The news from Palestine this week seems to be all about Hamas and what is sometimes described as “the decision by Mahmoud Abbas to integrate Hamas into Palestinian politics” and sometimes as “Hamas’s historic compromise”. Which is it, and does it matter?
Hamas’s stated objective is to establish an Islamic state in historic Palestine. It doesn’t sound as thought there’s much possibility of compromise there. But in practice their actions vary a great deal. They have indeed used extreme violence on many occasions, but they have also been capable of much subtler responses in the context of the many ceasefires they have participated in. And they certainly can’t be ignored — they have great and growing support, especially in Gaza.
The security-first view of this situation is to say, first, that the apparent flexibility is just a front, their intentions never change, and they must be militarily destroyed. Since the IDF couldn’t do that even with its virtually unlimited firepower and ruthlessness (look at these statistics), Israel has handed the job over to Mahmoud Abbas, demanding that he “disarm” (i.e. defeat) Hamas in order to prove his good intentions. Note that Israel is demanding that the PA must succeed where she failed in this, and it must do it with a security apparatus that the IDF itself virtually destroyed in the various incursions. That’s chutzpah.
The second response to Hamas’s success is that its popularity shows that “the Arabs” support the demand to drive Israel into the sea. A lot of Hamas’s popularity is due to its welfare work and its perceived lack of corruption, but it is true that many Palestinians do see the conflict as a win-lose situation. Either we beat them, or they beat us — just as the Israel’s-security-first view has it. The problem in trying to convince them differently is that Israel offers no reward for peace: the settlement activity, the demolitions, the land confiscations associated with the Wall — all continue, and together give a very clear message that the project of appropriating and controlling the West Bank is steaming ahead. It must be pretty hard to be preaching coexistence to Palestinians just now — and indeed if a former head of Israeli military intelligence can see a new intifada coming without big changes in Israel’s attitude, it can’t be that hard to foresee.
These two responses — Hamas must be destroyed, and the Palestinians must be taught not to support it — will only take Israel further down the endless road of bloody confrontation. Hamas has to be recognised as a fact of life, encouraged in the first place by Israel as a counterweight to the PLO, and now becoming a serious political rival to PLO/Fatah. The support it gets for violence is proportionate to the hopelessness of the people. To UK observers, the parallel with the Provisional IRA is irresistible. And look at the results of the politicisation of the Republican movement in the Northern Ireland: the political crisis is far from resolved and criminal activity is still a huge problem, but massive sectarian discrimination and the resulting bloody conflict are gone forever. Israel and the Palestinians could take the same road.
But for now Israel is going the opposite way, with results that are all too easy to predict.