Europe should speak to Hamas now

Europe should speak to Hamas now

There is no doubt that Hamas, the main Palestinian Islamic movement, is becoming more rational, more pragmatic and more moderate, at least in comparison to its formative years. This is why it is imperative that member-States of the European Union (EU) either collectively or individually should initiate a meaningful dialogue with Hamas as soon as possible. Needless to say, such a dialogue would be expedient to all parties involved as well as to the cause of peace and stability in the Middle East.

 Israel, along with her guardian-ally, the United States, and the bulk of EU States, sought to destroy Hamas by imposing an especially harsh blockade on occupied Palestine following Hamas’s electoral victory in 2006.

 This harsh blockade assumed draconian proportions after Palestinian guerillas captured an Israeli soldier during a cross-border operation in order to use him as a bargaining chip to force Israel to release some Palestinian prisoners (and hostages) languishing in Israeli jails and detention centres.

 Israel holds as many as 10,000 Palestinian prisoners—many of them are political leaders, including over 40 lawmakers, former cabinet ministers and other elected officials whom the Israeli occupation army later abducted to force Hamas to free the captive soldier.

 In addition, the Israeli army carried out a sustained military onslaught on the Gaza Strip, killing and maiming thousands of people, including many civilians.

 Israel calculated that the harsh blockade, a humanitarian disaster by any stretch of the imagination, along with the sustained “military pressure” would eventually prompt Gazans to revolt against the Hamas government and bring it down.

 However, the Israeli designs proved to be unworkable as Hamas proved to be more resilient and more tenacious than previously thought.


In mid-June, 2008, Israel and Hamas reached a de-facto ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian-mediated agreement put an end to the erstwhile daily Israeli attacks and incursions against Gaza, as well as to the firing of home-made projectiles from the coastal enclave on Israeli settlements across the borders.

 Among other things, the agreement stipulated the reopening of the Rafah border crossing as well as the gradual lifting of the two-year-old economic blockade of Gaza, which brought many of the territory’s estimated 1.5 million inhabitants to the brink of starvation.

 And while Israel generally suspended its military incursions and assassination operations in Gaza but not in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip effectively remained a blockaded and besieged territory, with the Israeli army allowing only small amounts of consumer products and other vital commodities to go through.

 However, despite the effective “reneging” by Israel on its commitments under the terms of the Egyptian-mediated cease-fire agreement, as well as the Egyptian refusal to reopen the Rafah border crossing, the Gaza Strip’s main available conduit to the outside world, Hamas nearly continued to meticulously observe the cease-fire.

 To be sure, some non-conformist elements, ostensibly affiliated with the Fateh organization and probably the Islamic Jihad group as well, continued to occasionally fire home-made missiles across the borders into Israel.

 Hamas, however, continued to make utmost and ostensibly sincere efforts to control and even punish violators, with Hamas leaders arguing that breaking the cease-fire undermines Palestinian national interests. Indeed, in July 2008, Mahmoud al-Zahar, one of Hamas’s hard-line leaders in Gaza, called individuals and groups seeking the collapse of the cease-fire “Israeli agents.”

 Nonetheless, the cease-fire is still holding and is even being consolidated as testified by Shin Bet Chief Yuval Diskin who had opposed the cease-fire.

 Undoubtedly, the fact that the cease-fire is holding despite the persistence of the Israeli-imposed siege and the continuation of the “anomalous conditions in Gaza” shows that Hamas is a disciplined movement and one that respects its commitments.

 Unfortunately, the West, including the EU, has overlooked this positive variable, which really doesn’t help the cause of moderation in Palestine.

 To be sure, the cease-fire in Gaza was not an altruistic act, neither by Israel nor by Hamas. The nearly daily firing from the Gaza Strip of the home-made Qassam missiles and other projectiles on Israeli population centres has seriously disturbed the daily life of Israelis in border towns in the Gaza vicinity.

 This eventually led to intensive public pressure exerted on the Israeli government and army to reach a cease-fire with Hamas. Egypt, with which maintaining the peace is a paramount Israeli strategic interest, had also blamed Israel for the continued violence, citing Israeli refusal to stop the disproportionately deadlier Israeli violence against Gazans while demanding a unilateral cease-fire from the Palestinian side.

 On the Palestinian side, there is a widespread belief that Fateh was seriously disappointed by the conclusion of the cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas.

 True, Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas supported the cease-fire. However, influential Fateh elements based in Ramallah, including some Fateh leaders who had fled Gaza following the mid-June 2007 events in Gaza, didn’t like the agreement, to put it very mildly.

 Some of these leaders had hoped that Israel would invade and overrun Gaza, assassinate or arrest key Hamas leaders and then hand over the coastal territory to Fateh on a silver platter. Hence, the disappointment.

 Hamas vs. al Qaida

 Many in the West continue to hold the erroneous view that Hamas and al-Qaida are two sides of the same coin.

 However, this view, largely shaped by intensive Israeli propaganda, is inaccurate. In fact, Hamas’s world view and ideology differ significantly from al-Qaida’s world view and ideology.

 Ideologically, Hamas follows the relatively moderate school of the Muslim Brotherhood, which advocates peaceful means, not violence, in effecting change in Islamic societies.

 In contrast, al-Qaida adopts a school of thought called “Madrasat al-Fikr al-Salafi al-Jihadi” or “the School of the Fighting Salafi ideology.” (A Salafi is a person who follows the true, authentic way of the Prophet Muhammed and his immediate successors and early followers.)

 Hamas adopts the principle of gradualness, both with regard to the creation of an Islamic society and an Islamic State. Al-Qaida, however, strongly rejects this methodology and dismisses the concept of truce or coexistence with the enemy as incompatible with the Shariah or inexpedient to the cause of Islam.

 Hamas believes in the principle of political participation and effecting change through direct involvement in the political system, as evident from Hamas’s participation in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. Hamas also is committed to democratic governing principles and Hamas officials are held to standards set by constituent groups that are representative of a broad-based polity.

 Al-Qaida, on the other hand, explicitly prohibits any participation in parliamentary or other elections on the grounds that the entire system is “kafir,” e.g. run by secularists or un-Islamists.

 Finally, Hamas rejects the principle of using violence against Arab and Muslim societies. Indeed, unlike al-Qaida, Hamas recognizes and calculates the actual balance of power in its struggle and does all it can to retain its means of resistance and maintain its survival as a movement. Hamas has a tactical policy based on the neutralization of as many potential enemies as possible, and tries to build friendly relationships with as many potential friends as possible.

 As to attacks on Israeli civilians, Hamas actually never considered such attacks a “general policy.” Indeed, Hamas’s leaders have always argued that the obviously deadlier Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians, which have killed thousands of civilians, left Hamas with no choice but to respond in kind.

 Hamas strongly rejected the Israeli claim that the Israeli army doesn’t target Palestinian civilians deliberately, arguing rather reasonably that killing knowingly is killing deliberately and that when the number of civilian victims is so high, as in the Palestinian case, even intent itself becomes irrelevant.

 Non-recognition of Israel

 Hamas’s adamant refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the IsraeliState is undoubtedly the main factor impeding Western recognition and normalization with the Islamic group.

 However, this European attitude seems to have more to do with a European desire to appease Israel than with genuine moral considerations. After all, Europe has always had and continues to have more or less normal relations with States and entities that don’t recognize Israel.

 Moreover, it is abundantly clear that European insistence that Hamas recognize the legitimacy of Zionism as a pre-condition for any rapprochement with the Palestinian Islamic movement is counterproductive and even futile.

 Hamas has explained on numerous occasions that it can’t recognize “Israel’s legitimacy” for moral, religious and historical reasons.

 Indeed, Hamas believes that recognition of Israel is tantamount to “conversion to Zionism.”

 Some Hamas leaders whom this writer had interviewed argued that recognition of Israel would imply an acceptance of the Zionist national narrative, namely that Palestine has always been a Jewish homeland and that 14 centuries of nearly uninterrupted Palestinian-Arab-Islamic presence in Palestine was a foreign colonization.

 This, argued Aziz Duweik (Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council and who is now imprisoned in Israel for his affiliation with Hamas), is tantamount to demanding that Palestinians embrace Zionism and bless the ethnic cleansing of the bulk of the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel.

 “We are not going to become Muslim Zionists just to obtain a certificate of good conduct from Israel and the West,” Duweik told this writer.

 Moreover, Hamas’s leaders have come to believe that the issue of recognizing Israel is a “red herring,” used by Israeli propagandists to justify their ongoing colonization and settlement-building in Palestine. The PLO’s recognition of Israel, they argue, didn’t lead to Israel ending its military occupation, so why should Hamas now fall into the same trap as the PLO did?

 There is another important hurdle that makes Hamas’s recognition of Israel even more unlikely. Israel, especially of late, has been demanding that Palestinians and Arabs recognize it as a Jewish State, or even a State of the Jews.

 Hence, Palestinians are rightly worried that lending such recognition to Israel could be used to justify increased institutionalized discrimination against Israel’s 1.4 million Palestinians who are Israeli citizens.

 More to the point, Israel could use the “Jewish-State concept) to preclude the return of any significant numbers of Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced to flee their homes when Israel was created more than 60 years ago.

 It is important though to remember that Hamas doesn’t believe that the alternative to its non-recognition of Israel must be perpetual confrontation of the Jewish State.

 Indeed, on several occasions, Hamas founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, proposed a lengthy hudna or truce with Israel in exchange for total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, releasing all Palestinian prisoners and dealing seriously with the right of return of Palestinian refugees pursuant to United Nations resolution 194. Recently, some Hamas leaders, particularly in the West Bank, have sought to upgrade the concept of sulh (extended peace bound by time limitations) into a virtually open-ended peace, something that would look very much like a formal peace treaty.

 Finally, Hamas in 2006 did accept the “national reconciliation accord,” which is based on the so-called “prisoner document” formulated by the leaders of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

 That document gave Israel tacit recognition in return for total Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, including all of East Jerusalem, and an equitable resolution of the refugee problem based on UN resolution 194.


 Hamas doesn’t pose a strategic threat to Israel, a formidable nuclear power that possesses one of the strongest armies in the world and which also controls to a large extent the politics and policies of the United States.

 However, there is no doubt that without incorporating Hamas into genuine peace efforts based on the principles of justice and international law, the prospects for a true breakthrough toward peace in the Middle East will remain uncertain if not precarious.

 Moreover, the continued isolation and hounding of Hamas could eventually prove to be disastrous for the cause of peace and for Europe’s relations with the Muslim world.

 Indeed, a weakened Hamas is unlikely to translate into a “strengthened Fateh” as many short-sighted Western experts might think. The real alternative to Hamas would be al-Qaida and like-minded extremist groups.

 It is for these and other reasons that Europe should immediately enter into a real dialogue with Hamas and lift all its sanctions against the Gaza Strip. Such a step, which would require a certain degree of European emancipation from subservience to the United States and Israel, could eventually be proven a tremendous stride toward peace in the Middle East.