Hamas and the Rebirth of Illusion


A process of rethinking is currently taking place in British and American foreign policy establishments regarding Hamas. The movement’s ability to command high levels of popular support is giving credence to formerly fringe opinions that have long advocated rapprochement between the Western democracies and militant Islamism.

The shift is currently most advanced in Britain, though it is present in the United States, too. The group around former MI6 officer and European Union envoy Alistair Crooke is finding that its long-held view of the Hamas as a “national Palestinian movement centered on mobilizing a community to resist an illegal occupation” is now swaying mainstream opinion in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Crooke and Co. see Hamas as reflecting “fundamental issues of justice and democratic reform” in Palestinian politics.

There have been reports of an imminent major shift in British policy, toward open engagement with Palestinian Islamism. In the U.S., too, a growing number of veteran advocates of a similar position are using the space provided by reports of the “Arab Spring” to advance their views. The argument now made is, well, if elections are the answer, and Islamists win elections, then Islamists must be welcomed as partners. Thus, Mark Perry, of the Washington-based Alliance for Security, describes Hamas as one of a number of movements that have made the “historic choice” to “build their societies on values we hold dear – of justice and peace, of accountability and transparency.”

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that those using it are asking us to ignore the actual, openly proclaimed aims and practices of Hamas. This is a movement whose founding charter contains in its opening paragraph the following declaration: “Israel will rise and will remain until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors.” This is followed, in article seven, with the exhortation that “the time will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews (and kill them); until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!”

The charter goes on to advocate the creation of an Islamic state, aiming “to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine.” And declaring its ultimate goal as “Islam, the Prophet its model, the Koran its constitution.”

The actions of the movement in support of its goals are well known. They include an ongoing commitment to the practice of terror that brought chaos to Israel’s urban centers in the darkest days of the last five years. The list is long, and respect for the dead enjoins us occasionally to remind ourselves of it: The Park Hotel, Mike’s Place, the Dolphinarium, Sbarro and Moment are but a few of the names to be remembered.

But Hamas, with its commitment to the imposition of “Islam as a way of life,” is oppressive also to its own people. The movement has a long history of using violence to impose Islamic norms in areas where it holds sway. In particular, efforts to ensure the continued subjugation of women have characterized its activities. The recent murder of 20-year-old Yusra Azzami in Gaza by movement members is in line with this side of its activities. Azzami had been seen in the company of a young man (her fiance, it later became clear, which prompted a curious and half-hearted apology for her killing from Hamas spokesmen in the Strip).

In some ways, the atmosphere that Crooke, Perry and Co. wish to manufacture is redolent of the early days of the Oslo period. At that time, doubts raised regarding the willingness of Yasser Arafat’s leadership to reach a compromise peace with Israel were airily brushed aside. Those who pointed to incendiary statements by the PLO leadership, such as Arafat’s speech in a Johannesburg mosque in 1994 advocating continued holy war, were encouraged to develop greater political sophistication. One must differentiate the rhetoric from the reality, we were told. And we well recall when rhetoric and reality finally came together at the end of that illusory process in the autumn of 2000.

There is no doubt that the popular support enjoyed by radical Islamist forces raises a serious question for advocates of regional democratization. Hamas’ friends in the West wish to lever the confusion surrounding this matter to ensure a place for the movement at the table. But for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and indeed broader regional democratization to be possible, it is essential that this confusion be dispelled.

History is replete with examples of movements that sought to combine the use of the tools of democracy with the substantive rejection of its goals, and the desire eventually to subvert and destroy it. The totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century were examples of this type. The continued health and existence of democracies required that they identify those threats in good time, and did not lack the will to act against them. Such requirements also hold for the threat represented by the Hamas, which seeks both to destroy Israel and to enslave the Palestinians.

It is therefore essential to make clear that the continued ascendance of this movement means the termination of hope for progress toward improved relations between the two peoples. The disarming of Hamas and the defeat of its ideas is the common, urgent interest of Israelis, Westerners and Palestinians alike.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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