Confronting Hamas

By Simon, Steven; Stevenson, Jonathan | The National Interest, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Confronting Hamas


Simon, Steven, Stevenson, Jonathan, The National Interest


ON AUGUST 19, 2003, a member of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas detonated himself aboard a Jerusalem bus. In addition to killing 21 Israeli civilians and injuring over a hundred more, this attack ended the fragile cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinian terror groups, prompted the resignation of Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and stalled a peace process premised on the so-called roadmap. Slated to last for at least three months, the cease-fire lasted less than two, and Hamas immediately proclaimed that its attacks would continue. It appears to be making good on that threat.

If terrorism persists unabated, Israel will be compelled to continue retaliation. But even unsentimental counter-terrorism practitioners recognize the limits of this dispensation. In September 2003, Ephraim Halevy announced his resignation after four years as head of the Mossad and a year as director of Israel's National Security Council. He thinks the Israeli government must "offer more and demand more" to create a stable final settlement. In particular, it must offer a viable, secular Palestinian state and demand "that the Palestinians recognize the legitimacy" of the state of Israel. In other words, when required, a political dimension must be added to Israel's military strategy of "mowing the grass." In mid-November 2003, four former heads of Shin Bet, Israel's security service, gave a joint interview to Israel's largest daily, Yediot Ahronot. Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000, said that trying to defeat the Palestinians militarily "hasn't worked", and the other three agreed that bolder peace initiatives had to replace hard-line policies. Some Israeli soldiers are even questioning the morality and effectiveness of their government's tactics.

Hamas, the strongest of the religiously-motivated Palestinian terrorist groups, is the most formidable obstacle to peace. Yet targeted killings of militant leaders seem to boost the group's popularity among Palestinians during times of crisis (including those of Hamas's own making). Even moderate Palestinians were outraged by Israel's attempt to kill Hamas's halfblind, paraplegic spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Against this background, American support for Israel's current policies could eventually impede Washington's larger goal of democratizing the region. It is therefore central to U.S. interests in the Middle East (notably, its interest in denying Al-Qaeda new recruits) that Humus be tamed, Israeli retaliation curtailed and a two-state solution to the conflict forged. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the prime cause of U.S. problems in the Middle East, but ameliorating it must be part of the solution.

Easing Hamas into nonviolent politics, so that it might restrain itself as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) has done, would be preferable to outright coercion. But Hamas does not appear amenable to a Northern Ireland modus vivendi: it requires a political outcome that Israel and interested major powers cannot feasibly deliver. Forcibly dismantling the organization's military apparatus would thus seem the only effective option.

Hamas and the Peace Process

HAMAS AROSE during the first intifada in December 1987. From the beginning, three broad factors determined its lack of interest in political compromise. First, its ideological mission, as articulated in its "Introductory Memorandum", is absolutist and inherently violent:

   Hamas believes that the Zionist colonization
   scheme can only be extirpated through a comprehensive
   holy struggle in which armed
   struggle is a basic instrument. Hamas also sees
   that the best way to conduct the fight with the
   Zionist enemy is to mobilize the resources of
   the Palestinian people to raise the banner of
   struggle in Palestine and to keep the embers
   of conflict burning until the conditions for a
   decisive battle with the enemy are complete . … 

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