Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Hamas a Necessary Partner for Peace

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Hamas a Necessary Partner for Peace

Article excerpt

The "consensus" that Hamas is a terrorist organization, with which no communication is possible, is rarely questioned in the West. Contrary to public opinion, however, Hamas has proffered positive pragmatic proposals that could have contributed to peace. Moreover, a durable peace requires Palestinian unity, and the refusal of the West to communicate with Hamas constitutes an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

This misperception is not due to a lack of literature on Hamas (see, for example, "Israel Created Two of Its Own Worst Enemies-Hamas and Hezbollah," by Donald Neff, November 2002 Washington Report, p. 20). Most is based on recycled secondary sources, however, and the detailed academic studies are not well known.

Early Development

Hamas' predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood, which engaged primarily in social and religious work, did not join the resistance against the Israeli occupation until life became unbearable and the first intifada broke out in December 1987. Shortly thereafter Hamas was established (1987). Its military branch, the Quassam Brigades, was formed in 1991, and kept separate from the political wing, now headed by the exiled Khaled Meshal in Damascus.

The evolution of Hamas from a religious to a resistance movement received widespread support in both the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians were disillusioned with the secular Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which had been unable to end the occupation and was ineffective against Israel's brutal suppression of the second intifada, which broke out in response to Gen. Ariel Sharon's September 2000 provocative visit to the Temple Mount. The underlying cause, however, was the aforementioned disillusionment and the Palestinians' continued dispossession.

Lacking other means of defense against Israel's massive military machine, Palestinian militants resorted to suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. The largest such attack, in March 2002, killed 30 Israelis. Not only were suicide bombings forbidden by international law, but they created a great deal of sympathy for Israelis and antipathy toward Palestinians.

Hamas opposed the Oslo accords, arguing that they did not address basic Palestinian rights, but realized that, in the end, a political solution was necessary. This resulted in Hamas issuing a number of unilateral cease-fires-in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2005-2006. In each case Hamas observed the cease-fire as Israeli violence continued unabated, until Isreal committed such a heinous act-such as the killing of a family picnicking on a Gaza beach in June 2006-that Hamas abandoned the cease-fire. Nor was there progress in the "peace process" during these intervals.

An Elected Hamas Government

As the Yasser Arafat-run PLOand Palestinian Authority (PA) emphasized staying in power, and the West demanded Palestinian "reform," Hamas offered a welcome alternative to Palestinians voting in January 2006 parliamentary elections.

By its very participation in the elections, Hamas demonstrated that it had chosen a political approach. Suicide attacks within Israel and rocket attacks on southern Israel were halted (later resumed only in response to large-scale Israeli violence). Despite efforts by Israel and the PA to obstruct the polling, Hamas gained a majority of the vote. Winning 76 of 132 seats, it could have formed a government alone, but instead proposed a unity government-which Fatah rejected. This despite the fact that Meshal's demand for "reconstruction of the PLO to become a real representative of the Palestinian people" was precisely what Western powers had been demanding.

Indeed, the derailing of the peace process in early 2006 despite promising prospects is due to a great extent to the reaction of Israel and Western powers, particularly the U.S. The Israeli government decided to isolate the incoming Hamas government ("put them on a diet"), threatening that Prime Minister-elect Ismail Haniyeh could become a "military target. …

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