Give Hamas a Seat at the Table
Among Palestinian political and resistance movements, the Islamic Resistance Movement, known in Arabic as Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-Islāmiyyah, is better known by Hamas, which is an Arabic word meaning “enthusiasm.” It has developed a negative image in U.S. media that it has become difficult to even discuss calmly what this organization advocates. It has been broadly described as an “evil organization” although approximately one third of the Palestinian in the former Palestinian area ascribe to its ideas. It would be to the best interest of Israel itself to pay some heed to what nearly two million of their neighbors think; it is also in U.S. interests if American media outlets, think tanks, and the foreign policy establishment were to consider calmly and logically what this group advocates.
Peace in the Middle East will not be realized unless the parties to the dispute first understand one another’s hopes, aspirations, and fears. It is not helpful for any side to simply reflect fear and to repeat nonsensical statements like they “simply hate us.” It is well known that Hamas is strongly disliked by Israel, and Israel’s European and American supporters, but do they understand this organization? Have they revised their view of this organization in the last thirty years? Should they?
Hamas has been listed by the National Counterterrorism Center as a terrorist organization since 1987, the year the organization was founded, and before it did much of anything.
One point of serious disagreement with Israel was the Hamas 1988 charter, the basic document for its existence. The Hamas charter of 1988 is written in classical flowery Arabic with frequent references to Islamic texts, as befits a religious organization. Pro-Israeli commentators have objected to its call for jihad in defending Muslims against “aggressors”; believing that Palestine is a Muslim land since Muslims fought for it and acquired it centuries ago, it may even be considered as an Islamic “waqf,” a public trust, for future Muslim generations; belief that there is no solution to the Palestinian conflict other than jihad, and If Hamas could govern Palestine it would do so according to Islam; non-Muslims will be treated according to Islamic practices.
There are Palestinian Arabs who would adopt these principles, while many more would disagree. Hamas’ relationship with the larger nationalist more secular Palestinian party, Fatah, has been thorny since Hamas was formed.
The 1988 charter was not written for Western, neo-liberal, nor lay reviewers. It is closer to those written for rightwing ultra-religious parties; it is even more appropriate for religious organizations that also engage in wars of liberation, for Hamas, like all Palestinian organizations and parties, is composed of people who are under occupation and are fighting for their independence. The charter could be compared to the most extreme right wing or ultra-religious parties in Israel itself; only they substitute Judaism for Islam. They believe that Palestine is Jewish, that Jewishness stems from historic conflict or divine promise, and that Israel should be governed according to the teachings of Judaism.
Since 1988 Hamas has, despite its charter, acted as a political party, participated in an internationally monitored elections (2006) in which its candidates won significant percentage of seats in the Palestinian national legislature, and for about a decade it has formed a “government” to manage the affairs of an important segment of the Palestinian population as the government of Gaza. It should be recalled that Hamas participated willingly and fully in the 2006 elections, which was observed by a large international contingent of observers. Held shortly after the death of Arafat, elections were encouraged by the United States in the hope of developing responsible leadership within democratic practices. The “clean elections” held on January 25, 2006, gave Hamas 76 of the total 132 parliamentary seats. Fatah, the dominant party for the previous 40 years, won only 43.
The first Palestinian national experiment with electoral politics forced the resignation of Ahmed Qureia, the Fatah prime minister, who said “this is the choice of the people; it should be respected.” But the countries peddling democracy and elections, Israel and the United States, disagreed objecting to an organization/party that both had previously termed “terrorist” winning in a fair national election. Hilary Clinton did not agree with Ahmed Qureia; she stated that the U.S. should have fixed the elections. Both states decided not to conduct relations with a Palestinian government that is led by, or that included Hamas personnel. Gaza had given Hamas a clear majority; Gaza would be a good place to which the “horrible rightwing Islamic” organization should be exiled.
Gaza is an over-crowded strip of land that is home to nearly two million people and isolated physically from their fellow Palestinians in the West Bank. The strip was under Israeli military control since 1967, but in August 2005, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to evacuate the Strip. Sharon’s action came about because of his desire to rid Israel of a troublesome area that was not easy to subjugate or govern, and because of his larger belief embodied in his party’s document, the Kadima Party Platform, as “in order to maintain a Jewish majority, part of the Land of Israel must be given up to maintain a Jewish and democratic state.”
Hamas became the default government of Gaza; they began to assume the look and function of government. The U.S. reaction was to try and convince the PLA to send armed police to take over government functions, or to begin arming (under Bush 43) a paid militia to oust the Islamic terrorists. Both efforts failed in their initial stages. Israel decided on direct military action. The Bush 43 Administration was very supportive of Israel’s 2008 war (Operation Cast Lead). In the four years of Hillary Clinton’s stewardship Hamas was blamed by the Secretary for bringing on war with Israel (Pillar of Defense 2012), blanketing Israel with rockets, and using Gaza civilians as shields. Even without the leadership of Hilary Clinton, the Obama administration supported Israel’s third war in less than a decade (Protective Edge 2014).
The people of Gaza have suffered mightily because they are led by Hamas. The brilliant minds in Washington expect the people to rid themselves of this organization. How? Peacefully? They have been told in no uncertain terms that Palestinian elections do not matter (unless fixed).
Militarily? Israel and the U.S. clearly do not want the flow of external weapons and fighters into Gaza. So there is no exit, unless Hamas and Fatah reconcile, and Israel and the U.S. bless such a union. What would make the U.S. and/or Israel change their minds and drop the “terrorist” organization designation? Perhaps a new charter replacing the 1988 charter may help.
On May 1, 2017 Hamas adopted a revised charter, the Hamas 2017 charter. It is much more pragmatic. It changed the emphasis away from “religious” toward more “nationalist.” It still believes that Liberation of Palestine remains the goal but not for religious reasons; Palestine is the national homeland. Should Palestine be liberated, it will not be under religious law. Hamas severs its relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas accepts the 1967 borders for an Arab state; it will follow the lead of the Fatah president in negotiations with Israel. But Hamas does not recognize Israel since Israel does not recognize Hamas, and will hold Israel responsible for actions against fellow Palestinians in the West Bank, since Israel holds Hamas responsible for whatever happens in Gaza.
In the days since this charter was issued, U.S. reaction like that of Israel, has been rather minimal and can be summarized in one sentence: Hamas is still a terrorist organization.
If Hamas were guilty of anything it would be advocating a policy towards Israel that is not to Israel’s liking, or to the liking of Israel’s American supporters. Hamas’s views on cultural diversity, Jewish-Arab eventual accommodation, or lack of possibility for settlement, are always seen in the West as “hate speech” requiring Western criminalization or branding as pro-terror. The belief set advocated by Hamas is held not worthy of intellectual consideration, while the ideas adopted by many Israeli parties and groups propounding more objectionable opinions are treated more kindly. Palestinian and Israeli parties could ascribe to ultra-conservative views but none should be ruled out of the sphere of discussion, no matter how obnoxious any may be.
The 2017 charter is a major change that should not be dismissed so casually. Prime Minister Netanyahu may feel good when he ignores the Hamas document, but he may cost his people a historic occasion to achieve long-term peace. He (and the U.S.) should consider recent changes in the organization’s leadership, and the demands made on it to come closer to Fatah, thus presenting a joint negotiating front, in addition to working with friendly Gulf States such as Qatar. Designating Hamas as a terrorist organization has proven to be an impediment to achieving positive changes in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Other states that are U.S. allies do not have the same limited view of Hamas, nor does most of the world share the U.S./Israel view of terrorism. It is about time that the U.S. takes a second look at a failed policy regarding Hamas, if not the total policy on terrorism.