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Shifting Attitudes Towards Hamas

Thursday 13 March 2008, by Ali Abunimah

Since Hamas won the legislative elections in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in January 2006, the United States has attempted to isolate the Islamist resistance movement in Gaza while propping up the leadership of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his defeated Fatah faction in Ramallah in the hope of reversing the election result and restoring Fatah to power. This fit the U.S. strategy of fostering so-called “moderate” regimes in the region, allied with the United States and dependent on it to a greater or less extent, and confronting indigenous forces such as Hamas in Palestine and Hizballah in Lebanon, which the United States portrays as being mere extensions of regional rival Iran.

This strategy has backfired. In Palestine, Hamas withstood an extraordinary military, economic and political campaign waged against it by Israel with the encouragement of the United States. After its breach of the border wall with Egypt, allowing hundreds of thousands of desperate Palestinians to break the blockade on Gaza, Hamas is arguably more popular than ever. U.S.-sponsored peace negotiations between Israel and Abbas’ U.S.-recognized Palestinian Authority have gone nowhere. There is a growing realization that the approach to Hamas must change. This brief assesses movement towards engagement with the group among various key actors.


The election to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was held on 25 January 2006, with support from President Bush, as part of his announced agenda of promoting democracy in the Middle East. On a turnout of 75 percent, the Hamas-backed Change and Reform list won 74 of the 132 seats while the U.S.-backed Fatah won just 45. The election was judged to be free and fair by international observers, and Hamas won a larger overall share of the vote than Fatah. The PLC election was conducted according to a mixed system with each voter receiving two ballots, one to select a national party list with seats to be allocated by a system of proportional representation widely used around the world and one to select individual candidates in a local district. Hamas won a majority of the 66 seats allocated by proportional representation and an even larger share of the local district seats. Hamas’s disproportionately large share of the seats in local districts was attributable to divisions in Fatah, which led rival Fatah candidates to run against each other in many areas, splitting their potential support.

Within weeks of the election, Israel and the Quartet (the ad hoc group representing the United States, the European Union, Russia and the U.N. Secretary-General) had agreed to the complete isolation of Hamas unless it met certain conditions: renouncing armed struggle, recognizing Israel’s main political demand that it has a “right to exist” as a Jewish state and agreeing to abide by all previously signed agreements. No reciprocal conditions were imposed on Israel—which did not have to recognize Palestinian political demands a priori—was free to continue military attacks on Palestinians, expand settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and could violate signed agreements with impunity.

With hindsight, it appears that the conditions were tailored to be unacceptable to Hamas. The United States, in collaboration with Israel and elements of the Fatah leadership, put in place a plan to squeeze Hamas and the civilian population in Gaza militarily, economically and diplomatically in the hope that the population would turn against Hamas and back to Fatah. The United States sponsored what amounted to an attempted coup against Hamas by contra-style militias, resulting in Hamas’s complete takeover of the interior of the Gaza Strip in June 20071.

This setback prompted the United States to support even greater pressure on Hamas while attempting to do an end-run around the group by boosting economic and military support for Fatah in the West Bank. With the November 2007 Annapolis meeting, the Bush administration relaunched peace talks between the Israeli government and Abbas. These talks, however, have made no reported progress; both Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas are seen as weak leaders lacking the authority or mandate to negotiate or compromise on key issues. This political process has been overshadowed and further undermined by the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, resulting from the Israeli siege2 and the escalating armed conflict that has claimed hundreds of Palestinian and several Israeli lives.

Is Hamas Ready for Engagement?

One of the common claims of Israeli and other opponents of any engagement with Hamas is that the movement is an irrational “jihadist” organization with no identifiable or satiable political goals. It is presented exclusively as a “spoiler” for whom violence is its raison d’etre. In fact, Hamas is a complex, dynamic and diverse movement whose leadership has set its sights on a nationalist political strategy that cannot succeed without engagement with the group’s adversaries, including Israel.

The claim that no agreements can be reached with Hamas is belied by the fact that the group has observed indirectly negotiated hudnas in the past and has conducted indirect negotiations with Israel over the release of prisoners for several months.

While media reports in the United States repeat the mantra that Hamas is committed to the “destruction of Israel,” citing its 1988 charter as evidence, the Change and Reform platform did not make any such call and focused on good governance and fighting the corruption widely viewed as endemic under Fatah rule. On the political front, Hamas had suspended its campaign of armed resistance against Israel for a year prior to the elections, observing a hudna indirectly negotiated with Israel via Egypt and other intermediaries. Both before and after the election, Hamas leaders broadcast their interest in extending this truce on a reciprocal basis with Israel for ten to twenty years after which it could be renewed.

Hamas leaders appear to have undertaken a fundamental shift in their strategy. After years of boycotting the political institutions set up under the 1993 Oslo Accords, they entered the political arena—as many critics had called on them to do. They appeared to have recognized the limits of what armed struggle could achieve without political engagement.3 Ahmed Yousef, a senior advisor to Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh (who was dismissed by Abbas in June 2007), explained the logic behind the extended hudna which calls for an end to violence without declaring an end to the conflict: “[w]hereas war dehumanizes the enemy and makes it easier to kill, a hudna affords the opportunity to humanize one’s opponents and understand their position with the goal of resolving the intertribal or international dispute.”

Yousef proposed as a potential model the truce between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British government that laid the ground for an end to their conflict. He noted that the IRA “agreed to halt its military struggle to free Northern Ireland from British rule without recognizing British sovereignty.” Irish Republicans, he observed, “continue to aspire to a united Ireland free of British rule, but rely upon peaceful methods.” A crucial point from Hamas’s perspective was that “[h]ad the IRA been forced to renounce its vision of reuniting Ireland before negotiations could occur, peace would never have prevailed.”4

Is it possible to find statements from Hamas figures, including some of high rank, that contradict this conciliatory tone and strategy and put forward more militant positions? Of course it is, which is exactly why Hamas cannot be pushed to move away from long-established positions too quickly. Like the IRA and all other organizations in a similar position, it must move incrementally as its own concerns and the needs of its constituencies are addressed. To do otherwise would be to risk splits and provoke rebellion from the rank and file. The British and U.S. governments understood this in the IRA case but have made no such allowances for Hamas.

Hamas’s escalation of its armed response to Israel’s siege, extrajudicial killings of its members and attacks on the Gaza Strip does not contradict the desire to reach an extended hudna. Rather, it appears to be a calculated gamble that such action can force Israel to agree to pursue a long-term truce with new “rules of engagement” and at the same time veto any political process, such as Annapolis, that attempts to bypass Hamas. The group also wants a deal to re-open Gaza border crossings in which it will have some role.

The Palestinian Authority

It is likely that the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas would engage in a rapprochement with Hamas absent the significant U.S. pressure on it to maintain a boycott of the group. Abbas, after all, infuriated the Bush administration by agreeing to form the short-lived national unity government in February 2007 as part of the Saudi-sponsored Mecca agreement. Rank and file Fatah members tend to favor reconciliation, as do some key figures within the movement. Nevertheless, some powerful Abbas advisors have an entrenched interest in the status quo; their patronage, financing, privileges and recognition by the United States, Israel and the E.U. stems from their willingness to confront and work against Hamas. They may be the last to consent to any accommodation as they would stand to lose most from it.

Is Israel Ready for Engagement?

The debate within the Israeli political-military establishment is between those on the one hand who believe that reoccupying the interior of the Gaza Strip and possibly assassinating senior Hamas civilian leaders can “solve” Israel’s problem, and those on the other who have recognized that some form of accommodation is inevitable and is the only means to stop the escalation of violence. The position of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, while nominally closer to the former camp, may be driven by political expediency rather than ideology. Olmert, like Abbas, is a politically vulnerable leader heading a fractious coalition; his position depends to a large extent on U.S. political support. This support in turn depends on Olmert going along with U.S.-set goals: a continuous negotiation process with Abbas, even if it achieves nothing, and the isolation of Hamas as part of the broader U.S. regional strategy of confronting “extremists” and supporting U.S.-anointed “moderates.”

Yet within Israel, there appears to be a shift in public and elite opinion towards supporting cease-fire negotiations with Hamas. Two thirds of Israelis, including half of Likud voters and large majorities of Kadima and Labor voters, now support direct negotiations with Hamas to achieve a truce and release prisoners.5 There is a growing sense that “[p]ower has limitations. The Israel Defense Forces cannot solve everything.”6

Perhaps the most hawkish advocate of engaging Hamas has been Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service. Halevy rejects the oft-made claim that Hamas cooperates with or is ideologically similar to Al-Qaeda or that the group is subservient to Iran. Hamas is “more credible and effective as a political force” than Fatah, which Halevy estimates is “more than ever discredited as weak, enormously corrupt and politically inept.” Halevy notes that Hamas “pulled off three ‘feats’ in recent years in conditions of great adversity. They won the general elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006; they preempted a Fatah design to wrest control of Gaza from them in 2007; and they broke out of a virtual siege that Israel imposed upon them in January 2008.” In doing so, he argues, “They affected a strategic surprise upon all other players in the region and upon the United States, and in each case, no effective counter strategy mounted by the U.S. and Israel proved effective.” Halevy has been critical of the political condition imposed on Hamas that it recognize Israel. The demand for “a priori renunciation of ideology before contact has been made,” Halevy points out, “has never been made before either to an Arab state or to the Palestinian Liberation Organization/Fatah.”7

Despite this apparent shift in Israeli opinion, there remains significant opposition to any engagement with Hamas, not least from opposition parties seeking to cast the government as “weak” in the face of “terrorism.” While Israel may tacitly agree to short-term deals with Hamas, a fundamental change in the Israeli approach seems remote without significant external pressure.

The U.S. Role

Up to this point, United States policy has been to foster and deepen internal Palestinian divisions, collude with Israeli policies that have caused significant harm to the Palestinian population and employ rhetoric that presents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as part of a regional or even global confrontation with Iran and “militant Islam,” as opposed to a local conflict that can be resolved through mutually satisfactory political arrangements and guarantees.

Yet, the shift in view apparent in Israel is also evident among U.S. foreign policy elites, where some prominent Middle East policymakers have long been critical of the policy of shunning Hamas. One barometer of changing sentiment is that both The New York Times and The Washington Post recently published editorials criticizing the current approach and calling for a negotiated truce with Hamas.8 It is too much to expect that the Bush administration will abandon its entrenched positions and publicly reverse course, however. The best that can be hoped is that the United States will not stand in the way of third parties mediating between Israel and Hamas. A positive sign is that the United States appears to have blessed recent efforts by Egypt to broker a truce ending the upsurge in violence in Gaza and southern Israel.9

An additional factor is the U.S. presidential election campaign. Rather than promote sober discussion of policy, this tends to push candidates towards more hawkish positions. Already, one of the major Democratic contenders has publicly endorsed the Bush administration policy of refusing to talk to Hamas, even while stating that he might engage with other groups currently shunned by the United States.10 Nevertheless, what is said in an election may not serve as an accurate guide to what a new administration might do.

Above all, the United States must abandon the policy of picking sides in internal Palestinian politics and allow Palestinian factions to reach an internal accommodation, as the vast majority of the Palestinians desire.

Europe Uneasy

Once seen as an independent and more even-handed actor with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the European Union has in recent years hitched its wagon to the United States policy of unconditional support for Israel. This tendency has been more pronounced since 2003 after which date European policy has been driven by an imperative to heal the internal and transatlantic rifts caused by the Iraq war and the absorption by some European elites of the rhetoric of a “clash of civilizations” with Islam. Nevertheless, while publicly committed to the Quartet conditions, some European governments have maintained low-key channels with Hamas, and there is growing unease with the isolation strategy.

Notably, the European Parliament passed a resolution declaring that “the policy of isolation of the Gaza Strip has failed at both the political and humanitarian level” and calling on the Abbas Palestinian Authority to work with “all parties concerned in the Gaza Strip”—code for Hamas—for a reopening of the Gaza crossings.11 Calls for direct engagement with Hamas have also been growing from European civil society. A joint report issued by eight leading human rights and humanitarian agencies, including Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Children U.K. and Christian Aid, called for talks with Hamas, concluding that “the international policy of isolating Hamas has not reaped any benefits. On the contrary, it has led to increasing polarization across the Occupied Palestinian Territories and resulted in a political stalemate with Israel.”12 Israel’s ambassador to the E.U. has reportedly warned his government of “an overall European policy change toward Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which could even lead to a recognition of Hamas,” and Marc Otte, the E.U. Middle East envoy has declared, “We must consider a change of policy in everything regarding Gaza.”13

These changes, while welcome, are again unlikely to result in a complete reversal in European policy. However, they are likely to lead to more contacts with Hamas outside the public eye and perhaps European efforts to persuade the United States and Israel to moderate their own hard-line approaches. If this happens, it may help diminish violence, foster internal Palestinian unity and lay the groundwork for a genuine peace process that has popular consent and therefore a chance to succeed.

1The most complete, but certainly not the only, account of this subversion strategy was documented in David Rose, “The Gaza Bombshell,” Vanity Fair, April 2008 (
2A coalition of European humanitarian organizations, including Amnesty International, Christian Aid, CAFOD, CARE, Medecins du Monde U.K., Oxfam, Save the Children U.K. and Trócaire, published a joint report detailing the effects of the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The number of people in Gaza dependent on food aid has risen to over 80 percent from 60 percent in 2006. See: “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion” (
3For examples of the appeals for engagement and an extended truce by senior Hamas figures, see Mousa Abu Marzook, “What Hamas Is Seeking,” Washington Post, 31 January 2006; Abu Marzook, “Hamas’ stand,” Los Angeles Times, 10 July 2007; Abu Marzook, “Hamas is ready to talk: We welcome the call for dialogue, and reject insincere demands for an undemocratic boycott,” The Guardian, 16 August 2007; Ahmed Yousef, “What Hamas Wants,” The New York Times, 20 June 2007; Yousef, “Engage With Hamas; We Earned Our Support,” The New York Times, 20 June 2007.
4Ahmed Yousef, “Pause for Peace,” The New York Times, 1 November 2006.
5Yossi Verter, “Poll: Most Israelis back direct talks with Hamas on Shalit,” Haaretz, 27 February 2008.
6Nehemia Strasler, “Talk to Hamas,” Haaretz, 4 March 2008 (
7See Laura Rozen, “Israel’s Mossad, Out of the Shadows,” Mother Jones, 19 February 2008 (
8“The Gaza Dilemma,” The Washington Post, 4 March 2008; “Talk, but No Peace,” The New York Times, March 8, 2008.
9“Cairo Gaza talks make no progress,” BBC News, 7 March 2008 (
10“Obama says United States should not meet with Hamas,” Reuters, March 4, 2008.
11European Parliament resolution of 21 February 2008 on the situation in the Gaza Strip
12See: “The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion” (
13Yossi Lempkowicz, “European Parliament: policy of isolation of Gaza ‘failed,’” European Jewish Press, 21 February 2008 (

Ali Abunimah is a fellow at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. He is an expert on Palestine, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and is the author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Abunimah also co-founded The Electronic Intifada, an online publication about Palestine and the Palestine-Israeli conflict, Electronic Iraq and Electronic Lebanon.