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Hamas is a Mideast reality
Now that the guns have fallen silent and the dust is settling over Gaza, it is time to revisit the received wisdom in Israel, the United States and some European quarters that Hamas is a monolithic, Al Qaeda-like terrorist organization bent on Israel's destruction and that, therefore, Israel has no choice but to isolate Hamas and use overwhelming force to overcome it.
In fact, there is substantial evidence to the contrary. Far from a monolith, there are multiple clashing viewpoints and narratives within Hamas. Over the years, I have interviewed more than a dozen Hamas leaders inside and outside the Palestinian territories. Although, on the whole, Hamas' public rhetoric calls for the liberation of all historic Palestine, not only the territories occupied in 1967, a healthier debate occurs within.
Nuanced differences exist among Hamas' leaders, some of whom have repeatedly said they wanted a two-state solution.
In the last year, more and more Hamas moderates have called for tahdia (a minor truce) or hudna (a longer-term truce), which obviously implies some measure of recognition. Hamas moderates, in effect, are justifying their policy shift by using Islamic terms. In Islamic history, hudnas sometimes develop into permanent truces.
Considered a hard-liner, Khaled Meshaal, the top Hamas leader and head of its political bureau based in Syria, acknowledged as much. "We are realists," he said. And he acknowledged that there is "an entity called Israel."
Another senior Hamas leader, Ghazi Hamad, went even further than Meshaal, telling journalists last month that Hamas would be satisfied with ending Israeli control over the areas occupied in the 1967 Six-Day War -- the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. In other words, the organization would not hold out for the liberation of the land that currently includes Israel.
My conversations with Hamas' rank and file suggest that the militant organization has evolved considerably since the group unexpectedly won power in Gaza in free elections in 2006. Before that, Hamas was known for its suicide bombers, not its bureaucrats. But that had to change. "It is much more difficult to run a government than to oppose and resist Israeli occupation," a senior Hamas leader told me while on official business in Egypt in 2007. "If we do not provide the goods to our people, they'll disown us."
Despite its wooden and reactionary rhetoric, Hamas is a rational actor, a conclusion reached by former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who also served as Ariel Sharon's national security advisor and who is certainly not an Israeli peacenik. The Hamas leadership has undergone a transformation "right under our very noses" by recognizing that "its ideological goal is not attainable and will not be in the foreseeable future," Halevy wrote recently in Yedioth Ahronoth. His verdict is that Hamas is now ready and willing to accept the establishment of a Palestinian state within the temporary borders of 1967.
Similarly, a U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute analysis published just weeks before the launch of the Israeli offensive concluded that Hamas was considering a shift of its position. "Israel's stance toward [Hamas] ... has been a major obstacle to substantive peacemaking," concluded the study.
If Hamas is so eager to accept a two-state solution, why doesn't it simply announce that it recognizes Israel's existence and promise to negotiate a peace deal that allows the two countries to coexist? Apparently, Hamas' leaders believe that accepting Israel's presence is the last card in their arsenal. Why bargain it away before the talks even start?
So what happens now? President Obama, saying he wants to "get engaged right away" in the issue, has already dispatched his special envoy, former Sen. George J. Mitchell, to the Middle East to talk to "all the major parties involved." But, although Mitchell will make a stop in the West Bank, he will not venture into Gaza or meet with Hamas officials, according to a State Department spokesman.
Is that wise? Isn't that just a prescription for more of the same? What if, instead of ignoring Hamas or, worse yet, seeking its overthrow, the United States and Europe engaged the militant organization, diplomatically and politically, and encouraged it to continue moderating its views?
So far, the strategy of isolating and militarily confronting Hamas pursued by Israel and the Bush administration has not appeared to weaken the organization dramatically; if anything, it has strengthened hard-liners within and reinforced the culture of extremism and martyrdom.
There is no doubt that Hamas' reckless rocketing of populated Israeli towns, as well as its overheated rhetoric, have allowed Israeli leaders to portray their assault on Gaza as an extension of the global war on terrorism. But there are huge differences between Hamas and Al Qaeda, and a lot of bad blood. Hamas is a broad-based religious/nationalist resistance whose focus and violence is limited to Palestine/Israel, while Al Qaeda is a small, transnational terrorist group that has carried out attacks worldwide. Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's chiefs, have vehemently criticized Hamas for its willingness to play politics and negotiate a truce with Israel. Hamas' leaders have responded that they know what is good for their people.
Unlike Al Qaeda, Hamas is not merely an armed militia but a viable social movement with an extensive social network and a large popular base that has been estimated at more than half a million supporters and sympathizers.
If it won't engage Hamas, the U.S. and Europe will never know if it can evolve into an open, tolerant and peaceful social movement.
But most important, there can be no durable resolution of the 100-year-old conflict if Hamas is not consulted about peacemaking and if the Palestinians remain divided. Like it or hate it, Hamas is the most powerful organization in the Palestinian territories; it is deeply entrenched in society. Israel cannot wish it away.
To break the deadly embrace, the new U.S. administration and its European allies should support a unified Palestinian government that could negotiate peace with Israel. Some of Obama's advisors are on record saying that they favor dialogue with organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some even believe that the president may feel the same way, though he has not said so. If they are wrong, and Obama thinks that a "durable peace" can be achieved without talking to Hamas, he will be in for a rude awakening.
Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern studies and international affairs at Sarah Lawrence College. His most recent book is "Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy."