With the US pushing hard for a resumption of peace talks between Israel and Palestine (read: the PA under Fatah), one has to wonder why. If we were pretend that Israel’s partial settlement freeze was a complete freeze and Abu Mazen agreed to negotiate with Israel (unlikely), the negotiations would still fail due to the absence of Hamas, the group that controls half of Palestine. The problem is that no one wants to talk with Hamas leadership because it is considered a terrorist organization by the US, the EU, Israel, Canada and many others. And, well, it is a terrorist organization, to an extent. It is US policy not to speak with terrorist regimes and, thus, no one from the Obama Administration has spoken with Hamas. This is unfortunate because, despite the extremist beginnings and past of Hamas, the Islamic organization has been steadily evolving and may hold the key to a lasting peace with Israel.
[tweetmeme] The overwhelming consensus in the west is that Hamas is a terrorist group bent on the destruction of Israel, that it would not stop sending rockets, missiles and suicide bombers into Israel until historical Palestine was realized and Israel was no more. Granted, its 1988 charter highlighted its belief in the illegitimacy of Israel and its organizational belief in Jihad as the way to eradicate the Jewish state. However, in the last several years, and more drastically in 2009, Hamas has evolved into a more ideologically neutral organization, mostly due to the political pressures on the party after taking control of Gaza in 2006.
Recently, the group has demonstrated its moderation in several ways. Human rights groups have been petitioning Hamas to investigate its alleged war crimes mentioned in the Goldstone report. Although Hamas has not commented on this issue, that human rights groups are petitioning is a sign of a stable governing force. Furthermore, there have been reports for weeks about a possible Hamas-Fatah reconciliation – something that would certainly demonstrate a more moderate Hamas than the one that won elections in 2006. Hamas is even studying the possibility of peace with Israel, pushing for a cease-fire with its Jewish neighbor and imploring Gaza’s more extreme groups to cease firing rockets at Israel. Its desire to hold off on violence against Israel reveals a Hamas that has drastically changed over the last decade. Unfortunately, many are still viewing the more moderate Hamas as only a terrorist organization and even trying to link Hamas to Al Qaeda.
What is unseen by many in the west is that Hamas is more like the antithesis of Al Qaeda than an aspiring faction. Given the disastrous state of Gaza following Israel’s Operation ‘Cast Lead’ last year, it is unsurprising that there are militant groups that are more extreme than Hamas that are moving away from Hamas and towards Al Qaeda. Understanding that Hamas is a terrorist regime and that there are some militants aspiring to Al Qaeda, many in the west are quick to make a link between Hamas and Al Qaeda. Yet Hamas and Al Qaeda are both trying to distance one from the other; splinter groups such as Jaish al-Islam and Jund Ansar Allah that have expressed solidarity with Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has not accepted these Palestinian splinter groups due to concerns of lasting power (the Palestinian groups have but a few dozen members each) and concerns of their devotion to the global jihadist cause (thus far most groups are more focused on Israel). For more information on the Salafi-Jihadist groups in Palestine see the Washington Institute’s Policy Focus #99.
Hamas is an Islamist-nationalist movement compared to Al Qaeda’s international jihadist movement. While Al Qaeda respected Hamas for its takeover of the Gaza strip, the two organizations are far from seeing ideologically eye to eye. Al Qaeda rejects all secular politics and maintains that Man live by God’s rule and cannot live by Man’s law; thus, the participation in the Palestinian elections in 2005 and 2006 by Hamas completely ran contrary to the most fundamental pillars of Al Qaeda’s philosophy. Hamas’ rejection of sharia law in the strip as well as its negotiations with Fatah and Egypt has further demonstrated the ideological canyon between the two Islamic organizations. It is this major difference in ideology (in addition to the restraint Hamas demonstrated following Cast Lead) that sparked some members of Hamas to break loose and start the more radical, Al Qaeda inspred groups within Gaza. One group, Jund Ansar Allah, went as far as to declare an Islamic emirate in Palestine and shunned Hamas as un-Islamic in mid-2009. Hamas reacted by violently cracking down on the terrorists in Gaza.
In addition to Hamas fighting Al Qaeda inspired elements in Gaza there is distinct evidence of the evolution of Hamas. Particularly since deciding to participate in the 2006 elections, Hamas has slowly but continually evolved into a more moderate political organization. Although the charter called for jihad against Israel, even hardliners have recognized Israel’s existence and moved closer to a conciliatory stance. Indeed, Khaled Maashal the exiled head of Hamas’ political bureau, noted in 2008 that “Hamas has already changed–we accepted the national accords for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and we took part in the 2006 Palestinian elections” while other senior Hamas officials have admitted the willingness to accept peace with Israel along the 1967 borders. Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy has noted the moderation of Hamas and has said he believes that the organization would be willing to accept a peace based on the 1967 borders. The US Army Strategic Studies Institute came to a similar conclusion and went as far as to say “Israel’s stance toward [Hamas]…has been a major obstacle to substantive peacemaking.” Indeed, journalist Fawaz A. Gerges has said that:
it could be argued that Hamas has moved closer to a vision of peace consistent with international law and consensus (two separate states in historic Palestine, divided more or less along the ’67 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and recognition of all states in the region) than the current Israeli governing coalition. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently opposes the establishment of a genuinely viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and is opposed to giving up any part of Jerusalem–and Netanyahu’s governing coalition is more right wing and pro-settlement than he is.
The proof of the new Hamas is clear. The organization is changing and is very far from the ideological extremist organization that was founded in 1987. Of course, there is work to do: Hamas still does not officially recognize Israel (although, according to some Hamas officials, Hamas wants
to use recognition as a playing card in negotiations with Israel) and has targeted Israeli citizens as recently as the 2008/2009 war. Yet it is clear that although Hamas is imperfect it is a much more manageable partner than it is thought to be. However, Israel, the US and the EU have refused to nurture these changes inside of Gaza. Instead Israel has ruthlessly blockaded Gaza (Amnesty International has said that the blockade is “collectively punishing” Gaza – something that is illegal by international law. The effects of the blockade are devastating to the Gazan population). The continuation of the blockade is a monumental obstacle to further transformation by Hamas; it demonstrates that there is no reward for its previous moves away from its radical beginnings. If the west and Israel were to engage Hamas instead of isolating it, Hamas could be encouraged to reform even further.
US engagement of Hamas is not realistically happening. The power of the Israeli lobby in the US as well as the refusal to deal with those designated as terrorists makes direct contact with Hamas impossible. However, Hamas cannot simply be ignored. Marc Lynch brings up the possibility of matching peace talks with the alleviation of suffering in Gaza caused by the blockade. The Bush-era pledge to deal with the only the West Bank is a foolish way to approach any peace talks as they will inevitably fail; to start PA only peace talks is to wait passively and hope that a Palestinian reconciliation can be found without US pressure. Yet if the peace negotiations were bound to the opening of Gaza, Hamas would be would find it difficult to block the peace process as Gazans would certainly begin to object to Hamas control. Public opinion is important to the legitimacy of Hamas, as Gerges notes:
After the elections, the shift continued. “It is much more difficult to run a government than to oppose and resist Israeli occupation,” a senior Hamas leader told me while on official business in Egypt in 2007. “If we do not provide the goods to our people, they’ll disown us.” Hamas is not just a political party. It’s a social movement, and as such it has a long record of concern about and close attention to public opinion.
There is a lot of work to be done before a peace can be made between Israel and Palestine. Yet, despite the split between Hamas and Fatah, there is reason to believe that serious negotiations can be held. If the Obama Administration is serious about peace talks – and it seems as though it is – Hamas cannot be ignored. It is no longer the terrorist organization that denies Israel’s right to existence and it must be engaged for peace. The US can no longer sit back and hope Hamas will go away because it will not. In fact, the evolution of Hamas gives the US the opportunity to kick-start negotiations in a meaningful way and to move for true change in the Middle East.