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Can Hamas be coaxed into changing its tune?

Jul 22, 2011 | Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

Can Hamas be coaxed into changing its tune?
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Lawlessness in North Africa appears to have opened up a new route for weapons smuggling into Gaza. Reuters has reported Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon explaining that weapons are now being smuggled from Libya through Egypt and into the Palestinian enclave.

“Weapons are available in Libya as a result of the unstable situation there, and Hamas has exploited it to buy weapons from Libyan smugglers,” Yaalon told foreign journalists in a briefing, without elaborating on the kind of munitions involved.

The prospect of more weapons being funneled to Hamas is rather grim for Israel, suggesting that the conflict will never end. With a powerful and increasingly well-armed militia, the group’s hold on power is near untouchable. Moreover, as Danny Rubenstein observes in a review of the new book War, Peace and International Relations in Islam by Yitzhak Reiter, they are not going to recognise Israel any time soon:

Will Hamas recognize the State of Israel? The answer is obvious: No, it won’t. The entire world is demanding that the ruling fundamentalist regime in Gaza recognize the State of Israel, but Hamas’s intransigent leaders continue to repeat, time and again: “No chance. Never.” While signing the reconciliation agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal declared that Hamas would strive for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders – and that, even in the eyes of Hamas’s moderates, is absolutely as far as they will go. In other words, even Hamas’s moderates are, begrudgingly, willing to accept coexistence alongside Israel, but they will never recognize the state.

This position must be understood within the context of the “religious national” character of Hamas, in which religion takes priority over nationalism. And Muslim religious law does not permit them to recognize the state.

There may be more to the reported smuggling than Moshe Yaalon is publicly acknowledging, however, and the situation in Egypt – as well as that in Libya – may be contributing to the increase in weapons smuggling. The Mubarak regime in Egypt was extremely harsh towards Hamas – as much out of their own fear of Hamas’ parent body, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, as out of any alliance with Israel. Since Mubarak’s fall, there appears to have been an escalation in the various threats to Israel emanating from Egypt. In addition to this increase in weapons smuggling, there have been several attacks on the natural gas pipeline that runs from Egypt to Israel (also servicing Jordan), which have been attributed to anti-Israel militants.

There is, therefore, a growing concern in Israel over the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood gaining more and more influence in Egypt, Hamas will become empowered to increase terror attacks on Israeli civilians and Egypt itself may again become an enemy. That said, Prime Minister Netanyahu does not seem concerned. Speaking yesterday to pan-Arab news network Al-Arabiyah, he maintained that Egypt has too much to lose in negating the peace treaty and so he is confident that peace will remain. As quoted by Herb Keinon in The Jerusalem Post:

“Will the next government in Egypt be committed to peace? I think so, because I think the stakes are too high to go back to what we had. I remember what we had,” Netanyahu said, adding that he found it difficult to believe the Egyptian government would “want to turn back the clock, go back to the terrible days of wars that we had, when the benefits of peace are evident.”

In fact, engagement with the Muslim Brotherhood may even be the key to some form of peace treaty with Hamas, if not full recognition – at least according to Rubenstein. He argues that Hamas has shown that it will sometimes take pragmatism over ideology and that there is an internal struggle in the Muslim world between those who reject any deals with Israel under any circumstances and those who advocate a more pragmatic approach:

Hamas’s leadership has proven that it gives itself extensive diplomatic leeway… Hamas did not hesitate to form ties with its worst ideological opponents. First, they allied themselves with the Shiite government in Iran and its Hizballah satellite in Lebanon. Historically, there is a hostile ideological gap between the Sunnis, represented most clearly by Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Iranian Shiites. But in this case, Hamas’s diplomatic interests outweighed those ideological differences.
… In order to understand how this affects us today, Reiter brings two religious rulings related to relations with Israel. Both have been handed down by well-known and well regarded religious authorities.

The first ruling was given by Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian scholar allied with the Muslim Brotherhood… Qaradawi ruled that the State of Israel stole the sacred Muslim land and exiled the Palestinian people and therefore any contact or agreements with Israel are forbidden… But the rulings that permit contact and agreement with Israel receive much less attention.

… These pragmatic rulings rest on the argument that if they cannot overcome Israel – then the Muslims must do the best that they can for the Muslin nation in peaceful ways. “This is essentially support for the ‘land for peace’ principle,” Reiter says. And this position is becoming increasingly acceptable among the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, whose representatives are no longer demanding that the peace agreement with Israel be abrogated… And it is certainly the position of Hamas. In other words, liberal Muslim interpretations state that there is no point in maintaining an “all or nothing” stance and that the Arab nation should strive to get what it can, in exchange for agreeing to a cease-fire – a hudna, according to the diplomatic precedent set by Muhammad.

That said, Rubenstein may be taking an overly optimistic approach and even seems to ignore a few details that he mentioned earlier in his article. As he notes, the idea of a hudna is not to make peace, but merely to obtain a temporary truce for the purposes of building strength for the eventual resumption of armed combat. Hamas has, in fact, offered this to Israel a number of times; moreover, there has been a de facto hudna in place for the past few months, where Hamas has been attempting to clamp-down on rocket fire from Gaza in order to prevent Israeli reprisals.

There may be some validity in the idea that once there has been an extended peace, no rational Palestinian leaders would renew violence; however, Hamas have not exactly displayed rationality as a defining trait of their leadership. Hopefully, Netanyahu’s assurances of peace with Egypt will turn out to be true, but peace with Hamas is not coming any time soon.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

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