Israel Should Talk to Hamas' Leader in Gaza

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File photo: Yehiyeh Sinwar, the Hamas militant group's leader in the Gaza Strip, speaks to foreign correspondents, in his office in Gaza City, May 10, 2018.

Last week, Haaretz Editor-in-Chief Aluf Benn called on Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader in Gaza, to recognize Israel. This is an important call, but for Sinwar to move toward recognizing Israel without risking his life and military and political position, he must show significant national, political and economic achievements to persuade his people and allies in the Palestinian factions that the diplomatic route is better than the military one.

In 2006, when Sinwar was imprisoned in Israel, he told journalist Yoram Binur that Hamas wouldn’t recognize Israel, but he also admitted that Hamas had no chance of destroying Israel, and that he was willing to support a long-term truce that would bring calm and prosperity to the region. Sinwar made clear that this would be tough going, but when a hudna was achieved, his side would respect it, and maybe it could continue through another generation. That interview was highly indicative of the changes penetrating the language of struggle, both his own and that of his Hamas comrades.

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These people have gone from being members of the Muslim Brotherhood to fighters in the Palestinian national liberation movement. Their grand vision – of liberating all Palestine from the river to the sea – is now accompanied by a more practical and modest vision of an independent Palestinian state with full sovereignty along the 1967 borders. They have replaced the rhetoric of a to-the-death religious war against the Jews and absolute opposition to peace initiatives and international conferences with a rhetoric of a diplomatic struggle alongside the armed one – this time not against Jews but against the Zionist occupation. Even Sinwar’s youngest son, who was photographed in a uniform holding a toy rifle during a military clash, appeared in a suit and pink tie at the May 2017 ceremony where the new Hamas policy document was presented.

Sinwar understands the price he’d have to pay to reduce the civil unrest and reinforce Hamas’ governance vis-à-vis the intellectuals and civil society groups in the Gaza Strip to free himself from the pressures applied by Hamas’ military wing and Islamic Jihad, and to take exclusive responsibility for managing Gaza off his shoulders. To do this he must reconcile with the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, persuade Israel to lift the blockade and restrictions on Gaza, and obtain aid money to rebuild the Strip.

To this end Sinwar asked for Egypt’s assistance in advancing national reconciliation with the PA. He announced the dismantling of Hamas’ shadow government, and recruited influential people like muhktars, tribal leaders, women, young people and religious scholars to talk up national reconciliation. He promised young people, journalists and civil society groups that he would battle government corruption and study instances where exaggerated force was used against civilians. He suggested subordinating the resistance weapons to the PLO, and agreed to cooperation and security coordination with Egypt regarding the building of a security zone along the Gaza-Egypt border and the arrest of infiltrators and terror operatives.

Sinwar has adopted a new rhetoric in the international and Palestinian media that sanctifies life more, rather than death. He has spoken about the heartbreak, fears and traumas suffered by Palestinian children, and expressed hope that time will heal the wounds and lower the walls on both sides of the border. He has made clear that the Palestinians aren’t interested in war with Israel but pursue it because only blood gives them a presence. He has said that if the Israelis had respected the results of the 2006 election and not imposed a blockade, the region would have enjoyed stability.

It seems the Hamas leader has made great strides in recent years, but the political leaders in Israel and the PA prefer not to believe him. They are thus eroding the effectiveness of his moves, making Palestinian national reconciliation less likely and not leaving him much choice but to continue cooperating with those who don’t want Hamas and Fatah to get closer and shift the armed struggle to diplomacy.

Sinwar learned an important lesson from Yasser Arafat: to resolve internal disputes using political rather than military means, and to use an inclusive, nondestructive approach toward the radical factions. The bloody confrontation between Fatah and Hamas that led to the national split and Hamas’ isolation didn’t occur on Sinwar’s watch; he was in prison. But the conflict is a warning sign in his relations with the other factions. Sinwar prefers to deal with them by political rather than military means to save what’s left of national unity – at least in Gaza.

The Hamas leader isn’t going to declare recognition of the right to exist anytime soon. For this to happen, if ever, Israel’s leaders must start speaking to him directly, not through Egypt or Qatar. That is, they must talk to the person “behind the mask,” as Yitzhak Rabin said when he decided to speak directly to Arafat.

Dr. Ronit Marzan teaches at the School of Political Science at the University of Haifa, and is a research fellow at the university’s Chaikin Chair of Geostrategy.

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