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.
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.
Meanwhile, the longstanding military tit for tat between Israel and Gaza-based militants from Hamas and other groups has continued. Israel's extremely well-armed military has killed more than 800 Gazans, including 379 civilians, in the past two years. The Gaza militants have hit Israel with primitive and virtually untargetable rockets that have killed 18 Israelis since June 2004. Civilians on both sides live in fear.
On Jan. 16, I interviewed Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in his well-guarded office here in Damascus. He told me Hamas is interested in reaching a cease-fire with Israel, though he said Israel still rejects this idea completely. He said that Hamas – which has a long and close relationship with Egypt's main political opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood – considers its support within the Arab countries an important asset. While we talked, Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, called. During their five-minute conversation, Mr. Meshaal asked President Saleh to work hard to help lift the siege on Gaza.
Meshaal said Hamas seeks a better relationship with the US. "We are not against the American people, but against this administration. We are not against American interests. Every state has the right to have its own interests – but not at the expense of other peoples."
The State Department's designation of Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization had caused big problems for the organization, he admitted. But "American policy is also affected badly," he argued, "because it finds itself fighting the wrong wars."
As several past Hamas leaders have done before, Meshaal expressed Hamas's willingness to engage in a multidecade "truce" (hudna) if Israel agrees to withdraw to its pre-1967 borders, including in Jerusalem, and respects the rights of Palestinian refugees. These are not easy conditions to fulfill, and no Israeli leader is likely to fulfill them anytime soon.
Hamas has a greater chance of success winning a more limited cease-fire in the ongoing military exchanges with Israel. Any such cease-fire would have a strong positive impact on Gaza (and on southern Israel). Also, if Gaza's people can start connecting more freely with the world economy through Egypt, their situation could be further stabilized.
During Mr. Bush's recent trip to the Middle East, he said some welcome things about his desire for regional peace. But no one can build such a peace while continuing to exclude (and energetically combat) a large, well-rooted political movement such as Hamas.
Washington needs to find a way to talk to the leaders of the movement. Longtime friends in Egypt can help establish a channel. The war-shattered peoples of Gaza and of southern Israel need Washington to help, not hinder, the reaching of a cease-fire.