Violence not inevitable, talk to Hamas

Israeli politicians commenting on violence from Gaza in recent days treat an escalation into a new round of clashes as a given. Rather than inevitable, this is the product of a policy of ignoring rather than engaging Hamas.

By Yonatan Mendel

The last democratic elections held in the Arab world, in January 2006, saw Hamas gaining victory and its leader, Isma’il Haniyeh, appointed Prime Minister. Five years later, the “West” is busy supporting democratic changes in the Middle East, but conversely backs Israeli negotiations with a Palestinian government headed by Salam Fayyad, who came sixth in the 2006 election with less than 3 percent of the vote. This sounds a bit hypocritical, but given that Israel, the US and the Quartet were never, from the very beginning, contemplating “allowing” Hamas’s rule in Palestine, it is also unsurprising.

This is neither the place nor the time to discuss the events which led to the separation of Hamas and Fatah, nor the justifications which led the western world and Israel to treat Hamas as nothing more than a “terrorist organisation.” Instead, and especially in light of the latest events in Israel and Palestine, this piece aspires to be a wake-up-call urging us to consider the consequences of the ongoing Palestinian internal division on the wellbeing of Palestinians and Israelis, and the counterproductive nature of “not-speaking-to-Hamas.”

Israel faces a number of serious problems with its political and security position. Firstly, and regarding the political “process” with the Palestinians, it should be noted that it does not exist. Actually, the expression “peace process” was years ago relegated into inverted commas. Security wise, despite a massive offense against Hamas, two years ago (operation “Cast Lead”) in which 1,400 Palestinians were killed, the Israeli southern border seems today to be almost as tense. Over the last week rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit Ashdod and Be’er Sheva, and during the same period Israel has killed at least seven Palestinians in Gaza. This wave of violence, or despair, has also reached Jerusalem, where Palestinian gunmen planted a bomb that caused the death of one civilian.

On top of this, it seems that the Israeli image is taking a long beating, with its policies criticised worldwide. Take the ongoing siege on Gaza as one example, which exemplifies the dead-end which Israel has reached. On the one hand there are many flotillas, greater in number and motivation than in the past, determined to sail to Gaza to break the Israeli siege. On the other hand, and since the siege undoubtedly harms the Palestinians’ most basic human rights, such as freedom of movement, Israel has found itself in an problematic situation, both politically and ethically.

The Israeli “strategy” of dealing with these problems is a blinkered policy which rejects any solution that involves Hamas. Here are a few quotations of Israeli leading politicians, from this week alone.

Minister Matan Vilnai said that

“It is only a question of time until we clash again with Hamas… I don’t have any doubt that this will happen again.”

PM Netanyahu said that

“Israel should prepare for another round of clashes [with Hamas].” He also rejected the attempts of Fatah and Hamas to forge a Palestinian reconciliation, saying that the Palestinian Authority “cannot stand for peace with Israel and peace with Hamas.” He later compared Hamas to Al-Qaida.

Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition, contributed nothing to this inside-the-box debate and said that

“in this debate there is no opposition and coalition… the only way to deal with Hamas is by using force… and in the same way that Israel acted during Cast Lead.”

It seems that Israel considers force and violence the only idioms with which it should speak with Hamas. However, the fact is that dealing with pressing concerns such as the release of the Israeli soldier Gil’ad Shalit, the ceasing of missiles fired from Gaza, the chance of engaging with a Palestinian Fatah-Hamas government that actually represents the Palestinian people, and the ending of the inhuman and counterproductive siege on the Gaza Strip — must all involve a dialogue with Hamas. But this is something that Israel is just not willing to consider. Instead, and following the Jerusalem explosion, it seems that we are going to experience another bloody escalation in the clashes between Israel and Hamas. More Israeli and Palestinian citizens are going to get killed, and Israeli security – that’s for sure – is not going to improve one mite.

The world cannot just stand aside as Israel falls into its own trap, unable to rescue itself from the dark. The world, I believe, should be courageous enough, as contemporary Israel is not, to admit that it was wrong. Ignoring Hamas was the wrong tactic. It was a dead-end choice, and quite a violent one. Saying that “Israel needs to end its siege” or that “Israelis and Palestinians should act with restraint” is just not enough. There is an urgent need for some courage to say what we all know. Hamas must be taken into consideration. Ignoring it is not going to make anything any better.

Yonatan Mendel is finishing his PhD at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. He is also a researcher at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and a contributor to the London Review of Books.