Features  Hamas must be talked to

Niko Block weighs in on Israel’s repeated refusal to negotiate openly with Gaza's leadership

When Barack Obama won the presidential election, Hamas immediately sent a letter of congratulations to the President-elect. In an interview with Britain’s Sky News, Hamas politiburo leader Khalid Mishal said that he was willing to hold talks with the new President, and that he hoped that Obama would reciprocate. “Yes we are ready for dialogue with President Obama and with the new American administration with an open mind, on the basis that the American administration respects our rights,” he said. He added that sitting down with Hamas would be the new administration’s only option if it is serious about bringing about a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire.

One of very few events that took place while I was living in Ramallah last year that seemed to give Palestinians some hope that a just solution to the conflict may one day come about occurred in mid-April, when former-U.S. president Jimmy Carter flew to Damascus and met with Mishal, as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to meet with Carter during his trip to the region; his official explanation was that he did not want to be perceived as holding indirect negotiations with Hamas.

Appeals for peace

When I went to cover the student elections at Birzeit University that month, I spoke to a member of the Hamas-aligned Wafaa Party. It was one of few opportunities I had to talk with a member of Hamas while I was there, as the group has been forced underground in the West Bank since June 2007. About a month prior, “GKMH” had been released after four years in Israeli prison. He had been arrested when he tried to cross the separation wall to help release a friend from an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) security compound.

“For any solution to come about, Hamas must be talked to,” he told me. “Whether it is negotiated by Carter, or Egypt, or the French, the conflict will not end until Hamas is approached.”

Carter’s visit came at a time of sporadic fighting and rocket attacks around Gaza between the IDF and Hamas, and he recommended that the latter undertake a unilateral cease-fire. The day following the meeting, Mishal publicly announced that Hamas would be willing to settle for a two-state solution. “We agree to a [Palestinian] state on pre-67 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital with genuine sovereignty without settlements but without recognizing Israel,” he was quoted as saying in Ha’aretz.

Two weeks after Carter’s visit, 11 other Palestinian factions present in the Gaza Strip – including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Islamic Jihad – joined Hamas in its proposal for a halt to rocket attacks on Israel. But the proposal was immediately shot down by Israel. The spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s office, Mark Regev, told Al-Jazeera that the abatement of illicit arms smuggling across the Gaza-Egypt border was a precondition for the IDF to halt its ongoing bombardment of the Strip. That any Israeli politician, following Israel’s 2005 pullout from Gaza, would have the gumption to be legislating arms control there isn’t surprising; the degree to which Israel’s ongoing blockade has brought the Strip to its knees explains why some Israeli politicians might think they have the prerogative to dictate Palestinian domestic policy.

The siege

After Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections by a landslide in January 2006, Israel did everything in its power to undermine the new government. In late June that year, the IDF moved into Ramallah and arrested one third of cabinet members and 23 Hamas legislators, reinstalling Fatah as leader of the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s siege began when Hamas took control of Gaza a year later. The humanitarian situation there has since reached levels more dire than any seen in the region’s entire recorded history – barring, maybe, 1948.

Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world. One-and-a-half-million people live there, 70 per cent of whom are refugees or descendents of refugees. There is not nearly enough arable land for the region to be self-sufficient, nor is there adequate access to water and irrigation, and Gaza’s strawberry and carnation crops have frequently been barred from export. In the past 18 months, its residents have resorted to digging tunnels into Sinai and smuggling Egyptian goods across the border.

Israel has largely blocked the entry of fuel. As a result, car and ambulance use has been limited, and the only power plant in the Strip is frequently forced to shut down.

Prior to this current spate of hostilities, the UN reported that tens of thousands have extremely limited access to water, and more than half of Gazan children were undernourished. For months it’s been reported that some people have been scrounging in dumpsters for scraps of food.

This policy is what Dov Weisglass, a top adviser to Olmert, described in 2006 as putting Gazans “on a diet;” I would call it collective punishment and a war crime.

To bomb or not to bomb

Whatever talks led to the six-month ceasefire – which was brokered by Egypt and expired three weeks ago – they were done as covertly as the Israeli government could possibly manage. The reason for this is that negotiating with Hamas is more unpopular with Israelis than the sort of conflict we’ve seen these past two and a half weeks. With Israeli elections set to be held next month, the ruling Kadima party and its rival Likud, led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both been jockeying for the support of an Israeli public that has increasingly supported a hard line policy toward Hamas.

Ten days after Operation Cast Lead began, Olmert told Ha’aretz that he was speaking with several international leaders to work toward a “diplomatic solution” to the crisis. The same day Tzipi Livni, Israel’s Foreign Minister and incoming leader of the ruling Kadima party, turned down an offer by Russia to relay messages to Hamas by saying, “We have nothing to discuss with Hamas.” The contradiction points to a chronic pattern in Israel’s policy toward Hamas: bomb or don’t bomb, but never discuss.

Israel’s refusal to negotiate has prevailed too in its relationship with the Syrian government, which has offered on numerous occasions to rescind its military support of both Hezbollah and Hamas in return for the Golan Heights, which Israel seized and has continued to occupy since 1967. Although Olmert has insinuated that opening talks with Syria would be in Israel’s interest, Hamas does not believe he has the power in the Knesset, nor the popular support, to pull off such a move. As with Hamas, Syria’s appeals have been virtually ignored.

Closed doors

Like most people, I do not condone the targeting of civilians under any circumstance. Nor do I believe that attacking civilian targets is strategically wise. With the Obama administration preparing to take the helm in Washington, Hamas’s rocket attacks on southern Israel have been playing into its characterisation as a group of psychopathic Islamist vigilantes in the right-wing American press, and as a result its chances of meeting with the new American government are much slimmer now. Hilary Clinton’s comments Wednesday, that the new administration will not speak with Hamas, indicate that Hamas may have already squandered any opportunity for dialogue with the States.

Even though, as an occupying force in the West Bank, the IDF is a legitimate target under international law, I have and will continue to support the non-violent strains of the intifada, which are very prevalent amongst Palestinians there and deserve far more attention than they have been given by the international press.

But Gazans do not have the same means of civil disobedience against Israel as West Bank Palestinians; nor is the West Bank facing a humanitarian crisis of the scale that Gazans have experienced in the past year and a half. Save for the United Nations, which has continued to report on the crisis and provide humanitarian aid, Gazans have no friends in the international community, and thus little to no recourse to their suffering.

Hamas’s track record suggests that the recent resumption of violence is largely a result of the fact that Hamas has found nothing but closed doors in the diplomatic sphere – in its relationship with other countries too, but especially with Israel. Having exhausted all of their available options, I am left wondering what other means they have of bringing the world’s attention to their plight.

What happened on January 10 was typical of the conflict. Both sides rejected a UN cease-fire proposal, which called for a halt to arms smuggling from Egypt and for an “unimpeded provision” of aid to the people of Gaza. Israel ignored the truce on the grounds that its “objectives” had not yet been achieved; Hamas on the grounds that it had not been consulted. While far from being a prudent, or moral, move on Hamas’s part, the failure of the UN’s proposal underscores the necessity for open dialogue with the de facto government in Gaza.

Hamas knows it can’t beat Israel militarily. With Gaza being the tiny enclave that it is (about 25 per cent smaller than the Island of Montreal), Hamas doesn’t stand a chance of rebuffing the IDF as Hezbollah did in the summer of 2006.

Of the 1,000 deaths recorded by January 14, 40 per cent have been women or children under 18. Roughly 300 of them were militants, according to the IDF. Of the 4,250 Gazans that have been injured, roughly half were women or children. By contrast, 13 Israelis have been killed, of whom ten were soldiers, (and four of those died as a result of friendly fire).

Israel has maintained its absurd line that it is carrying out the operation to destroy Hamas’s ability to attack Israel’s border towns, and has expressed that it has no intention of reoccupying the Strip. Despite Israel’s military might, Hamas has somewhere between ten and 20,000 trained fighters in the Strip and an operation to overthrow Hamas altogether would come at an extremely high cost.

And yet, Israel would lose nothing by lifting the siege.

The question of proportionality

All this leads us to the inevitable question as to what Israel thinks it will get out of its indiscriminate assault on the Strip – the levelling of schools which had served as refuge to dozens of civilians, the bombing of apartment buildings and other non-military targets. In essence, it is the same question that I was hoping my Israeli family might answer for me while I was there, although my patience for their bullheaded racism eventually ran out.

It’s the same question that Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Dan Gillerman, faced during the 2006 war in Lebanon; his answer, though disturbing and unsatisfactory, is probably as good as any other. The IDF was in the process of killing 1,100 Lebanese civilians after Hezbollah had kidnapped three soldiers and kidnapped two others, and with charges that Israel was perpetrating a grossly disproportionate counter-offensive coming from virtually every country on the globe, what Gillerman said was, “You’re damn right we are.”