Hamas at the Helm

Fotini Christia is a fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard. Sreemati Mitter works for the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy in Ramallah, West Bank (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 27/01/06):

On one side, there is the state of Israel, backed by Washington, which calls for the new Palestinian governing party, Hamas, to recognize Israel and renounce violence. On the other side is Hamas, which calls for the destruction of Israel and defends its right to use arms to combat Israeli occupation.

So is there any chance for negotiating any kind of peace between such entrenched sides? If ever there was a time of opportunity for the few remaining souls who have not given up on chances for Middle East peace, now might just be it.

On the day that Hamas won the Palestinian elections, it became a part of the same bureaucracy that it railed against for so long. It is one thing to send suicide bombers to kill innocent people in Tel Aviv cafés when you are a fringe, radical group. It is quite another thing to attack civilians when you control the government, as Hamas may be about to discover.

If Hamas does not stop its senseless attacks against Israeli targets, Israel will retaliate – as forcefully as it did when it laid waste to Nablus and other Palestinian cities after the intifada began in 2000. As angry as Palestinians are now about the tattered state of their affairs, it’s hard to imagine them staying content with a government that knowingly provokes the Israeli Army.

It could also be argued that Hamas can become a negotiating partner for Israel. Over the past year, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, has promised to crack down on violence. He has not been able to deliver, in part because his governing Fatah Party has been unable to tell Hamas what to do. Fatah and Abbas have been willing to say the words that Israel wants so dearly to hear. But they have been unable to deliver on the security that Israel so dearly needs to have.

Hamas is far better able to deliver on the deeds, if it should so choose. The problem is, it refuses to say the words.

So far, the Bush administration has made the right moves. The statement issued this week by the so-called quartet of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia calls for Hamas to “be committed to nonviolence, recognize Israel and accept the previous agreements and commitments,” like the Oslo accords and the “road map” peace plan, which calls for dismantling of armed groups like, well, Hamas. That’s a good start. The quartet also stopped short of immediately cutting off aid to the Palestinians, which would undoubtedly serve to push the Palestinians further into the arms of Iran. Presumably that decision can be made later – when a Hamas-dominated government is formed.

The United States should continue to press Israel to hand over the $50 million a month in tax and customs receipts it collects for the Palestinian Authority, if for no other reason than this is money that belongs to the Palestinians. The acting Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, may be trying to win an election by appearing tough, but pouring gas over an inflamed situation is not the way to go.

In the end, what happens will be up to the Palestinians and this new Hamas government that they have elected. No government should strap bomb belts to its young people and send them onto buses and into restaurants to kill others.