The recent assassination of a founder of Hamas’ armed wing, allegedly involved in the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, has strained relations between Britain and Israel, but is also a sad reminder of the wider repercussions of Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip. If Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world are to find a way to resolve the Middle East conflict, it must be on the basis of politics, diplomacy and a respect for human life.
A year after Operation Cast Lead, very little has changed on the ground. Hamas still refuses to reconcile with Fatah, recognise Israel, renounce violence, accept previous Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements or release Corporal Gilad Shalit, kidnapped from Israeli soil in June 2006. Israel, like Egypt, continues to restrict the type of goods entering Gaza in an effort to prevent Hamas’ manufacture of rockets and mortars, despite the hugely negative consequences this policy is having upon the people of the territory.
If we want to break this status quo, we need a new approach.
My experiences in Northern Ireland taught me a valuable lesson: extremists are adept at identifying grievances, exploiting them and then encouraging others outside the immediate environment to take up their cause. The greater the external groundswell of support, the more difficult it is to inject the momentum of change. That cycle was broken in Northern Ireland by a variety of factors, but the underlying key was that people had become tired of the never-ending killings and bombings. They had experienced the taste of a different, more prosperous future and they were prepared quietly to will their leaders to engage in the process of change. That dynamic allowed for the moment to be seized, sucking the extremists into a process they did not control and from which it was increasingly difficult to retreat.
I have spent the last six months chairing a Labour Friends of Israel project that has sought answers to how this process can be achieved in the Middle East and, in particular, how Hamas’s hold over the Gaza Strip can be loosened; how the humanitarian situation can be improved in the territory in a way that protects Israeli security; and ultimately, how we can move closer to a two-state solution.
First, change in the right direction can only be brought about if we take a realistic view of what Hamas stands for. If it is to be engaged with and be part of the future – and it seems to me that we are a long way from that possibility – it is important that it is not allowed to hide behind a false profile. There are those across the political spectrum who consistently call for diplomatic engagement with Hamas, comparing it to the IRA, the South African ANC or even the Palestinian Fatah movement. However, all those movements had their roots in deep-seated nationalism. Crucially, Hamas has a strong religious and specifically political Islamist dimension, prohibiting it from making deals over the land it regards as holy and tasking it with imposing theocratic rule over the people of that land.
We must therefore ask ourselves whether Hamas is capable of reform that is compatible with a negotiated peace. If not, we should bepaying attention to any emerging factions that do recognise that peaceful engagement is the only way forward. In this context, the demand that a full renunciation of violence precede any political engagement over a two-state solution is essential for ensuring that Hamas does not reap the benefits of international recognition without abandoning its goal of destroying Israel.
Second, we should view the adverse conditions in the Gaza Strip on a strategic as well as humanitarian level. Rather than being a force for change, the severe restrictions on movement and access are strengthening Hamas’ grip over the territory. Without access to imports, the people are reliant on items smuggled through tunnels that Hamas controls and profits from and, unable to export their produce and make an income, they are also dependent upon the charitable services Hamas provides. The challenge we now face is to open the territory in a way that benefits ordinary Palestinians, undermines Hamas’ rule and also protects Israeli security.
Rather than calling upon our government to condemn Israel for the impossible situation it finds itself in, the British left should be asking the international community to make a substantial offer to Israel and Egypt to assist them in monitoring and operating the crossings. While such an approach may require indirect and low-level communication with elements of the regime in Gaza, this should not be confused with political negotiations over the status of Israel and the Palestinian territories, necessarily reserved for those wholly committed to peace.
Finally, we need to prevent Hamas using terrorism to disrupt peace process negotiations. While the Quartet principles are vital for barring those not committed to a two-state solution, they do not inhibit Hamas’s use of violent spoiler tactics. To get beyond this impasse, a new framework for peace may be required, one that gives all parties a reason to reform.
In this context, the Arab Peace Initiative, through which the 22 Arab states have offered Israel normalised relations in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state, could be employed. While western demands that Hamas renounces violence may be falling on deaf ears, the Arab world, if it were to fully engage with the peace process, could convey that message with much greater force.
While recognising these three points, it is also important not to overlook the substantial progress the West Bank has experienced in recent years as a result of Israeli-Palestinian co-operation. Fatah has proved itself a partner for peace and, as such, has been able to deliver concrete economic and security benefits for its people, as well as for Israel. This is the best incentive that the people of Gaza have to shake off Hamas’s authoritarian rule, and it is therefore the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy that the left should be seeking to champion.
Adam Ingram, Labour MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow, and chair of the Labour Friends of Israel ‘Handling Hamas’ project.