“Who do you want to see?” asked the Salafi Jihadists holding their AK-47s at the gate.
“Hamas leaders,” I replied.
“Why Hamas? Why not our Jihadi brothers?” the guard asked.
“Well, Hamas are in government in Gaza.”
“They won’t be in future,” he responded. “They have sold out and become agents of the Israelis, and in years to come we will govern Gaza. Be sure to meet our brothers here in the camp, too.”
The guard then gave me directions to a safe house where someone could take me to Hamas.
This was last summer. I was visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut for book research. It took me two more days to locate Hamas leadership. Inside the camp, just as in Gaza, Hamas had a wide network of schools, financiers, mosques, makeshift hospitals, readily available doctors, banking services, and support for orphans and widows. We in the West deem Hamas a terrorist organization. Yes, one part of it is committed to terrorism, killing innocent civilians in the pursuit of political aims, but we are mistaken if we continue to limit our definition by one aspect of Hamas.
Unless we better understand Hamas, we cannot help halt the killings of Israelis and Arabs in the Middle East. Hamas is not a monolith, nor is it only a terrorist group: It is a social movement, with a mass membership, a popular message of resistance that resonates across the Muslim world, and a political party with which we must negotiate.
“When the Israelis were fighting Yasser Arafat and the PLO, the Arabs were losing,” the Hamas leader — whose name I must withhold — told me. “We saw them abandon anti-aircraft missiles here in Beirut in the 1980s. But now, with Hezbollah and Hamas, we fight to die, to kill. We believe in martyrdom. We don’t flee from the battlefield.”
To my Hamas hosts, Israel’s operation in Lebanon in 2006, or its attack on Gaza in 2009, were huge victories. “We are now winning. We fight Israel and want to fight again and again.” This strong belief that they are victorious is in itself a loss for Israel: It has failed to weaken Hamas.
Fighting and killing have been a curse to Israel’s existence over the last six decades. The trajectory has been to make Israel weaker and more hated around the world; to popularize the ideology of radicalism amid Muslims and fuel anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Israel cannot kill itself into security or survival. It must learn the language of peace and co-existence.
For how much longer will we in the West continue to damage our own standing in the nearly 2 billion-strong Muslim world as our ally Israel delivers dead children and destroyed schools to Muslim television screens?
Israel killed Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004, along with several bodyguards, and then his successors, promising us that this would help reduce violence and terror. Almost a decade later, Hamas is not only strong and vibrant, in government since 2007, but lobbing rockets at Jerusalem and kidnapping Israeli soldiers. In short, Hamas is strong and growing psychologically stronger, while Israel has failed to achieve its peace and security.
Worse, contrary to what many believed, Hamas was not weakened when Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy, a supporter, was toppled in July 2013. Morsy made many mistakes, but President Obama’s telephone calls to him helped bring Hamas to the table and secure a cease-fire in 2012 much sooner.
Israel does not deserve all the blame. Arab political and religious leaders, despite historic grievances, have a duty to recognize that Israel is their neighbor. Israel is part of the mosaic of the modern Middle East. A change in tone and tenor and a public embrace of Israel by religious leaders will calm the nerves of an anxious Israeli population.
In the end, Israel has limited options. Peace is not possible without Hamas, and Hamas is not a simple terrorist outfit. Its political arm, its leadership inside and outside Gaza, despite their tensions, are open to indirect talks with Israel.
Just as the British and American governments negotiated peace in Northern Ireland by reaching out to IRA terrorists through their political wing of Sinn Fein, we must tame Hamas through politics, not the failed strategy of war.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad were among the Palestinian groups that met in Cairo Sunday and reached a 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire agreement brokered by Egyptian officials.
Here, the European Union and the United States can work through Fatah, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and negotiate along the 2002 Arab peace plan suggested by Saudi Arabia.
Hamas must be brought in. Almost 2 million people in Gaza need our support. If we fail to bring in Hamas and create a sustained peace that leads to prosperity for Palestinians and Israelis, then we must prepare for an enemy who is worse: Salafi Jihadis. And with Gaza, the popularity of the Salafi Jihadi message will spread far and wide.
My guard at the refugee camp insisted I speak with his brothers-in-arms. I did not, but I fear he might be right. Will Israel help itself and us, or hinder?
Ed Husain is the author of The Islamistand a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. . The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Ed Husain.