By Azzam Tamimi, the director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought and the author of Hamas: Unwritten Chapters. See also Ulter’s lesson for the Middel East (THE GUARDIAN, 05/11/07):
David Trimble cannot be accused of lacking knowledge of what the Irish problem was about; he had been part of the problem as well as the solution. However, his lack of expertise on the Palestinian problem – which he admitted on the BBC’s Newsnight recently – surely renders him ill qualified to insist, as he did on these pages recently, that Hamas should be excluded from any talks until it first complies with the conditions of the Quartet (the US, Russia, EU and UN): recognition of Israel, repudiation of violence and recognition of past agreements between Israel and the PLO.
Trimble’s warning against learning the wrong lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process derives from the assertion that the process was based on clear preconditions. Others involved in the process, such as Michael Ancram, Stephen Byers, Lord Alderdice, Peter Hain and Alastair Crooke, have refuted this claim. In any conflict, what really matters is first to secure a cessation of violence and to persuade the parties to negotiate how to live in peace.
Had the IRA been asked to sign up to the same conditions imposed on Hamas today, no peace would ever have prevailed in Northern Ireland, and Britain might still have been subject to IRA attacks. Hamas is being asked to accept that it is legitimate for Israel to occupy the homes of Palestinians and to deny them the right to return to these homes. It is asked to renounce violence while the Israelis are under no obligation to reciprocate. It is asked to recognise agreements that have been humiliating and detrimental to Palestinians. What would remain to discuss were these conditions met? And what guarantees are there that the result would be peace?
Trimble’s Conservative Friends of Israel publication, Misunderstanding Ulster, might have been intended as a service to Israel at a time when an increasing number of Middle East experts are urging western governments to talk to Hamas. They advise that no peace can be conceived in Palestine without engaging the democratically elected government.
Since it was born out of the first intifada in December 1987, Hamas has grown in strength. The 1991 Madrid conference and the 1993 Oslo accords were to some extent responses to its emergence and aimed at killing it in its infancy. Today, both Madrid and Oslo are dead while Hamas is more alive than ever. Brutal campaigns by Israel to eradicate it have only made it stronger. Hamas’s Palestinian rivals, the PLO and its backbone Fatah movement, have been losing popularity despite having been provided with political, military and financial support by the US and its allies as a reward for giving up resistance, recognising Israel’s right to exist and conceding Palestinian rights.
Trimble and his Israeli friends need to learn that you cannot make peace by forcing people to relinquish their basic rights and legitimate aspirations. You cannot make peace by denying people their essential needs, by threatening to cut supplies of power, fuel and water. Hamas has gained the trust of the Palestinians principally because it refuses to extinguish the hope that one day Zionist colonisation of Palestine will be no more. Here, at least, is one parallel: the IRA too never agreed to give up the dream that one day Northern Ireland will be reunited with the republic.
Dreams notwithstanding, peace may still be achieved by talking about how to coexist. The siege, the sanctions and the collective punishment only encourage a backlash, perhaps even a third intifada. The Palestinians have been left with little else to lose.