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Bringing Hamas in from the cold

Bombing Hamas into Gaza's scorched earth will not change the rules of the game, says Arthur Neslen

January 3, 2009
6 min read

In November, Ahmed Yousef, the speechwriter and aide of Gaza’s prime minister, Ismail Haniya (Hamas), claimed that US President elect Barack Obama’s team had been in contact with the group during the US election campaign. The Obama camp denied it, and Yousef now says the talks are on ice.

But many of the incoming president’s former and current foreign policy advisers favour some degree of US engagement with the group. And if the United States were to stop boycotting Hamas, Israel could suddenly find itself internationally isolated on this point. But conservative and brutal as its politics can be, what is so frightening about talking to Hamas?

The group does remain committed to the dream of a united Islamic Palestine, but its political leadership, including Khaled Meshal, has accepted the principle of a two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders, in return for a long-term hudna, or truce. When I spoke to Yousef last May, while researching a book about Palestinian identity, he told me such a situation could be extended ‘to infinity’.

Hamas has long sought to transform itself from a guerrilla organization into a political party that can replace the PLO as the Palestinians’ ‘sole legitimate representative’. Its chief tactic – a pragmatic variant of the gun and olive branch gambit pioneered by Yasser Arafat – remains just that, a tactic.

‘Darker forces’

Hamas has always contended that Fatah’s concessions to Israel without a quid pro quo weaken the national cause and little more. They point to mushrooming settlements, the separation fence expanding across Palestinian territory and continuing mass arrests and assassinations. If Hamas’ ‘resistance and pragmatism’ formula fails, much darker forces are already growing in the shadow of Gaza’s ruins, ready to take its place. One source close to Al-Qaida that I interviewed over the summer claimed the group’s ideas are increasingly influential in Gaza. He said the extremist group was hopeful that a split could occur within the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, if Hamas were to surrender or even start talks with Israel.

The militancy of some Brigade members could be one factor pushing Hamas to confrontation. But there are others, and Israel’s killing of six Hamas fighters in Gaza on 5 November 2008 was not the least of them.

Rocket attacks may be criminal and ineffective – as well as self-defeating in the destructive response they elicit from Israel. But they also meet a very human need to maintain both honour under fire and the spirit of resistance.

More than that, breaking the siege that has crippled normal Gazan life is the central challenge facing Hamas, both because it has decimated the lives of its electoral base, and because it is a litmus test of the group’s alternative policy for statehood through resistance as well as talks.

If the tahadiyeh (lull) had succeeded in opening Gaza’s borders to aid, trade and free passage for Gazans – especially work-related passage – it would have been political madness for Hamas to break it. As things were, the Gaza closure pushed the organisation’s popular support down to 16 percent in November 2008, according to one opinion poll, and it must have concluded it no longer had anything to gain by holding fire.

At the best of times, Israel’s fear of its resistance is the only leverage Hamas feels it has. As Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum put it, ‘Because the occupation decided to use every shade of punishment to destroy Hamas – collective punishment, deporting, arresting and killing – we need military resistance to force it to stop.’

Even Israel’s supposed antidote to this tactic – assassinations – was counteracted by the cultural lionising of shaheeds and an organisational tapestry of knowledge-sharing. ‘Hamas leaders believe in passing on experience to others before they are killed,’ Barhoum explained. ‘I received a lot … from Abdul al-Rantisi before his assassination and I have had about seven people who are prepared to be the spokesman for Hamas if I am killed.’ As a precautionary measure though, he does not use a cell phone or car.

The rules of the game

Hamas had forgone suicide bombings ‘because the world community said it was a crime against humanity,’ Yousef said in exasperation at one point. ‘We listened to the world, hoping they would reward us; we didn’t even receive praise. If the world’s conscience won’t hear Palestinian tears, we have other means at our disposal.’

When I asked Ahmed Yousef what forms of resistance he could see emerging in Gaza in five or 10 years, his reply was calibrated to send shudders through Israel’s political-military complex. ‘We might have submarines,’ he said. ‘We might have drones. We might have both these things. It sounds very sophisticated, [but] we can do it. We have know-how in the field of military technology. The ball is in Israel’s court.’

Hinting at where Israel’s refusal to negotiate may push the group, Yousef suggested that Israel feared Hamas ‘might be able to mobilise Arabs in Muslim countries against the occupation.’ No doubt Egypt fears this too. Hamas grew out of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, now the biggest internal opposition to the undemocratic regime led by Hosni Mubarak, which declines to hold free elections.

If Hamas were to abandon its policy of non-intervention in the affairs of neighbouring countries, it might spark a quantum shift in the regional equation. An Islamic uprising against Egypt’s treatment of the Palestinians would certainly alter the regional balance of power.

On the other hand, if Hamas were brought in from the cold, it might smooth the edges of the peace deal that Obama’s administration seeks and begin to heal the deep sense of hurt and alienation that bathes the Gaza Strip. Either way, trying to bomb Hamas into Gaza’s scorched earth will not change the rules of the game, but only – temporarily – the strengths of the teams.

Arthur Nelsen is the author of ‘Occupied Minds: A Journey Through the Israeli Psyche’ (Pluto Press 2006). He can be contacted at artneslen[at]hotmail.com

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