Should Israel deal with Hamas?

Today’s topic: Should Israel deal with Hamas? Is Hamas a legitimate, democratically elected organization that cannot be ignored or a criminal, terrorist organization that should be shunned at all costs? Previously, Bisharat and Phillips discussed the high civilian casualty count in the Gaza Strip and what Israel is trying to accomplish with its offensive against Hamas.

Israeli apartheid sent Palestinians flocking to Hamas
Point: George E. Bisharat

I don’t like Hamas. The group’s charter articulates some vile notions, and its members have indiscriminately attacked Israeli civilians, thereby committing war crimes. I do not admire Hamas’ ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state in Palestine in which religious and ethnic minorities might be tolerated but would be politically subordinate to Muslims. States based on privilege for one ethnic or religious group over others violate equal rights, a fundamental democratic principle. For the same reason, I do not support Israel’s desire to continue as a “Jewish state” or to have the world consecrate this discriminatory goal. I believe in equality for all, regardless of race or religion. But that is a topic for another day.


Ironically, Israel had always dealt with Hamas. Israel fostered the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood -- out of which Hamas was born -- early in its occupation of the Gaza Strip. It did so to counterbalance Palestinian nationalist groups such as Fatah, which, at the time, offered firm resistance to Israeli military rule. Today, of course, Israel supports the weak (and corrupt, inept and compliant) Fatah-led Palestinian Authority against the stronger Hamas. Thus Israel consistently supports the weaker Palestinian group against the stronger, irrespective of ideology. This is classic “divide and rule,” a hallowed practice of colonizers and foreign occupiers globally.

Hamas won a parliamentary majority in Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006, a victory widely acknowledged as clean and fair. Palestinians voted for Hamas out of despair over Fatah’s failures and a desire for an honest, efficient administration that stood up for their national and human rights.

Many Palestinians demurred from Hamas’ violent tactics. But they also looked at the 15-year record of the “peace process” under Fatah leadership and saw their farmlands, homes and businesses in Jerusalem and the West Bank seized for Jewish settlements. They saw a “separation” -- that is, apartheid -- wall that Israel built on Palestinian land in defiance of a judgment of the United Nation’s International Court of Justice. They saw unending imprisonment of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, unchecked extrajudicial killings and proliferating check points that throttled economic activity and social life. In the West Bank city of Hebron, they witnessed fanatic and racist Jewish settlers committing what Israeli leaders have decried as “pogroms” against their Palestinian neighbors. In short, Palestinians had become less safe and less free than ever before.

Since the Hamas victory, Israel -- abetted by the U.S. and the European Union -- has done everything possible to subvert the democratic choice of the Palestinian people. Israel refused to surrender tax monies it collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. It clamped down on freedom of movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip, controlling its coast, air space and border and causing unemployment to soar to as high as 70%. The blockade -- an act of war in international law terms -- has progressively intensified. Israel has repeatedly bombed Gaza, killing dozens of Palestinians in early March 2008 alone, when Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai threatened them with a “shoah,” or holocaust, if rocket fire did not cease.

Israel is still the occupying power in Gaza by virtue of its “effective control” of the area. It has been economically strangling and terrorizing a people to whom it owes a duty of protection under international law. Its siege and current invasion constitute collective punishment, violating Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The refusal of Israeli leaders to deal with Hamas is unsurprising, given their long-term strategic goal of permanently controlling Jerusalem and most or all of the West Bank. But what they are truly dodging are the rights and the aspirations for freedom of the Palestinian people themselves, for whom Hamas is just the current proxy. Yet until Israel learns to treat Palestinians as humans with equal rights to security, dignity and prosperity, it will remain a pariah state in the Middle East. Had Israel only chosen to continue the June to December truce instead of torpedo it, Hamas may have been coaxed further toward responsible conduct. It is still not too late.

Critics of the Palestinian struggle for freedom sometimes lament the absence of a “Palestinian Mandela.” I lament the absence of an Israeli F.W. de Klerk. Both will be needed because -- through its withholding of equality from 1.2 million Palestinians citizens living inside Israel, its brutally violent repression of Palestinians in the occupied territories and its 60-year denial of the rights of ethnically cleansed Palestinian refugees to return to their homes -- Israel increasingly represents an acute variant of apartheid.

George E. Bisharat is a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.

Hamas should be dealt with -- on the battlefield
Counterpoint: James Phillips

Israel must deal with Hamas, which has become too powerful to ignore. But as long as Hamas continues its terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, Israel should deal with Hamas on the battlefield, not treat it as a legitimate government. A legitimate government interested in the welfare and safety of its own people wouldn’t needlessly expose them to the retaliatory actions of a stronger neighboring country by randomly showering rockets on its neighbor.

Hamas is a revolutionary movement more committed to destroying Israel than to building a Palestinian state. More precisely, it seeks to build an extremist Islamist state that will replace Israel, and it sees Gaza as a military and political base useful for accomplishing this end. Hamas isn’t a democratic organization. Its radical ideology asserts that the will of God (as interpreted by Hamas leaders) trumps the will of the people. It was willing to participate in the January 2006 Palestinian elections as a means to an end, but its ultimate goal is to establish an Islamist dictatorship.

Hamas should not have been allowed to participate in the 2006 elections. It rejects the 1993 Oslo Accords, which created the Palestinian Authority and made the elections possible. And it refused to dismantle its militia and remains totally committed to a hate-filled ideology that is incompatible with democracy. Hamas may have gained some limited political legitimacy by participating in the elections. But it lost that legitimacy when it staged a coup against the Palestinian Authority in June 2007 after sporadic clashes with its Fatah rivals -- clashes that killed more than 600 Palestinians from 2006-07.

Some Hamas apologists argued that it would be forced to moderate its radical ideology once it had attained power. But they have been proved wrong. Hamas remained implacably committed to an uncompromising jihad to obliterate Israel, regardless of the consequences of its belligerent policies for the hapless Palestinians who suffer under its repressive rule.

Hamas continues to reject calls for a cease-fire with Israel, just as it rejected Egyptian appeals last month for extending the previous six-month cease-fire, which it ended on Dec. 19. As long as Hamas continues to bombard Israeli civilians, no cease-fire is possible. And as long as Hamas remains committed to its revolutionary Islamist ideology and continues its illegal and immoral terrorist attacks, it cannot be considered an acceptable negotiating partner for Israel.

Nor should the United States engage Hamas diplomatically, as recent reports suggest that the Obama administration is contemplating. An American diplomatic embrace of Hamas before the organization has disavowed terrorism and recognized Israel would only provide Hamas a boost, allow it to further consolidate its hammerlock on Palestinian politics in Gaza and undermine the more pragmatic Palestinian Authority.

Washington should hold Hamas to the same standards to which it held the Palestine Liberation Organization before it engaged with the PLO in the 1990s: a halt in terrorist attacks and recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Anything less would reward Hamas for its terrorism and destroy the already slim chances of negotiating a stable and genuine Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Moreover, any diplomatic move to engage Hamas before it has abandoned terrorism and accepted the possibility of peace with Israel would leave civilians on both sides of the Gaza-Israel border at risk of perishing in future spasms of violence, which will be inevitable if Hamas’ terrorist strategy is not defeated and discredited.

James Phillips is a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation.