What Northern Ireland Can Teach Us About the Hamas Problem

You can never achieve a lasting peace if a major player in the conflict is excluded from the process.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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The damage caused by an IRA bomb blast in London's Docklands, 1996.
The damage caused by an IRA bomb blast in London's Docklands, 1996.Credit: AP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

Hamas’ impact on the Israel-Palestine conflict has been phenomenally destructive. The organization has made sure to undermine any positive dynamic that could have paved the way to a two-state solution. Its suicide bombings in 1996 made sure Benjamin Netanyahu won that year’s general election – and Netanyahu has previously taken pride in having destroyed the Oslo process during that 1996-1999 tenure.

Hamas’ shelling of the country’s south since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 has become one of the main reasons Israelis are not willing to take the risk of the Israel Defense Forces’ withdrawal from the West Bank. Israelis rightly ask what would happen if Hamas took over the West Bank and could turn life in all of Israel’s population centers into a living hell.

These fears are only exacerbated by Hamas’ infuriating cynicism and its use of Palestinian civilians as human shields. Most rockets are launched from densely populated areas, and Hamas does everything to prevent the civilians the IDF has warned of imminent bombardment from leaving their buildings. Hamas has certainly earned being classified as a terror organization by the Free World: its disregard for human live – mostly Palestinian, but also Israeli – is appalling.

Israel’s extreme right-wingers bask in macho statements (some of them made by women) that Hamas must be destroyed, neutralized, disarmed, shattered or smashed. This makes for good rhetoric but is utterly useless. Naftali Bennett, Danny Danon (whom Netanyahu rightly fired from the government this week), Avigdor Lieberman & Co can dispense such advice freely, since they know it will not be implemented. If they actually had to take responsibility for their inflammatory rhetoric, they would be in trouble, because then they would have to come up with a plan on how to do this – which, of course, they do not have.

Here is Israel’s conundrum: When we leave the realm of irresponsible rhetoric and enter the world of actual planning, there seems to be only one way out – and this way creates a problem for Netanyahu.

There is remarkable consensus, ranging from Haaretz commentator Zvi Bar’el to a recent Guardian editorial (a paper generally quite critical of Israel), that the unity government of Fatah and Hamas established in June is Israel’s only chance to stabilize the situation. It would allow Fatah gradually to regain control over the Gaza Strip, creating a situation in which Israel would have a partner for negotiations that has control not only in the West Bank but in Gaza as well.

Many a reader might now want to ask: “You just wrote that Hamas is a cynical organization that doesn’t shy away from horrendous acts – and now you’re telling us it needs to be involved in a future peace process, even if indirectly? Are you out of your mind?”

As much as I loath Hamas, its anti-Semitic charter and the brutality of its leadership, I have also studied the logic of peace processes around the globe, with the help of Lord John Alderdice. He is one of the world’s leading authorities on the topic, receiving his lordship for his contribution to the Northern Ireland peace agreement. One of the main lessons Alderdice has learned from his participation in that peace process, and his involvement in many other conflict areas, is that you can never reach durable calm if a major player of the conflict is excluded from the process.

The analogy with Northern Ireland is instructive. The Ulster conflict, generally known as The Troubles, lasted 30 years and cost about 3,500 people their lives – and the conflict had roots that went back to the 17th century. Britons viewed the Irish Republican Army with no less loathing than we currently view Hamas, and the IRA’s terror tactics were often horrifying. There are even more analogies to the Israel/Palestine conflict, including the hunger strikes of Republican prisoners that played a crucial role in the conflict. And yet the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, became a central player in the peace process that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Israel is currently not willing to recognize Hamas as a legitimate political party. Emotionally, I couldn’t agree more, and I have accused Hamas more than once for its destructive impact on the area and the terrible price it exacts from its own people. But if I look at Israel’s long-term interest, it is clear that without involving Hamas in some way, Israel will be under attack time and again in the coming years, and in the long run Hamas will undermine any attempt to achieve a durable agreement with Palestine if it does not get involved in the political process.

The Palestinian unity government would allow Israel to stabilize the situation in the short term, without directly talking to or recognizing Hamas for the time being. But this requires that Israel becomes serious about moving toward a durable agreement with the Palestinians, which places Netanyahu in an impossible situation. He is currently in open conflict with his own party and his “natural” allies from the right, including the settlers. His laudable restraint in the current round of conflict with Hamas has isolated him even further, and he does not have any political backing in his own camp for a constructive policy toward the Palestinians.

Danon, a powerful leading figure in Likud, has lately called him the “Labor Party’s subcontractor,” and it is unclear how much backing Netanyahu has in his own party – which has, for some time, ceased to be a mainstream right-wing party and moved toward the extreme right as represented by figures like Danon and Miri Regev.

In a sense, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for Netanyahu, because the extreme right-wing party he currently heads is largely of his own making. In the 1990s, he did much to create Likud’s culture of hatred for the peace camp, and he didn’t do much to moderate his second government from 2009-2013.

Unfortunately, the same cautiousness that has led Netanyahu to keep escalations with Hamas within limits is also likely to keep him from courageous moves and to engage with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, reaffirmed lately by former Saudi Intelligence Chief Turki al-Faisal in the pages of Haaretz.

And if Netanyahu will not muster the courage for a creative long-term strategy, the next escalation with Hamas is only a matter of time.

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