As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Hamas Chief Khaled Meshaal has stated his willingness to co-operate with the US in achieving a peaceful resolution to the ongoing Palestine-Israel conflict. If the US can convince Israel to freeze its settlement expansion into occupied territory and repeal the economic and military blockade of the Gaza Strip, then Hamas will be willing to come to the table and accept a peace agreement. All too predictably, however, the official White House response was to restate its refusal to engage with Hamas in diplomatic negotiations, which it views as a terrorist organisation.
This announcement comes on the back of Israel – once again – stepping up its aggressive settlement program and contingent territorial grab. In recent days, some 53 Palestinians have been evicted from their homes in East Jerusalem to make way for the construction of a block of apartments, intended to house Jewish settlers. The evictions have attracted worldwide condemnation and a stern rebuke from Barack Obama’s White House, dismissed with contempt by the Israeli administration.
Meshaal’s announcement does represent a fairly dramatic softening of Hamas’ previous hardline stance. The group’s militant 1988 charter calls for the complete disbanding of the state of Israel and a return of all Israeli territory to Palestine. Now, Hamas have stated a willingness to accept the terms of a two state agreement, which would obviously involve a tacit recognition of Israel’s existence.
The two state proposal Meshaal refers to involves Israel’s withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. During the Six Day War of 1967, Israel seized control of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and continues to occupy the territories to this day, gradually marginalising the Palestinian inhabitants with a series of settlement programs. Programs that involve mass civilian displacement and brutal methods of repression.
For Israel to cede control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Palestinians would involve no more than compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 242, recognising the illegitimacy of Israel’s occupation and the right to territorial sovereignty of ethnic groups in the region (which obviously includes Palestinians as much as it does Jews). Then, as is very much the case now, however, Israel persists in treating the dictates of international law with total contempt.
The US ostensibly refuses to engage in diplomacy with Hamas for two reasons:
A) Negotiation with Hamas might undermine the Palestinian National Authority.
B) The US Department of State lists Hamas as a terrorist organisation.
The Palestinian National Authority is ostensibly a Palestinian administrative body in the West Bank. Although it is recognised by the US, the PNA does not necessarily represent the majority of ordinary Palestinians. In the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas won 76 of the 132 available seats, effectively giving them a majority in the government. The ruling Fatah party (backed by the US, Israel and Egypt against Hamas) objected, and the simmering tensions resulted in 2007’s Battle of Gaza, a low scale civil war fought for control of Palestinian representation in the Gaza Strip.
Although Hamas emerged victorious from the conflict, the group was stripped of its parliamentary seats by the PNA. Nonetheless, Hamas effectively remain in control of the Gaza Strip’s Palestinian areas. This remains the case whether or not the US, Israel and other outside agencies choose to recognise the authority of Hamas in the region. It’s all well and good for the US to maintain diplomatic communication with the PNA, but it’s essentially meaningless when you consider that Hamas are much the more influential Palestinian faction, and maintain a greater support base among the general Palestinian population. Unless the US is willing to engage with Hamas, then it is not really engaging with the Palestinian population at all.
Is Hamas a terrorist organisation? In 1993, some 6 years after its initial formation, Hamas instituted a suicide bombing campaign against both military and civilian targets in Israel. The campaign was a desperate response to repeated Israeli military incursions and settlement expansion into the Gaza Strip with recourse to force, resulting in the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians. By 2005, however, the suicide attacks had ceased, and Hamas officially renounced the campaign in 2006, announcing that:
“The suicide bombings happened in an exceptional period and they have now stopped. They came to an end as a change of belief.”
Israel’s response was to step up its campaign of air strikes and artillery bombardment of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas continues to resort to force (although not suicide bombings) as a method of resistance to the Israeli occupation. However, Hamas has always been far more than a militant organisation. As much as 90% of Hamas revenue is used in social welfare projects, such as the construction of schools, mosques, orphanages and health care facilities vital in providing aid relief to the impoverished and suffering Palestinian population. It’s this commitment to social reform, along with a reputation for incorruptibility, that has won Hamas so much support among Palestinian civilians.
Even accepting that Hamas has committed its fair share of repugnant deeds, it has certainly been nothing on the scale of the Israeli administration’s wholesale campaign of mass terror waged against the Palestinian population. Yet Israel, as a committed ally of the US, receives not only diplomatic support but monetary aid and access to choice military hardware with which to wage its campaign of terror, while Hamas is condemned as a “terrorist” organisation and ignored. Quite clearly, however, any serious peace process will have to involve Hamas somewhere along the line. The group is far too influential and far too well established to simply be dismissed out of hand.
It’s both interesting and revealing to examine Meshaal’s conditional pledge to commit to a two state peace solution and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s response:
Barack Obama’s public challenge to Israel’s continued settlement plan may appear, at least on the surface of things, to be evidence of a new, tough stance on the part of the White House to bring Netanyahu’s Israel to heel and into a peace agreement. The New York Times describes Obama’s challenge as a “dose of tough love”. However, it’s difficult to countenance how this could actually be the case, since Obama’s challenge consists merely of words, not action. Netanyahu simply dismissed Obama’s comments with derision and proceeded with his construction plans in East Jerusalem. If the US was really serious about administering a “dose of tough love” to Israel, then perhaps Obama’s words ought to have been backed by threats to remove the US military and monetary aid on which Israel’s continued existence is dependent. However, Netanyahu knows well enough that Obama is virtually powerless to act; a powerful network of pro-Israel political lobby groups with links stretching into the uppermost echelons of the White House ensures that US foreign policy always remains committed to the support of Israel whatever the circumstances. Netanyahu can proceed in confidence with his settlement program, knowing that he faces no serious consequences for doing so.
This has always been the case. In 2005, then Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, merely described Israel’s settlement program as “unhelpful [to the peace process]” as opposed to recognising it for what it is – a brutal and illegal act of occupation that is resulting in mass civilian displacement, oppression and violence.
Quite clearly, Israel will never abandon its settlement programs or concede the territory necessary to create a viable two state solution while it still has US support. And the US continues to take a stance of soft disapproval of Israel’s settlement program while condemning the much less destructive Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Hamas has declared its intent to shift towards a more reasonable and conciliatory stance. Where is the shift on the part of the US and Israel? Far from being willing to come to the table, they are not even prepared to recognise Hamas’ legitimacy, and hence, the legitimacy of the Palestinian people. Branding Hamas as a terrorist organisation provides them with a convenient excuse to treat the legitimate concerns of Palestinians with contempt, thereby allowing Israel’s territorial grab to proceed unhindered.