Australia/Israel Review

Scribblings: Can We Talk?

Nov 24, 2009 | Tzvi Fleischer

Tzvi Fleischer

Can we Talk?

Many well-meaning people argue that Hamas must be engaged by Israel on the grounds that Middle East peace will be impossible without Hamas’ participation. Of course, Middle East peace currently looks at least as impossible with Hamas’ participation, given what Hamas is and what it stands for.

However, lets put that aside for the moment. People who make this argument are missing an important part of the equation – does Hamas want to talk to Israel? And if you go by their own statements, the answer is unequivocally “no”.

Take Hamas’ response to a proposal put forward in November by Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s former army chief of staff and defence minister, now number two in the opposition Kadima party. Mofaz proposed that a Palestinian state be established in temporary borders constituting 60% of the West Bank in one year’s time, and that negotiating with Hamas could be part of the process, if Hamas met certain conditions.

How did Hamas respond? According to Haaretz, spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum said this was “Zionist vulgarity”, Hamas would never negotiate with the “Zionist entity” and “any negotiation with the Zionist enemy regarding rights and legitimate recognition would only give it further excuse to commit crimes.”

This stance is neither new nor surprising – Hamas leaders have said similar things many times in the past.

Hamas has held indirect contacts with Israel about immediate matters such as a ransom for captive soldier Gilad Shalit and last year’s ceasefire, but this does not mean it wants or would agree to direct talks. It is true that Hamas wants talks with outside states – this helps provide it with international recognition and legitimacy. Moreover, while in the past Hamas has cynically supported Abbas talking to Israel on behalf of the PA in principle, today they condemn him for engaging in such talks. All these stances are designed primarily to bolster Hamas in its competition with the PA; they do not modify Hamas’ rejectionism.

Thus, efforts to convince Israel it should talk to Hamas are much ado about nothing. Even if Israel agreed – and it shouldn’t because this would needlessly damage the Palestinian Authority and help Hamas to victory over it – Hamas leaders say they would refuse.

Goldstone’s Great Elision

While much has been written about the bizarre and biased claims in the UN Human Rights Council’s Goldstone Report into the Gaza war, the Washington Post (Nov. 15) has pointed out in an editorial that it was also a great missed opportunity.

The paper points out that the US killing of Taliban leader Beitullah Mehsud required at least 15 missile strikes in Pakistan, which killed, besides Mr. Mehsud, somewhere between 200 and 300 people, with at least a quarter of those civilians. The paper asks “Was that toll ‘disproportionate’ to the threat posed by a single terrorist and therefore a war crime? How about the recent NATO bombing of hijacked fuel tankers in northern Afghanistan, in which a mix of 80 to 120 Taliban militants and civilians died? Justified strike, accident or war crime?”

It then argues that “Asymmetrical wars, in which terrorists and insurgents deliberately mix among civilians, are the story of the 21st century so far – and there are no clear norms for managing the moral dilemmas they pose. Can a drone’s targeter knowingly expose civilians to injury if a terrorist leader is in range? How should a civilised army respond when its soldiers are mortared, or its own civilians exposed to rocket fire, from a position inside a schoolyard?”

The editorial went on to note that the Goldstone process “could have set an example of serious treatment of such issues.” However “the Goldstone Commission proceeded to make a mockery of impartiality with its judgment of facts. It concluded, on scant evidence, that ‘disproportionate destruction and violence against civilians were part of a deliberate policy’ by Israel. At the same time it pronounced itself unable to confirm that Hamas hid its fighters among civilians, used human shields, fired mortars and rockets from outside schools, stored weapons in mosques, and used a hospital for its headquarters, despite abundant available evidence… By pretending it did not know whether Hamas employed such tactics and by claiming that Israel’s actions were driven by a motivation to kill civilians on purpose, rather than to defeat Hamas, the panel dodged the hard issues it should have tackled… Not just Israel but the United States and many other nations ought to face more pressure to justify the means they use to fight insurgents and terrorists. Sadly, the only thing proved by the Goldstone Commission is that the United Nations is incapable of performing that service.”

In other words, the severe shortcomings of the Goldstone report should be seen not only as a blow against Israel, and against hopes for Middle East peace, but also as a serious blow to hopes that international law can be applied generally to asymmetrical warfare, an increasingly common form of international conflict.



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