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Is it time to destigmatise talks with Hamas?

For many years, negotiating with Hamas was seen as a taboo concept within the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. Just over ten years ago, Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in Gaza and since then, civilians have been suffering as a result of a blockade and wars that have led to all Gazan children aged eight and under growing up knowing war and the devastating aftermath that comes with it. The UN has estimated that Gaza will be uninhabitable in less than four years.

Gaza fell into a humanitarian catastrophe following the last Israeli offensive in 2014. Trapped between Egyptian and Israeli aggression, Gazans have been left without water, food or other basic needs. Some 97 per cent of the water in Gaza is unfit for consumption at a time when an increasing number of Gazans live under the poverty line, leaving them unable to afford bottled water. Imprisoned by political violence, hospitals are running out of supplies and patients have been left unable to get the treatment they need.

All of this has been done to ensure Israel's security and to force the people of Gaza to choose between what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls "Hamas and peace".

For Netanyahu and his allies, talking to Hamas is an endorsement of the movement's goal to achieve a Palestinian state along the pre-1948 borders. The Hamas Charter rejects one of the fundamental pillars of the 1993 Oslo Agreement: a two-state solution. With Oslo in mind, it would be fair to say that a political administration that is not willing to recognise Israel should be excluded from the peace process; however, the current Israeli government is also a political administration that does not believe in a two-state solution. During Netanyahu's election campaign last year, he explicitly stated that there will be "no Palestinian state" if he was elected.

Despite all of this, there has been an increase in the number of Western and Israeli officials calling for talks with Hamas. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Efraim Halevy, director of Mossad until 2002, stressed the need for talks with Hamas. He said that top Israeli generals believe Hamas' presence in Gaza is "the best situation for Israel" because there is no alternative other than anarchy.

During the Israeli offensive on Gaza in 2014, politicians the world over called for negotiations with Hamas. One of them was the former leader of the British Liberal Democrats party Nick Clegg who urged the Israeli government to at least end the blockade and find a way to contain Hamas without resorting to inducing a humanitarian catastrophe.

Former EU Middle East envoy for Peace, Tony Blair, mediated secret talks between Hamas and Israel to end the siege on the Gaza Strip last August. Such moves prove a shift exists from seeing the group as a rogue, anarchic terrorist organisation to realising its strong political influence.

Former US President Jimmy Carter and the former Irish President Mary Robinson wrote an article in Foreign Policy calling for a change in attitude towards Hamas. "Concurrently, the United States and EU should recognise that Hamas is not just a military but also a political force," they explained. "Hamas cannot be wished away, nor will it cooperate in its own demise."

Only by destigmatising talks with Hamas, negotiations which are evidently already taking place in secret, will there be a legitimate way to achieve short term strategic and humanitarian goals to end the suffering of the people of Gaza.

Blair's former advisor Jonathan Powell, who played a crucial role in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, has been a long standing supporter of negotiating with the military opposition, even if they refuse to meet each other, mainly for humanitarian reasons. "The longer the ceasefire, the harder it is to go back to killing," he says in his book Talking to Terrorists.

From denying Palestinian statehood to an unwillingness to live with Palestinians because "there is no coexisting with cancer," the evidence is absolutely clear that the Israeli government is not willing to even humanise Palestinians let alone grant them their autonomy.

On its part, Hamas believes that although "there are periods in the conflict when negotiations with the enemy are required," its long term stance is that negotiations which "can serve the strong but not the weak" are rejected, the movement's leader Khaled Meshaal said.

It's important to recognise that even if Hamas were to be destroyed militarily, as long as the conditions that enticed support for the movement exist, it would be impossible to crush Palestinian resistance.

It is clear that Palestinians have not forgotten about the 1948 Nakba or UN Security Council Resolution 194 which calls for their right to return. Rather than forgetting, Palestinians at home and in exile continue to mourn the Nakba, which still has a significant effect on their lives. The crimes that occurred before, during and following the establishment of Israel are becoming better known by the international community, making them harder to forget.

As long as the legal and humanitarian rights of Palestinians are not addressed, Palestinian resistance movements will continue to emerge if Hamas were to be defeated.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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