Ever since Hamas came to power in 2006, calls have come from across the political spectrum stressing the necessity of engaging with the democratically elected Islamic movement. In the September/October edition of 'Foreign Affairs', Daniel Byman, Professor in the Security Studies Programme at Georgetown University and a Senior Fellow at Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, appears to add his voice to the chorus, penning an article entitled "How to Handle Hamas; The perils of ignoring Gaza's leadership".
In his analysis, Byman makes some significant points with the crux of his argument being that Hamas is here to stay and refusing to deal with it only makes matters worse. He argues that Hamas and its consolidation of power pose the greatest obstacle to peace. Thus, given the failed and outdated US strategy to weaken the movement and cause its collapse through isolation, combined with Israel's failing strategy of siege, military raids and targeted assassinations, the most sensible way forward would be the development of a new strategy to neutralize Hamas. Should this fail, Byman asserts that the international community must be prepared to support a military response by Israel.
The strategy of domestication
The proposed strategy, suggested as an alternative to the military overthrow of Hamas and the re-occupation of Gaza, argues for the exploitation of Hamas's vulnerabilities through a combination of coercion and concessions. It aims at securing a permanent ceasefire and is predicated upon Hamas' track record of adhering to past agreements and its desire to govern well. Hamas has also shown itself to be pragmatic, having stated a willingness to talk to Washington; it has declared that it would abide by past resolutions signed with Fatah, including one that honoured previous Palestinian accords with Israel. The movement has also stated that it would accept a sovereign Palestinian state within the UN demarcated 1967 borders. The leadership has thus demonstrated that it is not inflexible.
This stick and carrot strategy aims at getting Hamas to focus its efforts on governance and away from resistance. Weaknesses such as its lack of funds and the fine political line it walks between more extremist militant groups waiting in the wings should, it is argued, be used alongside promises such as the free flow of people and goods; prisoner exchanges; political power in the future and increased tacit international support, to convince it to relinquish resistance and, crucially, not to undermine the peace process.
Reforming Hamas into a "moderate" government
According to Byman, Hamas must be realistic, open to compromise and take into account the views of the Palestinian people in order to provide a better life for them. However, as Byman acknowledges, for the first time, Gaza has a real government that is representative and acts in accordance with the national interest. While Hamas may have lost some popularity following the Gaza war, the people do not appear to blame it for their difficulties. Moreover, Hamas has its finger on the pulse of the people that elected it to government as a response to the corruption and bad governance of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. This dynamic is reflected in Hamas's opposition to the now failed direct peace talks mirroring the overwhelming sentiment on the Palestinian street while Abbas, the "moderate", took part in talks without any pre-conditions.
The suggestion that the international community should support the PA and restart peace talks in order to ensure that Hamas does not win the power struggle is to suggest that an artificial status quo be engineered and imposed on the Palestinian people in direct opposition to their democratically asserted will. No doubt, part of Hamas's continued allure is that the people of Gaza do not perceive the leadership as "moderates", where the definition of a moderate leader is one who is pliable and able to be pressured and bribed into toeing the line even if that means relinquishing essential national rights. It also goes some way towards explaining why the people of Gaza have supported the Islamic movement over the traditional nationalists as it is represented today by the West Bank "moderates". Attempts to reform Hamas in the image of the PA and set it along the same road are doomed to rejection and thus failure, and will exacerbate not resolve issues of Palestinian unity.
Palestinian reconciliation and direct negotiations with Hamas?
Byman appears to suggest that a peace deal can be negotiated with the PA as long as Hamas does not undermine it; however, it is unclear whether he advocates negotiations that actually include Hamas. Accordingly, he suggests that in what is currently the unlikely event of reconciliation, Abbas could cut a deal for all Palestinians and argues that neither peace talks nor a ceasefire in Gaza should wait for national reconciliation. Moreover, he advocates maintaining a definite separation between Hamas and the PA so that they are entrenched as rivals to one another. This appears to be in line with Israel's stated goal of creating two separate political entities while maintaining and extending a physical separation of the people and continuing to advocate the marginalization of Hamas. This is somewhat at odds with Byman's acknowledgment that the US strategy of dividing the people then coddling one side while slapping down the other has failed; he appears to be reworking the same concept.
It is clear that no peace settlement with Israel can be had before there is full Palestinian national reconciliation. As evidenced by the recent attempts at direct talks, negotiations led by a weak and unrepresentative Palestinian negotiating team with limited legitimacy can only lead to unrest and failure.
Hamas, Israeli demands and the never-ending peace process
Peace talks are not a goal in themselves; the suggestion that Hamas's ability to scupper talks through the use of violence or otherwise makes it the greatest obstacle to peace misrepresents reality. The ongoing charade of the peace process with its grossly unfair and one-sided proposals has dragged on for eighteen years while facts being created by Israel on the ground continue to lessen the probability of the two-state solution and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Israel's current right-wing coalition government is less committed to a peace settlement than any previous government; this is evident by its pre-conditions to this round of negotiations in which it upped the ante once again by demanding recognition of Israel as a "Jewish state" at the same time that a law was passed in the Knesset requiring Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to swear an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Israel believed that this conflation demonstrated that the "enemies of peace" are just as active on the other side of the Green Line. This is not even to mention the asymmetry in the balance of power between the two sides; Israel cannot be pressured as it has nothing to lose while the Palestinian leadership is browbeaten, divided, weak and unrepresentative. Progress in the peace process can only be achieved through additional Palestinian concessions with far-reaching ramifications. Thus, while Hamas may be able to be convinced to pursue long-term peace with Israel through a ceasefire, it is unlikely it could be persuaded to support an unjust peace process and agreement.
Violence, security & the international community
Similarly, while violence on either side cannot be condoned, Palestinian violence often occurs in response to Israeli aggression. It is illogical to suppose that the drastically weaker, beleaguered Palestinians would attack Israel repeatedly if they were not provoked. Let us not lose sight of who the Occupier and the Occupied are. Moreover, Israel's siege mentality is used to justify their perceived need to 'hit back' constantly. The very same argument can be applied more convincingly to the Palestinians who are quite literally under siege. While Israel demands security for its people and a halt to Palestinian attacks, no doubt Hamas would like the same security for its people along with an end to military incursions and targeted assassinations, education for its children, medical services and freedom of movement, etc.
Despite the fact that Byman points out that the siege is failing even on its own terms, he asserts that should Hamas resort to violence, Israel would have a strong case for resuming the siege or using force. While he calls on support from the international community for the idea of formalizing a ceasefire and Israel's "right" to "retaliate", he appears to overlook the fact that international law deems the siege collective punishment and therefore illegal and that what he termed the considerable use of force during the war on Gaza, is regarded by the international community as a disproportionate use of force. Needless to say, the UN's Goldstone Report asserts that war crimes and possible crimes against humanity were perpetrated during the assault on Gaza. It is inconceivable that the international community could thus ever sanction Israel's "right" to wreak such wide scale death and destruction on Gaza a second time. Crucially, Byman fails to propose an answer to what the Palestinians should do as Israel gradually eats up their land and denies them their basic human rights.
Breaking Hamas' diplomatic isolation
Conventional wisdom has it that attacking Hamas will only strengthen it; indeed Hamas has consolidated power and is now stronger both politically and militarily than it was before the siege was imposed. Israel's deadly assault on the aid ship, the Mavi Marmara, along with the assassination of Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai has brought forward the end of the movement's diplomatic isolation. It is not without significance that its leader, Khalid Meshaal, met with the Russian president and a delegation from the Council of Elders recently.
Contrary to assertions that an end to the siege would put Hamas in a political situation whereby it would be forced to either give up governance or resistance, Hamas's record shows that it has the ability to be a force for stability; an end to the siege would allow it the opportunity to demonstrate its ability to govern effectively. The renunciation of resistance would be politically and economically far too costly – potentially as much for Israel as for Hamas in terms of the rise of groups like al-Qaeda. Moreover, should Hamas give up its right to resistance, as paltry as it may be in comparison to the might of Israel, it would also be relinquishing its only deterrence and would thereby tip the balance of power even further toward Israel, turning any efforts towards an equitable and just peace into a distant dream.
A long-term ceasefire with Hamas, unlike the peace process, can only be secured on the basis of mutual interest and benefit. Therefore, unless Israel is willing to recognize and allow the exercise of Palestinian rights that are guaranteed to them under international law – then the resistance to its Occupation will continue.