While the hope that Hamas could somehow be lured away from its genocidal agenda seems to be gaining wider currency, not only is the destruction of Israel not a bargaining chip, it is the heart of the matter.
Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, sees the struggle for Palestine as neither an ordinary political dispute between two contending nations (Israelis and Palestinians), nor even as a struggle for national self-determination by an indigenous population against a foreign occupier. Rather, it sees Palestine as but one battle in a worldwide holy war to prevent the fall of a part of the House of Islam to infidels.
In the words of Hamas foreign minister Mahmoud Zahar: "Islamic and traditional views reject the notion of establishing an independent Palestinian state....In the past, there was no independent Palestinian state....[Hence], our main goal is to establish a great Islamic state, be it pan-Arabic or pan-Islamic."
Hamas' extreme belief that a perpetual state of war exists between it and anyone, either Muslim or non-Muslim, who refuses to follow in the path of Allah does not permit it to respect, or compromise with, cultural, religious, and political beliefs that differ from its own. Its commitment to the use of violence as a religious duty means that it will never accept a political arrangement that doesn't fully correspond to its radical precepts.
No sooner had former U.S. President Jimmy Carter emerged from his Damascus meeting with Khaled Mashaal to declare Hamas' readiness to accept the Jewish state as a "neighbor next door" than the radical Islamist group demonstrated what its vision of peaceful coexistence meant by making the most ambitious attempt to kidnap Israeli soldiers and detonating two car bombs at a border crossing used for the introduction of vital foodstuffs and humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, Hamas' foreign minister, Mahmoud Zahar, reasserted the organization's commitment to Israel's destruction through demographic subversion (i.e., the "right of return") and vowed to continue the "armed struggle" against "the foundational crime at the core of the Jewish state." Attalah Abu Subh, Hamas' culture minister, amplified this assertion. "Everything we see in the Arab region and around the world - the evil of the Jews, their deceit, their cunning, their warmongering, their control of the world, and their contempt and scorn for all the peoples of the world," he argued, "is based on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion - the faith that every Jew harbors in his heart."
The notion that Hamas' co-option into a political process aimed at stifling its overriding goal of destroying Israel will make it more hopeful and less despairing is a contradiction in terms. Yet the hope that Hamas could somehow be lured away from its genocidal agenda seems to be gaining wider currency. A bipartisan group of former U.S. officials, led by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, have been calling for "a genuine dialogue" with Hamas.1 Former Secretary of State Colin Powell told National Public Radio last year that some way must be found to talk to Hamas.2
Some Israelis have also joined the chorus calling for talks with Hamas. "Before we are dragged into Gaza, we must exhaust the other possibility," wrote journalist Ari Shavit. "We should offer Hamas a deal: an Islamic republic in Gaza in exchange for full demilitarization. A full and fulfilling life for a Muslim community of brothers, in exchange for giving up violence and arms altogether."
Shavit is aware that his proposal is likely to be rejected, as Hamas "tends to prefer the deaths of Israelis over the lives of Palestinians." Yet he believes that "if there is any chance of a frank negotiation with Hamas, this is the path the talks should take. Not a Carter-style illusion, not the temporary tactic of a passing tahdiye (truce), but a tough deal with tough terms. A street deal. A deal with thugs. A deal meant to give those who live on the other side of the fence a genuine opportunity to lay down the sword, pick up the Koran and become real neighbors."
But why should Hamas pay a price, any price, for something it already has? It needs no Israeli consent to establish an "Islamic republic" in Gaza. It did precisely that in early 2006, to Israel's abhorrence, and is probably in a position to replicate this success in the West Bank, the only inhibiting factors being considerations of political expediency and Israel's effective counterinsurgency measures. It can likewise obtain peace and quiet for its Gaza subjects at any given moment if it stops the rocket attacks on Israeli towns and villages and sends no "holy warriors" to blow themselves up among Israeli civilians.
Nor is Israel in a position to reach "a street deal," given the steady erosion of its deterrent prowess since the Oslo years, and especially after the hurried flight from south Lebanon on May 24, 2000, which was instrumental in triggering the so-called "al-Aqsa Intifada" and in inaugurating Hizbullah's military buildup, and numerous provocations, along Israel's northern border, that culminated in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. This war, and the thousands of rockets raining down on Israel's southern localities during the past eight years, despite countless Israeli threats of harsh retribution, afford a foretaste of Palestinian and Arab abidance by a "peace of the thugs."
Above all, not only is the destruction of Israel not a bargaining chip, it is the heart of the matter. Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, sees the struggle for Palestine as neither an ordinary political dispute between two contending nations (Israelis and Palestinians), nor even as a struggle for national self-determination by an indigenous population against a foreign occupier. Rather, it sees Palestine as but one battle in a worldwide holy war to prevent the fall of a part of the House of Islam to infidels. In the words of Mahmoud Zahar: "Islamic and traditional views reject the notion of establishing an independent Palestinian state....In the past, there was no independent Palestinian state....[Hence], our main goal is to establish a great Islamic state, be it pan-Arabic or pan-Islamic."
Hamas' charter not only promises that "Israel will exist until Islam will obliterate it," but presents the organization as the "spearhead and vanguard of the circle of struggle against World Zionism [and] the fight against the warmongering Jews." The document even incites anti-Semitic murder, arguing that "the Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: 'O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.'"
There's more. According to its charter, Hamas was established not merely to "liberate Palestine from Zionist occupation" or to wipe out Jews, but to pursue the far loftier goals of spreading Allah's holy message and defending the "oppressed" throughout the world: "The Islamic Resistance Movement will spare no effort to implement the truth and abolish evil, in speech and in fact, both here and in any other location where it can reach out and exert influence."
Hamas' extreme belief that a perpetual state of war exists between it and anyone, either Muslim or non-Muslim, who refuses to follow in the path of Allah does not permit it to respect, or compromise with, cultural, religious, and political beliefs that differ from its own. Its commitment to the use of violence as a religious duty means that it will never accept a political arrangement that doesn't fully correspond to its radical precepts. As the movement's slogan puts it: "Allah is [Hamas'] goal, the Prophet its model, the Koran its Constitution, Jihad its path and death for the cause of Allah its most sublime belief."
Hamas certainly sees itself as part of the larger network of jihadi movements struggling with the West. Mahmoud Zahar has expressed the hope that Hamas' victories in Gaza will inspire the mujahideen in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, Khaled Mashaal declared in a Damascus mosque in early 2006: "We say this to the West, which does not act reasonably, and does not learn its lessons: by Allah, you will be defeated." He added: "Tomorrow, our nation will sit on the throne of the world." He has lashed out at Western powers for helping the persecuted C hristians of East Timor and for opposing Sudan's genocidal campaign in Darfur. Thus, Hamas identifies with global Islamist causes.3
All this raises the question of how a Western diplomatic embrace of Hamas would impact on the larger war on terrorism. Legitimizing a jihadi group of this sort would undoubtedly undermine the broader struggle against Islamism, and deepen the doubts of many people in the Middle East and South Asia about the determination of the West to neutralize the current threat they all face at present.
Hamas is plainly not an organization whose ideology can be integrated into any political process without undermining democracy and poisoning the norms of civil society. Hamas is not interested in peace with Israel; indeed, Mashaal has plainly stated that any tahdiye, or state of calm, is really "a tactic in conducting the struggle."4 Unfortunately for Israelis and Palestinians alike, that is not something the wishful thinking of well-meaning pundits and even former U.S. presidents can change.
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3. Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan D. Halevi, "Understanding the Direction of the New Hamas Government: Between Tactical Pragmatism and Al-Qaeda Jihadism," Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 5, No. 22, April 6, 2006, http://www.jcpa.org/brief/brief005-22.htm.
4. "Hamas Chief Sees Truce as a 'Tactic'," Associated Press, April 27, 2008.
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Professor Efraim Karsh is Head of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Studies at King's College, University of London, and a member of the Board of International Experts of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. His most recent book is Islamic Imperialism: A History (Yale University Press, 2007).
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