Hamas and the prospects for a settlement

To say that Israel is sometimes its own worst enemy is to be reminded of Ernest Bevin’s famous retort when someone commented to him that Herbert Morrison, home secretary in the 1945 Attlee government and former leader of the London County Council, was ‘his own worst enemy’:  "Not while I’m alive he ain’t," growled Ernie.  Israel won’t be its own worst enemy, probably, as long as Hamas — and now apparently a clear majority of the Palestine electorate — are around.

Hamas’s spectacular victory has sparked a predictable debate in the chattering classes on whether this is a positive development which will ultimately augur well for "the peace process" (remember the peace process?), or whether it spells the end of dialogue and negotiations, giving the post-Sharon Israelis the green light to pursue with renewed vigour the unilateralist policies of their lost leader:  unilateral decisions, taken without consultation with the Palestinians or even, apparently, with their American paymasters, on crucial questions affecting any eventual settlement such as the extent, timing and manner of any Israeli withdrawals from the occupied territories, the opening of new settlements on the west bank with or without compensating closures of old ones and partial Israeli withdrawal from them, the future of Jerusalem, the future of the fence or wall built and manned by the Israelis to keep out the suicide bombers, much of it on Palestinian territory and thus constituting a de facto annexation of more Palestinian land to Israel, and so forth.  Even more than Israeli unilateralism, the brutality of much Israeli reaction to terrorist acts by the Palestinians (much reduced since Hamas declared its recent truce): the over-reaction to any movement of Palestinians close to the Israeli line, with the periodic shooting of young children and other innocent people by Israeli soldiers: and Israel’s policy of assassination of Hamas leaders from the air, often involving the deaths of innocent civilian bystanders — all these lay Israel open to justified criticism and condemnation in the west and especially in Europe.  Israel does indeed sometimes seem to be its own second or third worst enemy.

But awareness of Israeli excesses and brutality can’t justify some of the recent emetic attempts in parts of the western media and in the blogosphere to welcome the imminent installation as government of Palestine of Hamas, and to try to justify or excuse its utterly repugnant record and policies.  We have seen ignoble efforts to gloss over or deny the manifest incompatibility between Hamas’s aims and policies on the one hand and, on the other, the principles of any eventual settlement with Israel laid down in 1967 by the UN in Security Council resolution 242, still almost universally accepted as the last best and only hope for a peaceful end to this interminable conflict.  The essence of 242 is a bargain under which Israel withdraws its "armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" (the 1967 war) in exchange for Palestinian and Arab recognition of Israel’s right to "live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force".  Both sides have hitherto eventually accepted this deal, each of them however demanding evidence of the other fulfilling its side of the bargain before doing so itself.  But the arrival of Hamas as the new democratically elected administration of Palestine represents a fundamental change in the nature of that stand-off, since Hamas is committed to a rejection, not only of the Palestinian and Arab half of the bargain, but to Israel’s as well.  Hamas has so far resolutely refused to give up "threats or acts of force" as a means of achieving its objectives:  worse, it also rejects the recognition of Israel’s "right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries" even after an Israeli withdrawal from all the occupied territories.  Hamas regards the whole of Israel as illegally occupying Palestinian land, an occupation that can never be accepted and which can legitimately be resisted by all means including the use of force, like any other illegal occupation.  This is, of course, a wholly tenable and consistent view.  But it sends the whole of the hitherto accepted basis for any internationally accepted settlement back to the pre-1967 drawing board.  And it faces the world with two logically irreconcilable positions on the part of the parties to the conflict, one denying Israel’s right to exist at all, the other insisting on that right as its irreducible bottom line, as any conceivable Israeli government is bound to do.

Against this new and frightening impasse, the issue of the continuation of payments to the Palestine Authority by the US and the EU after Hamas assumes control of it pales into insignificance, although it has been the subject of much discussion and sophistry in the western media ever since the Palestinian election results became known.  Perhaps the most offensive piece of grovelling appeasement of Hamas in the arguments of the Arab-leaning media and blogosphere has been the extraordinary argument that since Hamas has won a democratic election, its policies and aims must be ‘respected’, since failure to respect them would amount to a neo-colonialist attempt by a still instinctively imperialist west to impose its ideas and values on an Arab people which has expressed its views in a democratic election.  Of course western governments must now reappraise their policies towards Palestine and Israel to take account of the tsunami that has just swept away the whole intricate framework constructed over the past 39 years as the basis for an eventual peaceful settlement.  But the fact of having won a democratic election can’t legitimise Hamas’s commitment to violence and to the elimination of the whole of the state of Israel.  Nor can it possibly be interpreted, as some dewy-eyed commentators have tried to do, as capable of bringing a peace settlement nearer.  As for the future of American and EU payments to the Palestine Authority once Hamas comes into office, it’s impudent to suggest that victory in a democractic election confers on Hamas a right to receive from foreign governments and their taxpayers a continuing subsidy in support of policies and aims that those governments regard as repugnant and wholly inimical to any hope of peace, or that to withdraw the subsidy would represent some kind of dishonourable failure on the part of our governments to uphold the principles of democracy that they profess.

Unless the responsibilities of government, combined with an urgent need to keep the dollars and euros coming in, bring about a sensational shift in Hamas policies and objectives (which most middle eastern experts seem to dismiss as almost inconceivable), it looks as if the best we can now hope for is a continuation and prolongation of the Hamas ‘truce’, i.e. its temporary suspension of violence against Israel, presumably in exchange for a similar suspension by Israel of its own use of violence against Palestinians.  But it’s an open question how long such a mutual truce could be sustained if even Hamas proves unable to control the activities of enthusiastic suicide bombers from smaller extremist Palestinian or other Arab groups, or freelances; or — even likelier — if Israel continues to expand settlements on the west bank and unilaterally seeks to impose a readjustment of the land borders between Israel and Palestine that would split Palestine into unviable bantustans and permanently exclude Palestinians from all parts of Jerusalem.  The arrival as the government of Palestine of Hamas, by any possible definition a terrorist organisation that practises deliberate violence against civilians[1],  goes uncomfortably far towards justifying the Sharonist assertion that in present circumstances Israel has no legitimate negotiating partner, no interlocuteur valable, on the Palestinian side, and therefore has no alternative but to proceed unilaterally to safeguard the security both of its people and of its borders.  With Hamas about to be installed in power, it looks very much as if all previous bets are off.

[1] It may fairly be countered that Israel too practises violence against civilians, and may therefore equally justly be labelled a terrorist state;  but at least Israel has a partial justification in claiming that it resorts to force only in self-defence and that it never deliberately targets civilians.  Hamas can argue that it practises violence only in resistance to illegal occupation, but that can’t excuse the deliberate targeting of civilians, outlawed under numerous international conventions and repugnant to all civilised people (including of course many Arabs and at least some Palestinians).


3 Responses

  1. Brian,A couple of points. It is wholly unrealistic in the short term to accept Hamas will alter its long held policy towards Israel.  It may be relevant that during the election in which they were swept to power,no mention was made of the  destruction of the Israeli state. They are also unlikely to improve on their "truce".I think we will just have to wait how the Hamas government is built . Far too early for the EU/US /UN to be making any rash decisions.The problem with cutting off the financial support to the P.A. is not as black and white as you suggest. Without funds the whole P.A., including the security forces, will be in grave difficulty. That has been made much worse by Israel’s decision today to "review" the policy of sending tax revenues to the P.A., and in the meantime, the funds are to be stopped.I’m pleased to see the EU has decided not to cut off the P.A. funds at the momentt

  2. matt says:

    Just a couple of points. As far as I am aware resolution 242 which reads:withdraw its "armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict" has the problem that by missing the definite article, it allows Israel to claim that a technical retreat of, say a couple of meters – whilst still occupying (and indeed zoning for planning) territories it took in the ’67 war – brings it into compliance.  A UN wording such as"armed forces from the territories occupied in the recent conflict"or even "armed forces from all the territories occupied in the recent conflict" would have been clearer. Hamas’ victory in the election seems to me a result of the failure of  Israel to negotiate with Fatah successfully. Clearly the lack of progress in the "land for peace" policy has driven the secular socialism of Fatah out and installed an Islamic party. It is interesting to compare with S. Africa in the sense that the aparthied leaders felt it was better to deal with the ANC leadership as it was rather than to wait for something more bloody and radical to take its place.Finally it is my understanding that the elections were for the P.A. and that the P.A. has responsibility for administering those areas under self-rule but has no remit to negotiate with Israel. My undertanding is that this negotiation can only legally take place with the PLO whose president (appointed rather than elected) Mahmoud Abbas also leads Fatah.  

    Brian adds:  (1) The famous ambiguity in UNSCR 242 that you correctly describe is a classic case of ‘constructive ambiguity’, reflecting the failure to agree between members of the Security Council and the parties to the conflict at the time on whether Israel should be required to withdraw from ‘all’ the territories it had occupied, or only ‘some’ of them.  In practice it has had to be fairly generally accepted that the precise revised boundaries of  Israel and the state of Palestine under any durable settlement will have to be determined eventually by negotiation, as envisaged by the so-called road map. (2) One needn’t unquestioningly endorse all Israel’s arguments to have some sympathy with its conclusion, backed by bitter experience, that neither Fatah nor the PLO nor the Palestine Authority preceding the recent elections was a valid negotiating partner, because of their consistent failure to honour promises made in the course of negotiations (whether through unwillingness or inability to stop terrorist attacks).  (3)  I doubt whether legal constraints on the technical right of any relevant group or institution to negotiate with Israel will be allowed to stand in the way of negotiations taking place once there seems to both sides to be a possible basis for negotiation without sacrificing the fundamental objectives of either.  At present no such basis seems to exist.  But it will be surprising if discreet and untrumpeted backstairs diplomatic talks between representatives of all the key groups don’t continue, however thin their prospects of progress now that Hamas has won the election.

  3. Oliver Miles says:

    There is as usual any amount of room for argument about the position taken by the two sides. For example, your suggestion that they have accepted the bargain outlined in 242, subject to a bit of ambiguity, begs the question "when did Israel accept withdrawal from East Jerusalem?"
    These arguments will go on and on.
    But surely the point about the present conjuncture is that with new leaders emerging on both sides we have come to a square on the board which for once has a ladder on it as well as a snake. It’s up to us, who claim to be friends of both parties, to identify the ladder and push them up it. Only one member of the quartet seems to be thinking that way, and – you guessed it – it’s the one that is not Washington’s poodle. Hence the following, and I only wish it was Britain rather than Russia:
    MOSCOW, February 9 (RIA Novosti) – Russia is seeking to meet with Hamas representatives in order to prevent the further escalation of Palestinian-Israeli tensions, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said Thursday.
    Following President Vladimir Putin’s statement that he plans to invite leaders of Hamas, widely regarded as a terrorist organization in the West, to Moscow, Mikhail Kamynin said Russia wanted "to maintain the peace process on the basis of the roadmap and to continue seeking solutions that are acceptable to Palestine, Israel and the international community."
    Kamynin said Moscow respected the choice of the Palestinian people made during legitimate democratic elections, and added: "Russia is set to promote the practical implementation of the approach that the Middle East Quartet agreed upon at their meeting in London January 30."
    At their meeting, the quartet of international mediators in the conflict resolution (the UN, Russia, the European Union and the United States) recognized the elections of January 25 in Palestine, but concluded that further financial aid for the autonomy’s reforms would depend on the new government’s policy, and urged Hamas to lay down arms, recognize the state of Israel and observe all effective agreements, including the road map.
    Kamynin said the goal of the resolution was to make it clear to Hamas leaders that they should proceed from the interests of Palestinians and seek to create an independent and viable state co-existing in peace with Israel.

    Brian writes:  Thank you for this informative (and cautiously optimistic?) comment.  I certainly didn’t mean to imply that I thought UNSCR 242 acceptable to both sides as a complete basis for an overall settlement with the exception of the failure to agree on ‘all’ versus ‘some’ of the occupied territories to be vacated by Israel.  I think though that the general principles of ‘land for peace’ and ‘two states’ had been pretty well accepted by Fatah and the Israelis up to the time of the Palestinian elections even though this still left plenty of loose ends that would have to be tied up before there could be a firm and durable settlement — including East Jerusalem, the ‘return’ of refugees, and above all the demarcation of a mutually accepted Palestine-Israel  border and its implications for the settlements.  My post above was mainly concerned to observe that even the previous broad but limited consensus on ‘land for peace’ and ‘two states’ seemed to have broken down with the advent of Hamas to the administration of Palestine since Hamas’s proclaimed objectives are incompatible with both.

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