In his piece published online on January 13, my fellow Middle East columnist Eliot Sackler argued that in light of Hamas’s supposed growing legitimacy and desire for progress, Israel should embrace a “pragmatic policy” and recognize Hamas as a political actor, adopting a policy of “engagement” as opposed to one of ”isolation.”
The piece is admirable for its extensive research and tenacious attempt to propose something new. Some of the ideas are commanding, notably Eliot’s rightful recognition that Hamas “offers Palestinians a sense of action,” attributing the support they receive to the fact that unlike the PA, they have found some way of forcefully resisting Israel. But unfortunately, the piece’s central thesis, and many of the arguments on which it rests, is historically shallow, unrealistically hopeful, and based on a simplified and narrow understanding of the functions and standing of Hamas.
Eliot’s argument seems to be born out of the notion that Hamas has somehow become more legitimate in recent times, a notion that is untrue. He claims that “no longer is Hamas an absolutely illegitimate actor,” but in reality Hamas’s reputation remains unchanged: those countries and organizations who recognize it for its terrorist actions continue to do so, and those who do not continue not to. Neither has Hamas “won favor with the Palestinian population;” contrary to the recent poll numbers Eliot cites that document an expected surge of support after the recent conflict, 67% of Gazans polled during the Arab Spring support regime change while only 18.8% support the Hamas government.
As recently as November 30, in fact, the Washington Post reported that the surge from November’s conflict that Eliot is relying on has started to fade. Further assigning legitimacy to Hamas where there is no evidence of it, Eliot attributes the ceasefire deal to Hamas’s “greater leverage.” But Israel’s agreement wasn’t submission: it was the shrewd political calculation that continuing an attack that will lead to more civilian deaths is not in Israel’s best political interest.
In addition to overplaying Hamas’s legitimacy and popularity, Eliot severely understates Hamas’s militancy and abusive nature. In stark contrast with his assertion that Hamas has “worked to distance itself from its previous patrons” including Iran, Hamas made use of Iranian Fajr-5 rocket to fire at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Similarly, while Eliot insists that those who take issue with Hamas because of the extremism of its founding charter “step beyond their ideological dogma,” he fails to recognize that the following language, “Israel will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors” is not some obscure amendment, but can be found in the document’s very first paragraph. It is not “ideological dogma” to be wary of Hamas’s raison d’etre.
In what follows, Eliot gives undue credibility to recent politically motivated statements by Hamas leaders. He cites the work of UN diplomat Richard Falk who argues that the calls for Israel’s destruction in the Hamas constitution are a “false issue,” but Falk is no reputable source to cite; Human Rights Watch, an organization known for its toughness on Israel, kicked Falk off a panel because he likened Israel to Nazi Germany. Is the Hamas statement from this August that a PA aide’s visit to Auschwitz is a marketing of a “false Zionist alleged tragedy” also “false issues?”
Next, Eliot notes Hamas leader Meshaal’s announced support for the two-state solution, only to forget to mention that Meshaal infamously neglected to support recognition of Israel’s right to exist when he made this announcement. While Eliot blames the Israeli blockade for “stifling the Gazan middle class,” he curiously fails to mention the fact that Hamas only delivers Israeli and international humanitarian aid to those Gazans associated with its party. He also completely fails to comment on the horrendous way Hamas treats its own citizens: Hamas uses firing squads to murder supposed collaborators with Israel, has tortured over 100 of its own people, and assaults peaceful protestors.
Seeing Hamas as an adaptive revolutionist movement, Elliot draws the conclusion that Hamas is “not entirely dissimilar from Israel’s early trajectory in the first decades of its statehood.” But this conclusion is clearly misinformed; if anything, Hamas recalls the Irgun, the Jewish terrorist group that used militant methods to aid in the founding of the state. But just as the Irgun eventually gave way to the more moderate Hagana, a truthful comparison would suggest that Hamas similarly must give way to the PA. And just as it would’ve been wrong to recognize and work with the similarly religious and militant Taliban in Afghanistan, it is wrong here to recognize Hamas “as a political actor with achievable goals.”
A more accurate analysis, then, would properly represent Hamas as the cruel, human rights abusing, and dangerous organization that it is. It would also recall that Israel already does engage with Hamas as the scholar Nathan Brown, whom Eliot himself cites, has written, “The Israelis themselves have dropped any pretense about indirect negotiations.” As it stands, Eliot’s proposition—more a dangerous ploy than a modest proposal—to have Israel engage with Hamas in order to force it to show its true colors cannot possibly lead to a peace settlement that has been impossible even under more peaceful PLO leaders.
Eliot himself believes “that Hamas might very well exploit an opening presented its way, and in fact pursue the destruction of Israel.” But Israel’s existence should not be put at risk because the Palestinian people, understandably, are frustrated and have come to find jingoistic pride in their militant landlord. Smartly calling on Israel to “reposes the initiative,” Eliot mistakenly advocates engaging with Hamas, the extreme element, solely because the PA, the moderate element, is momentarily weak. Just a year ago the truly pragmatic Salam Fayyad was in a position to make peace, and Netanyahu spoiled that opportunity. But Hamas isn’t the new answer. And only the advocacy of something bold, that completely vilifies violence and recognizes the rights of both peoples, can bring the current reluctant Israeli and Palestinian partners back to the table.