Opinion

What it means to talk with Hamas

Engaging it is fundamentally about accepting (perhaps uncomfortable) facts.

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March 2009 may come to be seen as a critical month in the ending of the international community's isolation of Hamas. Finally engaging Hamas would spell the end of hypocritical Western policy and bring the peace process in line with the realities of the Middle East.

First, a group of high-level US foreign policy officials, past and present, went public with their recommendation that the Obama administration talk to Hamas. Coincidentally, European politicians who visited Hamas officials in Syria about the same time echoed that view.

Typically, meetings between European lawmakers and Hamas leaders are conducted discretely, if not entirely in secret. Now, the trips have begun to be publicized: In March there were trips by a cross-party group of British and Irish members of parliaments, as well as their counterparts from Greece and Italy.

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There was also an open letter to President Obama, published on March 10, and signed by more than 120 experts and academics. The letter urged a change of US policy in the Middle East. Significantly, the signatories advocated an end to the US "fear of Islamist parties coming to power," and also urged prioritizing human rights over supporting the region's autocrats.

Originally, the rationale behind isolating Hamas (a social and political movement condemned by many in the West as a terrorist group) was to weaken the organization and force a change in policy vis-a-vis the armed struggle and Israel, while simultaneously supporting the Ramallah-based leadership of Mahmoud Abbas. The international boycott emerged in parallel with the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip that began post-Palestinian parliamentary elections in early 2006. The aim: Punish the civilian population into rethinking their choice, and make a Hamas government untenable.

But the attempt to sideline Hamas has not worked. Hamas is no weaker for the cold-shoulder from diplomats, and, in fact, has been able to use the siege to deflect criticism of its policies in the Gaza Strip. The West Bank "moderates" dominated by Fatah have little to show for their negotiations with Israel; rather, the colonization of the occupied territories continues.

Consequently, the anti-Hamas united front is starting to crack. European politicians have been independently visiting Hamas leaders in Syria, and urging a rethink in the position of the so called Quartet of the US, the UN, the EU, and Russia. The appeals to Obama represent this shift in approach, reflective of both how the current policy has failed, and how engaging Hamas will be beneficial.

Ending the isolation of Hamas would strike a blow to hypocritical foreign policy – a small but important step toward changing the way the US and international community relate to Middle East politics. After Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman's success at the polls, Quartet envoy Tony Blair said that "We've got to work with whoever the Israeli people elect"– a courtesy not yet offered to the Palestinians.

Israel's propagandists have tried to use Hamas's increased power in recent years to their benefit by placing the movement at the centre of the debate, presenting the group as an extremist, Iran-sponsored existential threat to the Jewish state. Yet Hamas has only been around for 20 years; Israel conquered the occupied territories in 1967, while Palestinians were originally expelled from their homes more than 60 years ago.

Thus to engage Hamas is to acknowledge that the movement is not integral to the conflict, but neither is it peripheral nor ignorable. It has grown into a powerful social and political force, with a tendency toward prioritizing the pragmatism of political power. The oft-cited Charter – rightly condemned as anti-Semitic, but penned in 1988 by one person – has become increasingly insignificant; the discourse of ceasefires, truces, and national liberation typically trumps inflexible religious doctrine.

But engaging Hamas is fundamentally about accepting (perhaps uncomfortable) facts. Hamas was democratically elected and continues to enjoy considerable support from Gazans. It's important to ask not just why it got such substantial backing in 2006, but why it continues to despite the ongoing Israeli siege and the devastation wreaked in the December war, as well as the cases of human rights abuses by Hamas personnel.

The lesson is that the Palestinian people saw through the flaws of the international community's approach to the conflict long before a few voices in foreign capitals started raising questions about the wisdom of isolating Hamas. In the Middle East, the international community's self-defined moderate/extremist division is but a transparent charade.

The peace process game, the vacuous endorsements of a two-state solution as Israel absorbs the occupied territories, the lack of will to hold Israel to account – this is the fuel for Hamas support, and no amount of "isolation" can change the profound unpopularity of current US and Quartet policies among Palestinians.

Ending the boycott would not be an endorsement of Hamas, but an end to the obtuse – and damaging – refusal to recognize reality.

Ben White is a freelance writer, specializing in the Middle East. His articles appear in a wide variety of publications and his forthcoming book, "Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner's Guide" will be published later this year.

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