it waits, the more it will get. This is why Mashaal dismissed Carter's offer that Israel release some 70 Palestinian prisoners, in addition to Hamas ministers and legislators, as part of a prisoner exchange for Schalit. Hamas sees Schalit as a valuable asset, and is convinced that Israel would eventually succumb to its demand and release several hundred Palestinian prisoners, including many who are serving life sentences. Again, Carter was apparently unaware that the Egyptians and Qataris have failed over the past two years to persuade Hamas to soften its position on this issue. Besides, Hamas is most likely to lose points on the Palestinian street if it strikes a "bad deal" on Schalit. The Palestinians have paid a very heavy price (more than 800 killed in Gaza) since Schalit's abduction, which is why Hamas needs a significant number of prisoners released from Israeli jails. The movement needs to show the Palestinians that the price they paid was not in vain. Hamas has also dismissed Carter's demand to recognize Israel's right to exist. The most Carter managed to get out of Mashaal was an announcement that the movement would accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, without recognizing Israel. In other words, Hamas is saying, "Give us something for now, so that we can continue fighting for the rest of Palestine in the future." Even Hamas's pledge to "honor" a Palestinian national referendum on any peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel is not new. As Mashaal said in Damascus Monday, Hamas already agreed to a referendum back in 2006. However, he made it clear that the agreement was part of a comprehensive accord between Hamas and Fatah, and was contingent on its fulfillment by both sides. Since the accord has collapsed, Hamas knows that it would be impossible to hold a referendum under the current circumstances of the Palestinians having two different entities, one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza. What Hamas is saying, in other words, is: "Yes to a referendum, but only after we patch up our differences with Fatah." Given the ongoing crisis, the chances of rapprochement between the two parties are as remote as ever. Buoyed by the results of public opinion polls showing that Hamas continues to enjoy the support of many Palestinians, the movement has endorsed a two-fold strategy to force the international community to lift the blockade on Gaza. On the one hand, Hamas has decided to step up its armed attacks on Israel, with the hope that this will lead to an all-out Israeli military operation - with heavy casualties on both sides - after which Israel would be forced, under pressure from the international community, to ease travel restrictions and reopen the border crossings into Gaza. On the other hand, Hamas, with the help of the popular Al- Jazeera TV network, has waged a diplomatic offensive aimed at winning support for its demand to end the boycott. Last week, Hamas scored yet another PR victory when Carter condemned the blockade of the Gaza Strip as an atrocity. The Hamas campaign is not directed only at Israel, however. It is also aimed at other Arab countries, primarily Egypt. In recent days, a growing number of Hamas leaders has been issuing public statements strongly condemning the Arab governments for failing to help the Palestinians in their efforts to lift the blockade. Most of the criticism is directed at Egypt for failing to reopen the Rafah border crossing and for continuing to impose severe travel restrictions on the Palestinians living in Gaza. Sources close to Hamas say the movement is unlikely to change its strategy regarding all the major issues. The most Hamas can agree to is a temporary truce with Israel, the sources explain. But even then, Hamas wants to reach such an agreement from a point of strength, not weakness. Last Saturday's attack on the Kerem Shalom border crossing was part of Hamas's effort to carry out a mega operation that would shock Israel and force it to accept a truce. Hamas would have argued, then, that the truce was the result of its "military victory," and not a sign of weakness on its part.