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No way to avoid Hamas now

Excluding the militant group won't secure peace in the Middle East.

By Helena Cobban / January 29, 2008

Damascus, Syria

Last week, the Palestinian militant organization Hamas masterminded a spectacular "bust-out" into Egypt of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza, where Israel has been maintaining a tight siege for many years. That bust-out reinforced the strength of Hamas's popular support among Palestinians and has started to change the political map of the region.

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Isn't it now time for the United States to find a way to deal with Hamas, directly or indirectly? How can President Bush realize his aim of creating a viable Palestinian state this year if his administration continues to pour energy and funds into the crushing of Hamas, which has repeatedly shown that it has the support of a large proportion of Palestinians?

Yes, over the years, Hamas's armed branch has committed many violent acts that deserve criticism. But so have numerous others in the Middle East – including militants in Iraq whom the US is now funding and trying to bring into the political process there. Hamas, unlike those newly embraced networks in Iraq, is already an established, broad political movement that has proved its support in national elections. In parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006, Hamas won 76 of the 132 seats.

The US had supported those elections. But, instead of embracing the newly elected Hamas leaders, Washington and Israel confined their contacts instead to the Fatah movement's Mahmoud Abbas. They have encouraged Mr. Abbas to take steps against Hamas and its supporters. Meanwhile, Israel has imprisoned elected Hamas parliamentarians and hundreds of their supporters. And in the past two years, it has tightened the economic screws on Hamas's main stronghold in Gaza several times.

It was the latest tightening of those screws that provoked the streaming-out of Gazans into neighboring Egypt on Jan. 23. Militants used land mines to fell long sections of the wall along Gaza's seven-mile boundary with Egypt, and legions of Gaza's 1.5 million hard-pressed residents then thronged into Egypt to buy everything from food to cooking gas to medicine. Egypt's security forces fell back. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations in several Egyptian cities the day before had shown President Hosni Mubarak he'd have a high – perhaps fatal – political price to pay if he continued to collaborate with Israel in its siege of Gaza.