The Elephant in the Room
PALESTINE / ISRAEL, 6 September 2010
Larbi Sadiki – Al Jazeera
Excluding Hamas from current and future Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations is an exercise in futility.
Sidelining Hamas in any process to craft genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a glaring omission tantamount to ignoring an elephant in the room. Whether it is Obama’s or the UN’s negotiating room, pretending something of that size absent is an exercise in futility. Hamas is definitely an elephant with many tales. Telling some of these tales recounts the Islamist movement’s rise to power against all odds.
A movement under ‘siege’
Like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas exists in a world that does not want it and in which it is ‘wanted’, a world some might argue it does not also want. It is lumped with the bogeymen and ‘demons’ of world politics on whom are blamed ‘terror’ and the state of ‘structured chaos’ in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, amongst other hotspots. Hamas is no angel and there are no angels in politics. Indeed, part of the problem lies not only in the political strategies Hamas occasionally deploys, but also in the excessive secrecy surrounding most of the movement’s activities.
Understandably, Hamas’s siege mentality is owed to it being consistently the target of Arab, Israeli and Palestinian espionage activities as well as serious attempts to eliminate it from the political stage and liquidate its military and political commanders.
However, because of secrecy the world knows little about the movement’s internal institution-building, diversity of opinion, consultative processes, and voting procedures. Along with neo-Orientalist depictions making it reducible to a ‘militia’ or ‘terrorist’ organisation, Hamas’s own secrecy and miscommunication have solidified in Western public opinion stereotypes of hostility to peace and embrace of violence for the sake of violence.
Hamas is oversimplified. It is no exaggeration to note that Hamas is made up of several sets of Hamas – ‘mini Hamases’ – whose diverse trends of thought are all integrated into an overarching cohesive organisation. Its wide political spectrum has ‘peaceniks’ and ‘refuseniks’, ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ ideologues, ‘extremist’ and ‘centrist’ positions.
These tendencies and currents are all guided by internal discipline, consultative and democratic procedures for resolving differences and disagreements within the organisation, and, above all else, commitment to the organisation’s ideals of independent statehood within a Muslim Brotherhood frame of reference.
May be the world does not want to know Hamas but it should care to know that there are those inside Hamas who would readily speak directly with Israel. Their reasoning is that it is better to get it directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were, rather than hear from Israel through third parties. This is neither absolute or yet crystal-clear outside Hamas, nor a solid or uncontested position within Hamas.
However it is a trend conditioned by the specific context of Egyptian-Palestinian relations. At its core is the stalemate in Egypt-Hamas relations. Cairo’s pro-Fatah leaning and clearly anti-Hamas stance has cast a shadow over the utility of Egypt’s role as an honest or positive mediator.
Mirroring its hostility to and standoff with its own Muslim Brotherhood inside, Egypt has tended to do all it can to undermine and downsize Hamas. Hamas is denied the taste of political triumphs no matter how insignificant. The Islamist movement points the finger at Egypt for the failure of the swap of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, kidnapped in 2006, for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
The Israeli embargo has crippled Gaza mostly because Egypt maintains a partial blockade of its own on the Rafah border. Like Israel, Egypt is building its own US-funded barrier locking up one-and-a-half million Gazans into inhumane internment in conditions of abject poverty, uncertainty, and food and cash-starved economy. If it were not for the tunnels, paradoxically partly operated with Egyptian tacit complicity, Gaza would starve.
Obama and Hamas
Much hope was pinned on the hype created by Obama’s arrival into the White House and the appointment of George Mitchell to oversee the peace process. That hope is today fading. Like Bush, Obama speaks to Mahmoud Abbas and ignores Ismail Haniya who is equally elected and his movement commands the loyalty of nearly half of the Palestinian constituency.
He is considering to engage with extremists in Afghanistan and Iraq and yet his administration’s foreign policy-makers, under the spell of a powerful pro-Israel lobby, seems loth to contemplate the creation of mechanisms for engaging with Hamas’s elected leaders and cadres. Ignoring the elephant in the room happens at the perils of credible and productive peacemaking.
Perhaps Hamas is not the only party suffering from a siege mentality. Peace-brokers, Arab and Western, display symptoms of the same pathology.
Resilience: Hamas in the political process
Hamas is not about to disappear. Until this simple axiom of Middle Eastern politics is firmly grasped, talking and making peace without the Palestinian Islamist movement will remain noted by continuous absence rather than presence. Metaphorically, the elephant in the room may have ‘bad manners’ and may be ‘dangerous’ and ‘clumsy’.
Nonetheless, it exists. This existence is borne out not only of its internal diversity and discipline, but also of the very various phases of its evolution into a resilient, and steadfast organisation. Three factors call for special attention: leadership renewal, message, and political resourcefulness.
Not many organisations lose a number of leaders in a short time of span and yet keep their coherence. Part of the phalanx of Hamas’s founding fathers was wiped out by Israeli assassinations in a matter of a few years.
In March and April 2004 Hamas had to absorb devastating blows to its leadership and morale following the killing of two of its charismatic icons: respectively, Shaykh Ahmad Yassine and Abd Al-Aziz al-Rantissi. The organisation’s demography is dynamic and varied, having at any time four generations of leaders. The loss of individuals does not make a difference to Hamas. Arafat left a huge vacuum within Fatah and the PLO. The death of Yassine or Al-Rantissi did not.
There is a wider base from which to recruit leaders who upgrade into leadership roles through long years and ongoing trials and responsibilities. Assassinations and detention, today jointly carried out by Fatah and Israel, deplete Hamas’s human resources.
However demography has always been on the side of Palestinians at the microcosmic and macrocosmic levels. Hamas boasts one of the most youthful leaderships anywhere as far as Islamic movements are concerned.
Hamas is resolute in its commitment to a set of political ideals. Topping these ideals is resistance by various means, including militarily, to keep up psychological pressure against a fierce adversary that is superior and equally resolute in the use of force, at times disproportionately such as during the December 2008-January 2009 massive bombing and ground deployment against Gaza.
Since the kidnapping of Shalit no serious armed operations or suicide bombings have taken place. Hamas has observed a unilateral armistice (hudnah) for a number of years, punctuated by intermittent firing of rockets from Gaza but not necessarily by its own military arm, the Qassam Brigades.
The recent Hebron killings by the brigades interrupted the hudnah. Generally, however, there are doubts over Hamas’s striking capability deep inside Israel such as in the late 1980s during the first intifada, and up to the time of the second intifada in the 2000s.
Even within Fatah there are those who remain committed to resistance but these are increasingly being co-opted, contained or isolated. Arafat himself tried to combine a political modus operandi with a form of military resistance. This was most probably what eventually sealed his fate.
Hamas vs Arafat and Heirs
Of course, it was also Arafat who dealt a blow to Hamas whose members were rounded in the hundreds. One of key security chiefs, the notorious Muhammad Dahlan, applied his own ‘iron fist’ in his prisons against Hamas. The torture that military commanders meted out to Hamas’s members was at the core of Hamas’s second birth after Arafat’s Ramallah-based authority released most in the late 1990s and early 2000.
The same torture in prisons that led to the creation of the violent Islamic groups in Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s, reinvented Hamas. It made its commanders and leaders adamant and resolute in the pursuit of military parity with Fatah. In a matter of years that parity was achieved, and on June 14, 2007 it proved to be Dahlan’s nemesis, overthrowing the security apparatus that was itself geared and committed to eliminating Hamas.
That military feat, in its turn, may have compromised if not put in jeopardy Hamas’s short and embattled experiment in government. Haniya’s forming of the 10th government following the January 2006 Oslo-Accords-mandated elections was already conspired against internally, regionally and internationally. The quartet insisted on Israeli recognition, recognition of previous agreements with Israel, and renouncing of violence, all of which were unacceptable to Hamas not having concrete incentives and decolonising measures on the ground.
So post the June 2007 take-over (or so-called hasm), the boycott of Hamas’s rule in Gaza deepened. However it is a moot point whether Hamas should have engaged with politics altogether, but failure of the political experiment validates voices which favour political disengagement and military engagement. These voices remain in check for the foreseeable future.
Hamas between dogmatism and pragmatism
Hamas’s steadfast message has meant that it is not a pliant client in any negotiations either regarding Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation or Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Egyptian-sponsored reconciliation talks have come to a stand still. The so-called Egyptian Paper (al-waraqah al-misriyyah) of 2009 gathers dust on Omar Sulayman’s desk.
Egypt’s chief mediator told Mahmud Al-Zahhar, one of Hamas’s Gaza-based supremos, in response to the Islamist movement’s refusal to rubber-stamp it, ‘take it, or leave it’. To which Zahhar replied, ‘I’ll leave it’. Again, the Egyptians diluted the final draft agreed by Hamas, altering meaning. Terms that originally read (in relation to a set of reforms) ‘through agreement’ were changed to ‘through consultation’, making it easier for the National Palestinian Authority to rig the Palestinian factions ‘common will’. The same with the meaning, insisting on reform of the security apparatus in Gaza and the West Bank, was altered to exclude the West Bank from the reforms.
Finally, Hamas’s political resourcefulness is that it is by nature not only a diverse movement within, but is also four-tiered system: Gaza, West Bank, diaspora and prisons. Each one of these is a field of action with its own resources and consultative processes. In the diaspora the Politburo run from Damascus has been a sounding board and a second ‘chamber’ where big decisions are discussed and made.
There is an abundance of politics within Hamas. The February 2007 Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement gave hints of the full potential of Hamas as a dynamic player capable of pragmatic decisions in the political process. Zahhar, Haniyya, Khaled Meshaal, amongst others, rubbed shoulders, discussed, prayed and ate with their morbid enemies.
Zahhar never forgave Fatah for the humiliating torture he was subjected to under its ‘reign of terror’. Yet all seemed to work. However that was only for some time before the coalition government agreed crumbled to the dismay of the Saudis. Without Palestinian-Palestinian reconciliation peacemaking may not come to any logical fruition. Hamas has reached to willing interlocutors overseas from Moscow to Oslo.
The Swiss are sympathetic too. So are other states which prefer to remain unnamed. Hamas receives all kinds of support from Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Qatar is ready to rebuild Gaza, and contributed generously to bailing out the Gaza economy under siege. So would Turkey. Algeria says it would provide free oil.
However, no amount of political resourcefulness is sufficient if it is not translated into palpable political dividends that speed up reconciliation with Fatah, with the international community, especially the key peace brokers, and even Egypt with whom borders are not alterable.
Similarly, there is a challenge for the US, and Mitchell and Obama in particular, to think the unthinkable and draw Hamas to the negotiating table. Without this investment in partial talks where the full gamut of Palestinian’s will and choice is demonstrable, peace in the Middle East will embody the elephant in the living room.
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004), forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2011).
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
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