Hamas marginalisation from the Israel-Palestine ‘Peace Process’

In addition to the argument for including a democratically elected party in a process initiated by states and institutions claiming to support democratic development in the region, the recent violence is another argument for talking to Hamas

In her opening remarks to the latest iteration of the Israel-Palestine ‘peace process’, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a not-so-veiled reference to Hamas, urged the talks’ participants to defy the ‘enemies of peace’ and remain steadfast in their efforts.  

Yet despite the recent Hamas-perpetrated violence against settlers in the West Bank, the real ‘enemies of peace’ might be said to be those who continue to pressure the increasingly unrepresentative and unpopular leader of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to make concessions on nationalist demands that many Palestinians believe are not his to make. By doing so they invariably set the stage for more violence in the future.

In addition to the structural obstacles, deriving from the massive power imbalance that exists between the two sides in this process, the chances for success in the latest round of negotiations are further diminished by its failure to engage Hamas, the democratically elected Islamist-nationalist party that still enjoys broad-based support amongst a large portion of the Palestinian population.

Hamas’ continuing popularity and democratic credentials have been ignored by the Quartet, most likely at the behest of the US government, its leading member, whose State Department designates the movement a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’.

What is often overlooked is the fact that until the Oslo Accords in 1993, Abbas’ Fatah party, as a leading member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the political and (originally) paramilitary umbrella organization comprised of various nationalist factions, was also considered a ‘terrorist’ organisation. That changed with the Oslo Accords, a process which required mutual recognition and cessation of violence on the part of the PLO and Israel.

That mutual recognition and cessation of violence stands in stark contrast to the unilateral demands being made of Hamas today as a prerequisite for its participation in the talks. The movement has been told it must renounce violence, recognize Israel, and accept all past agreements made between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, without requiring similar concessions on the part of its Israeli foe, which is much stronger in terms of economic and military might, as well as diplomatic support. The asymmetrical nature of these demands have only served to reinforce the scepticism of Palestinians and their supporters regarding the Quartet’s willingness to apply what they deem is the necessary amount of pressure on Israel required to level the negotiating playing field. As Hamas Politburo member Osama Hamdan has pointed out, ‘if things continue in this way, with the international community not doing anything and the US stance remaining the same...’ there will be no incentive for the ‘Israelis to recognize the rights of Palestinians’.

The disparate treatment meted out to Hamas in relation to its secular counterpart seems particularly incongruent in light of the fact that the distance between the two parties’ positions vis-à-vis the peace process has substantially diminished in recent years, a fact perhaps best evidenced by a comparison between their stated positions on the ‘final status’ issues, which differ little, at least on the level of substance, if not process.

For example, Hamas leaders have now expressed, on several occasions, the movement’s willingness to accept a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, as part of a broader peace deal with Israel. Even the party’s position on the right of return for refugees, most often considered the greatest obstacle to engagement, differs little from the official negotiating position of Fatah. As for accepting previous ‘peace process’ agreements, the movement’s implicit acceptance, through its participation in the 2006 legislative elections, of the Oslo-created institutions it has produced, has also gone unacknowledged by the Quartet.

Furthermore, Hamas Chief Khaled Meshaal has indicated his party’s willingness to engage with the US and the international process.  Hamdan reinforced this conciliatory position in an interview with a Lebanese news website published the day after the Washington talks began, reiterating Hamas’ conditions for peace, including Israeli withdrawal to the ’67 borders and ‘implementation of international resolutions’, hardly a sign of intransigence in light of the proposals being discussed.

Yet still there remains a strong reluctance on the part of the various actors to provide Hamas with a seat at the negotiating table. Despite the US President’s election on a platform of ‘change’, like his predecessor, Obama’s policies towards Hamas have been driven by what the French expert on political Islam François Burgat has referred to as the ‘ideologisation of terror’ perspective. This viewpoint implicitly denies the specific political and security contexts in which terrorism may be adopted by a movement as a tactic, and often as a last resort.

This orientalist perspective instead explains the use of violence by Islamist movements such as Hamas either as the result of some pathological predisposition of Muslims towards violence, or of these movements’ adherence to jihad, misconstrued as an ideological concept. As these movements are reduced merely to the tactics/strategies they sometimes employ, it is deemed unnecessary to understand the context in which their tactics/strategies are chosen, such as brutal occupation, dispossession, daily humiliation and international isolation, and hence the motives behind their use.

According to this logic, the West, and often Israel, its civilization proxy, is constructed as ontologically innocent, rational and peaceful in nature, in contrast to the Islamist terrorist, who is inherently guilty, irrational and violent. The Obama administration continues to cling to this logic, despite the damage and destruction its policies have already caused on the various battlefields of the ‘war on terror’.

As the recent example of Hamas’ use of political violence against settlers in the West Bank has demonstrated, the movement still has the capacity to be a 'spoiler' to any international process it opposes. This point was made by the prominent Israeli peace activist, Uri Avnery, arguing that “the alternative for talks and negotiations...[with] representatives of Hamas is a continuation of conflict and of harsh bloodshed.”

Recent protests in Ramallah to the first round of direct talks in Washington by members of Palestinian civil society, including several leaders of the secular opposition and non-Fatah members of the PLO’s Executive Committee, indicate the possibility that Hamas stands to gain new alliances as a result of what they consider its principled stance on this issue, potentially creating additional problems for Abbas and his supporters further down the road.

In addition to the strong ethical argument to be made for the inclusion of a democratically elected party in a process initiated by states and institutions claiming to support democratic development in the region, the recent violence is surely another reminder, if any were needed, why Hamas must be included in any process that seeks to establish an enduring peace between Israel and Palestine, which could be considered just by all sides.

About the author

Corinna Mullin is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Tunis as well as a Research Associate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Her current research focuses on the dynamic relationship between the Arab revolutions and international relations, focusing in particular on: legacies of western intervention in the region, the role of international actors in transitional justice, as well as the impact of the revolutions on Tunisian and Egyptian foreign policies.