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Can ignoring Hamas lead to Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, is being ignored in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Some think that's a big mistake.

By Staff Writer / September 16, 2010

Palestinians stand around a crater following an Israeli air strike on smuggling tunnels in Rafah, on the border between Egypt and southern Gaza Strip, Wednesday. Hamas security officials in the Gaza Strip say an Israeli airstrike has killed one Palestinian and wounded four. The violence took place as leaders were holding peace talks in Jerusalem.

Eyad Baba/AP

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George Mitchell, President Obama's Middle East peace envoy, rarely misses an opportunity to mention the crucial role he played in helping bring peace to Northern Ireland.

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As he makes the rounds in Washington, Jerusalem, and Damascus, trying to shepherd Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, he speaks of the skepticism that plagued the talks in Belfast that ended in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. His point? That Northern Ireland proves that a comprehensive peace deal can be worked out between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas within the next two years, which is Obama's timeline for the peace effort.

But there's a crucial missing element that will undoubtedly trouble the Israeli-Palestinian talks as they move ahead. Gaza, the Palestinian enclave ruled by the Islamist Hamas movement, is not at the table. Asked recently if the US would reach out to Hamas, Mr. Mitchell flatly said "no."

A blast of mortar fire from Gaza on Wednesday – and Israeli retaliation Thursday – served as a raucous reminder that Hamas isn't going to stand idle as the talks proceed.

"Whether you like or hate Hamas, they’re there, they're significant, and you can’t ignore them," says Ali Abunimah, author of "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse" and a founder of the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian website.

"Palestinian's don’t get to choose who the Israeli leaders are. And if they did, I wouldn’t choose the current array of Israeli leaders. I'm not saying that Hamas represents all Palestinians, but it does represent a significant proportion and it’s simply unrealistic to pretend they don’t exist, or worse, try to destroy them," he says.

Israel refuses to deal with Hamas since it refuses to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist. What's more, Fatah is at odds with Hamas because of its Islamist policies and because, without access to the Gaza Strip, it's losing revenue. And the United States deems Hamas a terrorist organization.

Hamas, in turn, isn't in favor of peace talks. Its leaders argue that Mr. Abbas's decision to negotiate is providing cover for an Israeli government that continues to take chunks out of possible future Palestinian state. Gaza has about 35 percent of the Palestinians living in historic Palestine.

Mahmoud Zahar, the architect of the Hamas takeover in Gaza, said in a statement Wednesday that Abbas had proven he was "weak" for reversing a previous demand that settlement expansion be halted as a precondition for talks, and dismissed the US as an honest broker, because it will "eventually side with Israel ... building settlements, (and) confiscating Palestinian land."

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