Hamas Might Be Serious About Peace - That's What Yassin Told Me 15 Years Ago

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A Palestinian woman walking past a mural depicting Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, left, and Yasser Arafat in Gaza City on Wednesday, July 4, 2012.Credit: AFP

Is the Palestinian peace glass half empty, as Israel’s security cabinet decision on Thursday suggests, or is it half full? Can Hamas really be ready to end the conflict with Israel? Well, yes.

How do I know? Because Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin told me so 15 years ago. In a major departure from all previous statements of Hamas policy, in May 1999, Yassin called for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the first time suggested he might recognize Israel’s right to exist. In an interview at his home in Gaza City, he told me that the conflict could be ended if Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. He offered an immediate end to Hamas attacks on Israeli targets following such a withdrawal and said relations with Israel should be left to “future generations” to decide.

”We have to be realistic,” he told me in his high-pitched whisper. “We are talking about a homeland that was stolen a long time ago in 1948 and again in 1967. My generation today is telling the Israelis: Let's solve this problem now on the basis of the 1967 borders. Let’s end this conflict by declaring a temporary cease-fire. Let’s leave the bigger issue for future generations to decide."

Until that conversation at his home in May 1999, Yassin had repeatedly vowed to continue the armed struggle until a Palestinian state was established in all of Palestine, effectively wiping Israel off the map. Just the previous week, he had told the Al-Ahram weekly in Cairo, Egypt, that the notion of Israel living in peace next to an independent Palestine was “a false idea.” I was reporting for USA Today, then the largest-circulation newspaper in the United States. Yassin was clearly sending a message to the incoming government of Ehud Barak, who was elected the day the interview was published.

I’m not Thomas Friedman or Jeffrey Goldberg, so I made sure the interview was communicated to Barak’s inner circle. Barak and his advisers chose to ignore Yassin’s overture. To be fair, the Hamas leader’s intentions were far from crystal clear. He spoke in riddles and hints shrouded in theological argument instead of plain statements of policy. But was there a chance of peace in those words that, if grasped, could have avoided the bloodbath of the second intifada in 2000? Clearly, Barak didn’t think so. He believed he could defeat Hamas by force.

But less than two years later, it was Barak who was hounded from office by his failure to foresee or contain the second intifada. In March 2004, Yassin was assassinated in an Israeli rocket attack, but Hamas survived to win the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections and seize control of Gaza from Fatah in a bloody coup in 2007. Israeli aerial attacks, assassinations and two major military campaigns in 2008 and 2012 failed to dislodge the organization. Until now. The Fatah-Hamas unity pact announced on Wednesday may be as stillborn as its predecessors in Cairo and Doha, Qatar. It may lead nowhere. But let’s imagine a new Palestinian Authority unity government is sworn in, that the reunited Palestinian Authority reasserts its control over Gaza for the first time since the 2007 Hamas coup and that there are new presidential, parliamentary and Palestinian National Council elections before the end of the year in which both Hamas and Islamic Jihad participate. If that happens, it will be a revolution no less significant than the letters of mutual recognition exchanged by former Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, the Saudi Arabian peace plan of 2002 recognizing the State of Israel and the Bar-Ilan speech of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of 2009 accepting the future existence of a Palestinian state.

It will mean that Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been incorporated under the umbrella of the PLO, the representative body that signed the Oslo, Hebron, Wye and Annapolis Agreements, all of which recognize the state of Israel. That seems like a significant step away from calling for Israel’s annihilation and a first step, however tentative, towards peace. It’s not often you get a second chance to make a historic breakthrough in a century-old conflict. Perhaps this time around, 15 years after dismissing the first opportunity, Israel will at least put Hamas to the test.

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