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Hamas and 1967 borders: Enough to induce Obama?


"We don't have a state, neither in Gaza nor in the West Bank. Gaza is under siege and the West Bank is occupied. What we have in the Gaza Strip is not a state, but rather a regime of an elected government. A Palestinian state will not be created at this time except in the territories of 1967."

This is what the Gaza-based Palestinian Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, told European parliamentarians who brought emergency relief supplies for the beleaguered residents of Gaza. According to him, Israel had rejected his initiative for a Palestinian state within the June 1967 borders. Within hours another Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, declared that the group's long-term 'truce' with Israel is still on the table.

This is not the first time that leadership of the Islamic militants have made similar statements. At one time its spiritual leader, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, offered a 20-year long-term ceasefire with Israel without formally recognising the Jewish State. His successors have been trying to depict the organisation in pragmatic terms.

The electoral euphoria over Hamas' victory in early 2006, which saw the decimation of the secular Fatah-led Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), did not last long. For a while some Arab and non-Arab players were prepared to move away from Washington and engage with Hamas. Countries such as Egypt, China and Russia were prepared to host Hamas, but this flexibility was accompanied by their demands for a greater compromise from the militant group. They reiterated the minimum demands of the international community: namely, recognition of Israel, adherence to peace agreements and renunciation of violence.

On closer examination, it is obvious that Hamas is no longer as intransigent as before. In one way or another it has accepted a temporary suspension of suicide attacks against Israel. After months of foot-dragging, it prepared to rein in various militant groups in the Gaza Strip that were firing Qassam rockets against Israel, especially over Sderot. Its leaders publicly renounced the rocket attacks as harmful to the Palestinian cause. The six month long ceasefire came to an end in early November. The secession of the ceasefire was linked to the Israeli military action in Gaza, which resulted in the killing of six Hamas militants.

The Hamas leadership has occasionally indicating its preparedness to accept Israel's existence. But ideological compulsions and rivalry between local and external leaderships have prevented Hamas from taking that quantum leap. Even when Yassin was alive, Hamas had to contend with an 'external' leadership, symbolised by Khalid Masha'al. This insider-outsider tension has only worsened since Israel assassinated Yassin in March 2004.

Hamas is still in the midst of making that critical transition from militant group to a responsible political force. In practical terms this would mean Hamas revisiting some its policies since it was founded in the aftermath of the 1987 Palestinian Intifada. For much of its existence, Hamas has challenged and undermined every single institution headed by Yasser Arafat: namely, Fatah, PLO and eventually the Palestinian National Authority. It never accepted the popular endorsement of Arafat in the first Palestinian elections held in January 1996. Internally its opposition to the Oslo accords manifested in Hamas questioning Arafat's' legitimacy to pursue peace negotiations with Israel; and externally it undermined the peace process through a campaign of terror against Israel.

Arafat's death and Hamas' subsequent electoral victory posed new challenges. It was Hamas' turn to want other Palestinian factions, especially Fatah, to respect the popular verdict and accept its supremacy. Pushing this to the edge in June 2007, Hamas violently took control of the Gaza Strip and thereby undermined internal unity. Thus Haniyeh heads the Palestinian government in the Gaza Strip while Salam Fayyad rules the West Bank. Two prime ministers for a state in the making is nothing but an embarrassment for the Palestinians.

Thus of late, the peace process has assumed a different meaning. It does not mean negotiations between the two warring nations (Israel and the Palestinians), but between two warring Palestinian factions (Hamas and the PLO). Since the late-1990s, the primary foreign policy pre-occupation of Egypt has been inter-Palestinian dialogue.

Under these circumstances, one has to look at Haniyeh's willingness to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. By extension this is in line with the prevailing international consensus regarding the two-state solution; namely, Israel and an independent Palestinian state living side by side.

But is this yet another trial balloon or the result of hardnosed thinking? Can Haniyeh overcome opposition from within the organisation, especially from the Damascus-based rejectionist groups?

One thing is sure. Haniyeh could not have timed it better. With the spectacular victory of Barak Obama, reconciliation is the new buzzword in Washington. Without a strong inducement, the Democrat leader is unlikely to get involved in foreign policy issues, especially in the early days of his presidency.

The willingness of Hamas to recognise Israel within the 1967 borders would be an irresistible incentive for Obama to resurrect the dormant peace process. Is Hamas ready to make that transition into responsible politics? Or will this be yet another missed opportunity?

P R Kumaraswamy

Professor P R Kumaraswamy teaches contemporary Middle East at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Email: Kumaraswamy.pr(at)gmail.com. Originally published in Bulletin #77/2008 of the Centre for International Political Studies (CiPS) of the University of Pretoria. Reproduced by permission.

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Replies: 1 Comment

It states that the ceasefire was months long.
What was the first thing to break this ceasefire?
It says in paragraph 5,
"The six month long ceasefire came to an end in early November. The secession of the ceasefire was linked to the Israeli military action in Gaza, which resulted in the killing of six Hamas militants."
Seems like a missed bit of info for most the world. Hamas seems to be the first offenders to even their supporters.
Is this military action by Israel documented anywhere?

Posted by Looking for truth @ 01/09/2009 04:23 AM CST

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