It's Time for Israel to Talk to Hamas

Just as the PLO was transformed into the Palestinian Authority, so it is time to start treating Hamas not as a 'terror organization,' but as a government.

A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua
A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua

During the War of Independence in 1948, the Jordanians shelled western Jerusalem for months, besieged the city and prevented water and fuel from reaching its residents. Hundreds of civilians were killed during the shelling, yet Israel did not refer to the Jordanians as terrorists, but as an enemy. Once a cease-fire was attained, Israel began open negotiations with the Jordanians, at the end of which an armistice agreement was signed.

For years prior to the Six Day War, the Syrians shelled towns in the Galilee, killing and injuring many. Syria's Baath constitution even contains a clause about the annihilation of Israel. Yet the Israelis never called the Syrians terrorists but rather enemies, and even reached agreements with them, including a disengagement agreement following the Yom Kippur War.

The Egyptians under Gamal Abdel Nasser called for Israel's destruction many times and even tried to realize that goal on the eve of the Six Day War, yet still the Egyptian tyrant was never a terrorist but an enemy. Even the Nazis weren't called terrorists. Their acts of horror were perpetrated while they were in uniform, openly before all, affiliated with the regime and clearly identifiable. They were the cruelest enemy in the history of mankind, but they were not terrorists.

The time has come to stop calling Hamas a terrorist organization and define it as an enemy. The inflationary use of the term "terror," of which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is particularly fond, impedes Israel's ability to reach a long-term agreement with this bitter enemy. Today Hamas controls the territory; it has an army, governmental institutions and broadcasting stations. It is even recognized by many states in the world. An organization that has a state is an enemy, not a terror organization.

Is this just semantics? No, because with an enemy one can talk and reach agreements, whereas with a "terror organization" talking is meaningless and there is no hope for reaching accord. It is therefore urgent to legitimize, in principle, the effort to reach some sort of direct agreement with Hamas. That's because the Palestinians are our neighbors and will be forever. They are our close neighbors, and if we don't reach a reasonable separation agreement with them, we will inevitably lead ourselves down the path to a bi-national state, which will be worse and more dangerous for both sides. That's why an agreement with Hamas is important not only for the sake of bringing quiet to the border with Gaza, but also in order to create the basis for establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Since Israel evacuated the Gaza Strip, there have been worrying signs that the Hamas government in Gaza is losing the ability to distinguish the possible from the impossible, and Israel's military blows are not only failing to sober up Hamas, but actually strengthening its martyr-driven aggressiveness. How did it happen that in the wake of Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, violence exploded? There are religious fanatics everywhere, but not every fanatical government exposes itself, unnecessarily, to the devastating response of the Israeli army, one of the strongest militaries in the world.

To understand and perhaps try to change Hamas' behavior, which has more than a smidgen of suicidal urge, Israel must hold genuine, direct talks with Hamas. Just as the "terror organization" PLO turned into the Palestinian Authority, so it is worth treating the Hamas "terror organization" as the Hamas government.

Underlying Hamas' behavior is a contradiction: On the one hand, there throbs a justified feeling of heroism and strength since they managed to get the settlers and Israeli army out of Gaza without any pre-conditions. On the other hand, there is a feeling of deep frustration that that very act brought upon them a profound blockade, within a narrow territory, cutting them off not only from Israel but mainly from their people in the West Bank.

And so, encouraged by their success in tossing the Israelis out of the Strip, they think they can oust them from the rest of the "conquered lands," or at least force them to lift the siege. But because they have no faith in Israel and they believe that dividing the Palestinian people into two parts is in Israel's interest, and they know that Israel will never again try to govern Gaza - instead of trying to rebuild the Gazan economy, stop the violence, and build a normal life (and thus perhaps convince the Israelis to enable them to link up with their brethren in the West Bank), they choose the way that has proven itself in the past in Gaza: unremitting aggression.

For all the cease-fire, neither side has a sense that the cycle of violence is over. The suicidal element now evident in Gaza can lead, with the nefarious support of Iran, to more death and destruction. Therefore it is imperative to try, by stopping demonization on both sides and by direct negotiations, to reach the outline of an agreement between Israel and Hamas that will be based on four principles:

- Hamas' accepting strict international supervision over demilitarization of the Strip of all offensive high-trajectory weapons.

- Opening the passage between the Gaza Strip and Egypt.

- Opening Israel's border to the controlled entry of Palestinian workers.

- Gradually opening the safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank, based on the rules set in the Oslo Accords, in order to begin to restore Palestinian unity. This will lay the basis for negotiations with Israel, since the PA cannot reach a peace agreement with Israel without the participation of Hamas.

Decisions of great national importance call for broad national support. This has applied to Israel, both in heading to war and signing peace agreements, and so it has been for many peoples in history. Talking with Hamas and gradually restoring its ties to the Palestinian people in the West Bank is essential both in order to eventually reach an agreement on two states for two peoples, as most of the people of Israel want, and in order to prevent the slow but continuous slide toward a bi-national state.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshal.Credit: AP

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