Paul Pillar

What Hamas Says

Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, held a press conference this week in which he stated that his movement would accept the outcome of any Palestinian referendum on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, even if the result contradicted Hamas's own policies. Haniyeh did identify conditions for a peace agreement, but they were a statement of mainstream Palestinian thinking, held by many more besides Hamas: a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, Jerusalem as its capital, a just solution for Palestinian refugees, and the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. Haniyeh's comments were consistent with many other statements by the Hamas leadership—including the principal external leader, Khaled Mashal—indicating a willingness to live in indefinite peace alongside Israel in a divided Palestine.

And yet, despite such statements, the government of Israel—and thus also the loudest voices on Israel-related issues in the United States—holds that Hamas does not qualify as an interlocutor because it is bent on the destruction of Israel. It doesn't seem to matter either that even if Hamas wanted to destroy Israel, such destruction is far beyond its capability, it would still be far beyond its capability even if it ruled over all the Palestinian territories, and Hamas leaders have given no indication of being so stupid as to believe otherwise.

The only hints of possible willingness ever to accept Hamas as an interlocutor are phrased in terms of things that Hamas must say: that it must recognize Israel's right to exist, forswear the use of violence, and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. Seldom is it noted that Israel has never recognized Hamas's right to exist, that it not only has not forsworn violence but has used far more of it to greater deadly effect on civilians than Hamas ever has (most conspicuously in Operation Cast Lead, the devastating invasion of Gaza in 2008-2009), and that it has not accepted the Palestinian people's free election of a government in 2006. No explanation is given for why, under these conditions, Hamas should unilaterally and explicitly issue some sort of declaration. Nor is there explanation for why statements such as Haniyeh's this week, which implicitly do the same thing, are disregarded.

As a supposed indication of a continued Hamas determination to destroy Israel, mention is often made of Hamas's charter. We have gone through all this before, with another charter: that of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Getting that charter changed was an Israeli obsession, but neither the charter nor the amendment of it made any difference whatsoever to anything beyond words on a piece of paper. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had the good sense not to let the charter issue stand in the way of negotiating with the PLO; no amendments were made until three years after the Oslo Accords of 1993. The later collapse of the Oslo process had nothing to do with any continuing determination by the PLO—whose current leader, Mahmoud Abbas, is Israel's hope for leading a Potemkin self-governing West Bank—to drive Israel into the sea.  As Tom Friedman pointed out in recalling this in 2006 following Hamas's election victory, the whole kerfuffle over the PLO charter “did not affect Yasir Arafat's real behavior one whit.” Friedman commented, “Israel needs to ask itself this: What would impress Israelis most—if Hamas recognized the Jewish state today and sang Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, or if it maintained the cease-fire and the negotiating process?”

Hamas is observing an undeclared cease-fire with Israel today, and Haniyeh's statement and others like it indicate an acceptance by Hamas of the negotiating process. But Israel is not following Friedman's advice from four years ago, which was to let Hamas sink or swim on its own, and to give it a chance to demonstrate peaceful intentions (and its ability, or inability, to retain support of the Palestinian people) through deeds, not just words. Instead, Israel has assiduously but unsuccessfully tried to crush Hamas, through the brutal Cast Lead and a suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip. A coalition of aid groups reported this week that Israel's easing of the blockade earlier this year (in response to international pressure over Israel's deadly interception of ships attempting to reach Gaza) has made little difference to the lives of Gazans. Many imports such as construction materials are still severely restricted, and even more crippling to Gaza's economy is a continuing, near-total ban on exports.

In the confrontation between Israel and Hamas, one party is indeed determined to destroy the other, and that determination is a major obstacle to peace. But the identities of the would-be destroyer and destroyee are the reverse of what we so often hear.