by Mabel Grossi
“And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; that they might go by day and by night” (Exodus 13:21).
This time Israel called it Operation “Pillar of Cloud” (in Hebrew) referring to the Old Testament episode in which Moses led the Jews out of Egypt, saving them from slavery and protecting them with pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night, to lead them through the desert. But from whom is Israel protecting its citizens from? The only Pillars of Cloud I can think of in the last few days are the columns of thick smoke originated from the missiles and the dusty debris of destroyed houses in the Gaza Strip. Whereas, the Pillar of Fire at night are the frightening lights of the blowing bombs that illuminate the Gazans’ nights with terror. Protection and defense.Once more the legitimization of the use of brutal violence against an even worse enemy. Yes, because that is exactly how Hamas is seen, an unabashed anti-Semitic organization that is committed to wipe out Israel from the map and that uses Islamic fundamentalist ideology to foster armed resistance against unarmed Israeli civilians. Not to consider its long-standing alliance with terrorist Iran. So, if Israel is heavily bombing Gaza it is because of its sacred right to defend its people against a brutal terrorist enemy that is not capable of compromise and that does not know the meaning of non-violent resistance.
Fair enough, I would say. Unluckily, this is exactly the worst mistake that Israel and the U.S. government have done until now. Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip can be challenged on many levels especially when it comes to lack of human rights and political participation, as well as lack of personal freedom. However, the consideration of Hamas as a mere Islamic resistance movement grounded only in dogmatic belief must be shattered. And even if we want to belong to the mainstream of Western policymakers who agree on this, we could not but agree also that, in the end, many governments had their origins in groups that used terrorist methods as part of their struggle to gain national independence, and several terrorist leaders (including some former IRA members, Yitzhak Shamir, and Menachem Begin) have all been welcomed at the White House. We cannot forget that the U.S. government has tried to negotiate with the Taliban, which also relies on terrorism, to come to the table and have serious talks to end the war in Afghanistan. And today Western powers ask President Morsi to become a mediator in Gaza, forgetting that not long ago they had jailed members of the Muslim Brotherhood for being “fundamentalists” and “terrorists”. And today they sit together at the negotiation table, and maybe Hamas will be able to participate as well one day. Indeed, Hamas has done little to clean away this stigma of terror as it has repeatedly engaged in military raids against Israeli civilians. If Hamas considers these operations “legitimate resistance” against occupation, in the eyes of the international community they are terrorist actions that perpetuate the perception of the organization as incapable of compromise and non-violent actions.
When two democratically elected governments target civilians both should be labeled as terrorists. Both parties are breaking the social contract that is commonly endorsed in a democratic society which requires the democratically elected governments to provide protection to their citizens in exchange for civil obligations. But can they really be equal? I felt dismayed when I read about Hillary Clinton flying to Israel to have urgent talks with Netanyahu and Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) with the aim of finding a quick solution to this escalation of violence. Dismayed because I realized that even this time Hamas has not been included in the talking process. But then again, how can I be surprised if Hamas is not even recognized by the international community as a fundamental political game changer in the conflict?
Despite all the U.S attempts to ensure that Hamas is not recognized as a legitimate political movement, there have been signs that Hamas has undergone a significant transition towards pragmatism since 2006, slowly moving towards a possible two-states solution. In fact, in 2009, Khaled Meshal, the Hamas’s leader in Damascus, declared: “at a minimum, we demand the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital with full sovereignty within the 1967 borders, removing all checkpoints and achieving the right of return”. A similar statement was also made previously in 2007 in The Guardian by Gaza Prime Minister, Ismael Haniyeh: “the Palestinian National Unity government... envisages the establishment of an independent state on all the Palestinian land occupied by Israel in 1967, the dismantling of all the settlements in the West Bank, the release of all 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and the recognition of the right of all Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. If Israel is serious about peace, it has to recognise these basic rights of our people”. Even a more recent open letter sent by Gaza’s Deputy Foreign Minister in 2010 to the EU President, stated: “we have on numerous occasions committed ourselves to a peaceful solution culminating in a free, and independent Palestinian state on the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. We believe this is a basis for Europe and the Quartet to move forward in a way that incorporates all Palestinian factions and promotes Palestinian reconciliation on Palestinian terms and interests”.
Certainly, Hamas today bears little resemblance to the original movement founded in 1987-88, as its leaders have declined to embrace the Charter for several years and, as a matter of fact, the Charter is absent from any recent Hamas statement and it is not easily available in most Arabic websites connected to Hamas. Also, Hamas leaders have deemphasized the importance and relevance of the Charter as Khaled Mishal stated “the Charter should not be regarded as the fundamental ideological frame of reference”1. In addition, as Paola Caridi explains in her book “Hamas from resistance to government”, the Charter was written by the confident of Hamas’s founder Ahmad Yassin, Abdel Fattah Dukkan, without any official mandate or consultative process. But these declarations are not enough for Western governments that are still waiting for an official nullification of the Charter to prove the “moderate” character of the movement.
I just cannot see how the U.S could overlook such details about Hamas’ transition towards statehood. Instead of looking at Hamas on the basis of its outdated Charter, they might have realized that Hamas’s adherence to democratic principles based on Oslo Accords and its electoral success in 2006 is an effective sign of a transition towards a political movement that, de facto, accepts a two-state solution and the commitment to state building. Even the electoral campaign which preceded the elections focused not on violent resistance but on promises of judicial reform, better education, housing and health. Unlike the Charter, Hamas’ 2006 electoral manifesto2 made no mention of the destruction of Israel, on the contrary it stressed the importance of the implementation of administrative and civil rights, and it discussed economic issues for the attraction of foreign investments, the importance of civil society and finally it also designed an abstract concept of citizenship as the basis of government action. These are examples that do not differ greatly from political manifestos of secular parties.
But the U.S. still did not recognize its victory and tried its best to destabilize the new government’s positive intentions of building a coalition government with the defeated Fatah. The lack of recognition of Hamas as a political game changer prevents the prospects of Fatah-Hamas unity from being achieved and thus, to bringing stability to the region. Palestinian reconciliation and unity is fundamentally good for Israel too. And assuming that it is true that Israel wants peace more than land, then it needs a Palestinian neighbor that is not devastated by internecine war: who wants to live next door to a failed state?Ironically, Israel needs an effective Palestinian Government as much as Palestinians do. And then, there is also the odyssey of the un-negotiated ceasefire on the Gaza-Israel border. Hamas, unlike the way terrorist movement would act, accepted and respected unilateral ceasefires with Israel in 2003 and from 2005-2006. And in 2008 Hamas managed to negotiate a further ceasefire with Israel which is another attempt to demonstrate its willingness to suspend hostilities with Israel and also its ability to enforce agreements.
But contrary to the Western approach, Arab governments seem to be more farsighted as in recent months political embargos have given way to engagement. In December, Ismail Haniyeh, Prime Minister of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority in Gaza, embarked on a tour of the Mediterranean that included stops in Tunis, Cairo, and Istanbul. In mid-February, he was warmly received in Qatar, Bahrain, and Iran. At the same time the Hamas political bureau abandoned its headquarters in Syria also forsaking its long-standing alliance with Iran which is apparently supplying much less funding and material to Hamas. For the first time in many years Hamas can have a vision for the future, and enjoy a new diplomatic momentum and more sophisticated weapons that can threaten Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
In the end, the decade-long approach of ignoring, boycotting and suppressing Hamas must be viewed as a failure. Contrary to the aims of political isolationism, the approach has not significantly weakened Hamas, it has not succeeded in removing Hamas from power and, not only did it gave birth to more radical Salafist groups but it significantly weakened Hamas’ moderate voices. And, while Hillary Clinton meets Netanyahu to negotiate a ceasefire, more pillar of clouds are rising in Gaza but also in central Tel Aviv where a terrorist attack has just wounded 28 people, in a wider climate of terror that seems to bring no ending to this tale of violence, conflict and terrorism.
1AzzamTamimi, Unwritten Chapters (London 2007).
2Khaled Hroub, "A New Hamas Through Its New Documents," Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 35, pg. 15