The extremist Islamist ‘Monotheism and Holy War Group’ has gruesomely murdered an Italian peace activist, Vittorio Arrigoni briefly after kidnapping him. This seems to have been retaliation against Hamas’ detention of two of its leaders a few days ago, even though it was first presented as an attempt to force Hamas to release the organization’s leaders. This shows, more than ever, that Hamas is running into insoluble problems.
In Israeli discourse, Hamas is generally seen as a devilish terror organization. It has earned some of its reputation here by being largely behind the wave of suicide bombings during the second Intifada and the shelling of Southern Israel for years – the central reason Israel’s electorate has moved so far to the right in the last decade.
Research shows that the reality of Hamas is far more complex than allowed for in Israeli public discourse. Hamas has always had an identity problem: it was torn between being a primarily religious organization defining its goals in Islamic terms, and a nationalist movement trying to attain political goals. It is not a monolithic organization; some of its wings are in favor of long-term truces with Israel, others even speak about actual peace. Some are in favor of reconciliation with Fatah; others believe that only the establishment of a Palestinian state under Shariah law west of the Jordan is an acceptable long-term goal.
Never mind Hamas’ internal complexity: its public position is that the state of Israel needs to be destroyed, and it keeps differentiating itself from Fatah by its rejectionist stance. As a result Hamas is shunned by the Free World, and deemed inacceptable as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Hamas is now in a completely untenable situation: its control over the Gaza strip is becoming tenuous, and it doesn’t have full control over attacks against Israel. Its religious-nationalist definition is now coming apart at the seams for a number of reasons. It is losing its credentials as being the dominant hard-line rejectionist group against Israel, outflanked at the extremist edge by apocalyptic strands of Islam like Al Qaeda that are gaining ground in Gaza.
Palestinians are beginning to see a political horizon. Abu Mazen and Salaam Fayyad are coming close to their goal of attaining international recognition for a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, and Fayyad is widely hailed for his consistent and successful building of institutions in preparation for its state.
Hamas has basically nothing to show for. Its goal of annihilating Israel looks as unrealistic as ever before. As opposed to Fatah, which has succeeded in improving quality of life in the West Bank dramatically, the Gaza strip continues languishing in misery. Hamas’ refusal to participate in Palestinian elections proposed by Abu Mazen shows that they know they would be dealt a resounding defeat.
Hamas’ only viable strategy is to move towards a more pragmatic Islamist identity. Researchers like political scientist Robert Axelrod have claimed that Hamas leaders have been interested for a long time in the way the IRA gradually evolved into the politically legitimate Sinn Fein party, entered the political process in Northern Ireland and became one of the partners in achieving peace there.
Hamas needs to speed up its movement towards becoming a legitimate player in the Middle Eastern process, if it wants to avoid becoming nothing but an obstructionist irrelevance. To do this, it will have to cross the Rubicon and join Fatah in defining its goal as establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel. They will have to do in public what they have only discussed in private with a number of interlocutors like Scott Atran: recognize Israel’s existence.
In doing so, they will show their own people, that they are actually interested in their well-being, and it will show Israelis that there is a horizon for peace. Hamas record in this respect has been abysmal: by continuing to fire rockets into Israel during Operation Cast Lead, it has terribly prolonged and exacerbated the suffering of Gaza’s population. Hamas cared more about the myth of staring down the IDF than about the livhnes of its own constituents.
The tragedy of the Middle Eastern conflict has been that, for almost a century, it has been seen as a zero-sum game. Abu Mazen and Salaam Fayyad have shown the merits of thinking in win-win terms – and the international community will soon reward them by international recognition of Palestine. Hamas must realize that, by sticking to the zero-sum formulation, it is missing the train of history.
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